Morrison government banking on Labor split

“There’s this great conflict,” says Katter, who hails from the North Queensland Gulf Country town of Cloncurry and is a CFEMU member. “We’re paying our union dues but it’s becoming a bit rich when we’re [in effect] paying our money to a political party that is tenaciously opposed to coal mining and that wants to close down the coal mines in Australia.” The CFMEU is one of the ALP’s biggest political donors.

“The rubber is meeting the road now,” Katter tells AFR Weekend. “This fracture has been coming for a long time because there is no way that the hard left can continue to lie in bed with the lilypad left. One mob work hard in overalls and boots, the other mob are a bunch of budgerigars fluttering around Brisbane. The division is much greater than that between the ALP and the Liberal Party.”

Stranger things

The threat to pre-select former CFMEU officials to run on a Katter Australia Party ticket in the next federal election has not yet reached any formal stage, according to Katter. However, stranger things have happened in Queensland politics.

Katter’s comments are similar to those of Bill Ludwig, a former boss of the AWU in Queensland. “I don’t blame the coalies for doing what they’re doing,” Ludwig commented last week, “because there’s jobs involved, and there’s no argument about the profitability and the need for the [Adani] mine.”

Ludwig is also a long-time Labor power broker and one-time mentor to current Opposition leader Bill Shorten, who was national secretary of the AWU before he entered Parliament after the 2007 election.

His comments have a particular historical significance in Queensland Labor. The AWU, represented by shearers, was at the meeting under the Tree of Knowledge in Barcaldine 128 years ago that led to the formation of the ALP. Ludwig’s observations also clearly strike a chord with Bob Katter, a former National Party state minister and federal MP.

His father, Bob Katter snr, was a National Party MP for the same federal seat of Kennedy and a onetime Minister for the Army. Before that Katter snr was an ALP member with close ties to the AWU until the Queensland Labor split in 1957. These old family Labor ties are significant because many of the 73-year-old son’s views, like vehement opposition to privatisation and foreign investment, date back to Queensland Labor’s pre-split outlook in the ’50s.

Party turmoil

Nearly 62 years later, ALP tensions in the Sunshine State and some weird cross-party alliances may not lead to another formal party split, but turmoil in the Liberal Party and divisions in the ALP do form one local expression of the political tumult engulfing other parts of the democratic world.

According to University of NSW academic, Dr Lindy Edwards, local commentary over the past year has focused too much on individual failures during periods of domestic political upheaval, like last August’s ouster of Malcolm Turnbull from the Liberal Party leadership, and overlooked the fact that “a once in a century political realignment is occurring”. Or, to quote a line out of a famous Bob Dylan song: “You know something’s happening, but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr Jones?”

Labor’s jobs versus the environment divisions and the Liberal Party’s split over climate change and energy policy have echoes in the political crisis currently engulfing the UK. Last week 11 rebel Labour and Conservative Party MPs peeled away from their parties to form a pro-EU grouping and oppose the increasingly chaotic Brexit process that is scheduled to climax with a March 29 UK rupture from Brussels.

Meanwhile, in the US, some commentators speculate the traumatic impact President Trump is having on American politics could even fragment its two-party system, with intra-party splits among Republicans and Democrats.

According to an article published late last year in the US Politico magazine, and written by Georgia State University Politics Professor Jennifer McCoy, a collaborative research project covering 11 “polarised democracies” points to trends where “the incumbent’s followers tolerate more illiberal and increasingly authoritarian behaviour to stay in power”. At the same time, “opponents are more and more willing to resort to undemocratic means to remove them from power”.

“This damages democracy,” Professor McCoy writes.

Four groupings

He is not as apocalyptic, but former WA Labor Premier and onetime academic political scientist Geoff Gallop matches the forecasts of other US commentators, and identifies the emergence of four groupings in Australia’s two-party system. The first two are the centre-right and the centre-left which are “personified by the Coalition and Labor”. Further on the right in the Liberal and National Parties are what Mr Gallop calls the “culture war warriors” and “nationalists” – people, he says, “who believe western civilisation is under attack by environmentalism.

“Then on the left (of the ALP) is the old radical left and its Corbynite agenda (named after the UK Labour Party’s left-wing leader, Jeremy Corbyn).” Separate from the ALP but still on the far left are “the Greens with their radical environmentalist agenda”.

“The centre no longer has the support capacity that it used to have,” says Gallop, a onetime Professor of Politics at Sydney University, said, channelling the famous line of a WB Yeats poem: “The centre cannot hold.”

