Monday, 16 July 2012

Christine Milne exploits Julia Gillard's silence

Julia GillardJulia Gillard meets and greets the party faithful at Sydney Town Hall, yesterday, where she addressed the 2012 NSW State Labor Conference. Picture: Sam Mooy Source: The Australian
JULIA Gillard yesterday attempted to sidestep the escalating anti-Greens backlash in the ALP, avoiding the issue in a speech to its NSW conference even as senior Labor figures in Victoria and Queensland sharpened their warnings against deals with the minor party.

The Prime Minister elected not to engage with the battle between the ALP and the Greens, using her speech in Sydney to outline her achievements and refocus the party's attentions on its traditional strengths of workplace relations and jobs creation.

But the tactic appeared to backfire when Greens leader Christine Milne seized on Ms Gillard's speech as a sign of support - congratulating the Prime Minister for rebuking "the brawling boys"of the NSW ALP and for recognising the "positive" achievements of Labor-Greens government. Sweeping aside the Labor attacks, Senator Milne laid out the Greens' next demand - a $5 billion-a-year increase in education funding to implement the Gonski review.
The timing of Senator Milne's announcement would not have pleased the Prime Minister nor her party, and makes it likely that the Green-Labor relationship will dominate debate for a second week. For the past 10 days Labor MPs, union leaders and party administrators have demanded Labor distance itself from the Greens, who agreed in 2010 to support Ms Gillard's minority government in exchange for her promise to price carbon.

The attacks began as a tactical prelude to the NSW Labor conference but gained momentum as federal MPs expressed their anger over the Greens' refusal to back government moves to reinstate offshore processing of asylum-seekers. As Ms Gillard yesterday declared she would "stand and fight" for Labor values, more senior party figures expressed their angst and opposition to the party's affiliation with the Greens.

Queensland ALP secretary Anthony Chisholm told The Australian he was convinced Labor's alliance with the Greens was damaging its electoral credibility in Queensland. Victorian Labor leader Daniel Andrews vowed he would never sign any deal with the minor party and said the federal Greens were frauds who demanded compromise from others while refusing to budge from their own absolutism.

After a torrid conference debate on Saturday, the NSW branch backed a motion ensuring the Greens would not automatically receive Labor preferences. However, party members hoping Ms Gillard would take up the cudgels against the Greens were disappointed yesterday. The Prime Minister took the diplomatic route, not even mentioning her alliance partners and instead focusing on the achievements of her government, including industrial relations reform and increases in the minimum wage and the Superannuation Guarantee.

She said Labor remained a unique force in Australian politics 120 years after its formation. While conservative forces always found their voice in parliament, other parties would "come and go - often promising more, always delivering less". "But we endure - not a brand, a cause," she said. Noting that Tony Abbott had told Liberal MPs earlier this year that she would not "lie down" despite Labor's poor position in opinion polls, Ms Gillard said: "Too right I won't. Not while I have our great program to fight for, not while I have our great movement to fight alongside. "I will stand and fight because I know you will stand and fight."
While the speech was well-received by the party faithful, the Coalition frontbencher Christopher Pyne said Ms Gillard had failed the test of leadership by avoiding the "key issue of the day".

Senator Milne identified what Labor had achieved with the Greens. "We've worked with the government to get rid of Work Choices," she said in Hobart. "We've worked with the government to increase superannuation from 9 to 12 per cent. We've worked with the government to get a good outcome and to implement the changes from the Fair Work decision (on equal pay) earlier this year."

Referring to the standoff over asylum-seekers, Mr Andrews said federal Labor was stuck with "a political party who require everyone else to compromise except them". "That sort of purity, that sort of absolutism, means you don't get good outcomes," he told ABC TV's Insiders. Mr Andrews insisted the by-election next Saturday in the state seat of Melbourne, which is widely expected be won by the Greens, had nothing to do with Ms Gillard's leadership.

While not wanting to be seen to be critical of Ms Gillard's leadership, Mr Chisholm said: "I am deeply concerned that Labor's relationship with the Greens at the federal level has hurt Queensland Labor's chance of winning back working-class, blue-collar voters lost to Bob Katter's Australia Party." Environment Minister Tony Burke said he was pleased with the debate within Labor about the Greens because it allowed Labor to set "some very clear markers" about how it was different from the minor party.

The motion on the Greens that passed the NSW ALP conference on Saturday was a moderate version of what was originally proposed, after the Left faction warned the party was in danger of alienating progressive voters. It contained no criticism of the Greens. Even so, the motion sparked intense debate on the conference floor, with key Left figures such as senators John Faulkner and Doug Cameron, and Infrastructure Minister Anthony Albanese, warning that the debate on the Greens provoked by the Right was counter-productive.

NSW ALP secretary Sam Dastyari, the convenor of the Right, denied his faction had suffered a defeat. "The Greens stuff came out exactly how we wanted it to be," he said. "Previously, I wasn't in a position to go into preference negotiations with the Greens with a free hand."

NSW Labor Left assistant general secretary John Graham agreed with criticism of Right figures such as Mr Dastyari and union boss Paul Howes for starting the Greens debate. "But, having been raised, it had to be responded to," Mr Graham said. "The debate finished on a much better note than it started."

Additional reporting: Troy Bramston

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