When a loved one dies, the real grieving is often postponed. The senses numb the immediate shock, helping the bereaved keep their composure. Then there’s the frenetic but distracting bustle of arranging the funeral, and dealing with the friends and relatives who come to pay their respects and to fuss over you. Then, with the dearly departed “cold in the earth and the deep snow piled upon thee”, the bereaved suddenly is left on his or her own to come to terms with the reality of their loss in a world that doesn’t much care. That’s when the pain and grief of loss really begin.
So it is with federal Labor.
Losing the unlosable election on 18 May was a sudden and catastrophic shock for the party of Curtin, Hawke and Keating. But in the immediate aftermath of its crushing loss, and Bill Shorten’s falling on his sword, Labor busied itself with organizing the Shorten era’s political funeral. There was the leadership coronation of Anthony Albanese and his deputy, Richard Marles. There was the selection of a new Labor shadow ministry when the true believers were fully expecting to be swearing in the real thing. And there was Albanese’s “listening tour” and Labor’s resumption of hostilities from opposition to the triumphant Morrison government on border security and the government’s three-stage tax cut programme.
Labor MPs will say that’s been hard enough. But it will be nothing to what awaits them in Canberra this week, when the 46th Parliament assembles.
As they file, humbled, into the Senate chamber on Tuesday to hear the Governor-General outlining the agenda of the re-elected Morrison government instead of the almost universally-expected Shorten ascendancy, reality will dawn for Albanese’s mob.
When they take their places in the chamber on the left of the Speaker, with Albanese at the table and Shorten a miserable ghost on the frontbench, they will face a prime minister and Coalition MPs increased in number and alive with the exuberance and cockiness of their totally unexpected election win. They will watch Coalition MPs sworn to represent seats that were so recently Labor’s or marked down by Labor strategists as shoo-ins. They will be stared down by a prime minister in Scott Morrison who, confidence soaring after a highly-successful G20 summit and by dint of his own herculean campaigning efforts that got the Coalition back into office, has unchallenged authority over his own troops and absolute ascendancy over Labor.
And they will be dismayed by their own leadership’s not knowing whether it’s Arthur or Martha in respect of waving through or opposing the Coalition’s tax cuts. Shadow Treasurer Jim Chalmers says oppose, yet shadow Finance minister Katy Gallagher apparently can’t make her mind up, whatever shadow cabinet decided. That, combined with Albanese’s clumsy and weak handling of the John Setka expulsion fiasco, hardly inspires rank and file confidence in the quality and nous of Labor’s post-Shorten leadership.
Thus it is only this week when the reality of their plight will hit most Labor MPs like a ton of bricks. It seems likely this will be driven home even more cruelly by the government’s being able to pass its whole tax cut package without needing to negotiate with Labor. The party recently so confident of sweeping into office will be shown up as irrelevant.
As Liberals found after losing their own unlosable election in 1993, parliament is not a happy place for the side who so recently was measuring up offices in the Min Wing. Indeed, it wouldn’t be surprising if Australia’s leading theologian, Israel Folau, sees Labor’s upcoming parliamentary week as his vision of the Hell he wants every man and his dog (except himself) condemned to.
Dante himself could imagine nothing worse than this bonfire of Labor’s vanities.
While the Coalition gets on with governing, Labor MPs will have nothing to do in Canberra but gossip, plot and leak. Having followed John Hewson like lemmings, that’s just what Liberal MPs did in 1993. Albanese may be a newly-minted leader, but he was a key member of the leadership team who won Labor a third term in opposition. The disaffected, disillusioned and disheartened in Labor’s depleted ranks won’t easily forget, even as they mouth public declarations of loyalty and unity to Albo. Make no mistake: having aided and abetted Shorten’s folly, Albanese bears the mark of Cain. He will not sleep easily in his leadership for months and years to come. Albanese’s political Hell is just beginning.
If they don’t get their proverbial together, accept they were the authors of the own defeat and reconnect with the 25 million of us outside the woke Canberra bubble, federal Labor’s Hell spell could last well beyond the next three years. Having put Labor there, however, Morrison’s quiet Australians say they’re welcome to it.
Terry Barnes worked for the Deputy Leader of the Opposition in 1993-94. He knows of what he writes from that bitter experience
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