MP for North Queensland Bob Katter says “the political firmament” up north is “changing dramatically”. Dominic Lorrimer

While the Labor Party has not split over the jobs versus environment issue, tensions are rising in Queensland, where up to seven Coalition-held seats would be vulnerable in any significant pro-Labor swing in the coming federal election.

In an unusual move, the CFMEU’s mining and energy division Queensland President, Stephen Smyth, and Queensland Resources Council chief executive, and former Coalition Government federal Industry Minister, Ian Macfarlane, have written a letter to Queensland’s Labor Premier, Annastacia Palaszczuk, expressing concern about extra conditions being placed on the future operation of the Adani Carmichael mine.

The extra conditions have been prompted by widespread concern about the environmental impact of the proposed Adani mine. They also come at a time when Glencore, the Swiss-based resource giant, announced it will not pursue any expansion in the coal mining industry, including in Australia, following talks with the Climate Action 100+ initiative. This includes among its Australian members companies like AustralianSuper, AMP Capital, Cbus, IFM Investors, QSuper and BT Financial Group.

The Adani and Glencore moves coincide with reports of an apparent Chinese ban on Australian thermal coal exports arriving at the major Chinese port of Dalian and four smaller ports nearby. On Friday, however Treasurer Josh Frydenberg and Reserve Bank governor Philip Lowe downplayed suggestions the port delays were due to Chinese retaliation after Australia banned Huawei from building its 5G network, and suspicions centred on China after a recent major cyber-attack on Australian’s major political parties.

Kicking the can

Meanwhile, the Queensland Labor Government’s imposition of extra conditions before any possible go-ahead for the controversial Adani coal mine have the effect of kicking the can of a difficult state Labor government decision further down the road. Crucially, the delay takes the go-ahead-or-not decision past the next federal election.

However, the Liberal National Party (LNP) in Queensland and the Katter Australia Party (KAP) are already capitalising on these delaying tactics and effectively dividing one of the most powerful union backers of the ALP, the CFMEU, over the Adani issue.

“We have a close association with the CFMEU and we represent people in the mines. I’ve always been very proud of our union,” Katter says.

“I exercise my rights as a union member to plead with the union to make a more public stand on coal mining. Coal miners are not some dumb unskilled labourers. These are people on the make. Every family in North Queensland would have someone working in the mines. The only reason why they are viable farmers is because they have people working in the mines. You’d never describe these people as working class in the old sense of that word; they’re working upwards.”

Cultural differences between Labor members in the old AWU-dominated regions and the “green” inner city could split the party. Dan Peled

These intra-ALP tensions are more than matched on the other side of politics by the female independents’ movement, which has split the Liberal Party and is focused on up to a dozen formerly safe Coalition seats during the coming election. It has already resulted in the Coalition government moving into minority status, and Parliament at times descending into chaos.

“What does all this mean?” Geoff Gallop asks rhetorically. His conclusion is that “it’s still about Labor versus the Coalition – that is still the main game. It will still turn out that way.

“The question is who will be the best at managing this new political scenario which has a much more radical edge to it.”

Public rancor

According to independent polling consultant John Stirton, “rancorous” public division “is damaging to a party’s vote and there is a long history of that being the case”. While it is “healthy” for a political party to have a range of views within its ranks, “public disunity is death,” Mr Stirton said. Examples include the Rudd-Gillard divisions during the turbulent six years of Labor government ending in 2013 and the Howard-Peacock leadership clashes that dogged the Liberal Party in the 1980s.

“It is possible to have internal differences that are well managed and not lose votes. The challenge for a political party is not to eliminate those differences, but to manage them. The Liberal Party and the Coalition have not managed their differences well,” Stirton said.

However, the weeks immediately prior to the election may prove decisive. Gallop points out that in the end “politics is all about an election campaign” and he is critical of “many arguments about politics because they don’t take account of election campaigns.

“As a Labor supporter, there’s always the question of “Is Labor going to bugger it up?” and “It’s all very well to say the left is going to compromise; when push comes to shove, union guys are very ready to attack Shorten.”

“It boils down to the capacity of the Coalition or Shorten to form alliances,” Gallop says. Prime Minister Scott Morrison “wants to build a majority” but “the whole Turnbull experience tells you that the right of the Liberal Party are unwilling to compromise on anything”.

On the other hand, “Labor is going to have to work out a strategy to manage conflict.” The events of last week show it has a long way to go in bridging the divide between traditional, Labor Party-supporting unionists who want more coal mining jobs in the Galilee Basin versus inner city Labor supporters promoting green issues who want Adani banned.

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