Could winning the parliamentary battle against the Greens lose Labor the election war?

Could winning the parliamentary battle against the Greens lose Labor the election war?
  • PublishedJune 8, 2024

You might think Labor’s political opponents sit opposite them in the House of Representatives, but it’s the party to their left — literally — that can get under their skin more than any other.

The Labor-Greens battle is your classic sibling rivalry, where they never miss a chance to prod and probe the other — no matter how petty or low the stakes might be.

Take for example how Labor politicians refer to the Greens. They love the turn of phrase “the Greens political party”, a subtle dig at a group more eager to describe themselves as a movement than a political party. 

And the war in the Middle East has elevated the stakes between Labor and the Greens.

Having simmered most of this year, the tension boiled over in Question Time on Wednesday when Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and Opposition Leader Peter Dutton offered bipartisan condemnation of the Greens’ involvement in pro-Palestinian protests

The major parties took aim at the Greens for “consciously and deliberately spreading” misinformation and claimed the Greens had incited pro-Palestinian protesters into demonstrations that had led to politicians’ electorate offices being targeted.

Beyond the warm embrace of parliamentary privilege offered to politicians in the House of Representatives and the Senate, the mud-slinging continued with no shortage of Labor politicians lining up to give the Greens a touch-up. 

By Thursday, lawyers were being called in after Greens leader Adam Bandt threatened the nation’s first law officer, Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus, with legal action over remarks he alleged were defamatory

Adam Bandt speaking in the Reps chamber with his hand raised.
Labor and the Coalition condemned the Greens, prompting a rebuke from Adam Bandt. (ABC News: Nick Haggarty)

Winning a battle could cost Labor a war

For people like Albanese and Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek, the electoral threat they’ve faced throughout their careers has never really been from the Liberals. 

The Greens have long wanted to topple Albanese and Plibersek. At the last election, the Greens changed tack and moved their focus north. In return, they bagged three Brisbane seats — two from the Liberals and one from Labor.

Ahead of the next election the Greens’ sights have moved further south. Namely the Labor-held Melbourne seats of Macnamara and Wills, where concerns within Labor about the prospect of holding once safe seats have hit code red.

Josh Burns — a Labor MP now under threat from the Greens — foreshadowed years earlier that the biggest threat Labor would face from the Greens would be when they were in government. The theory is that it’s easier to woo Labor voters when the party is in power.

That’s why not everyone in Labor was having a great time when Albanese and Dutton went after the Greens this week. 

It might have felt good to land a few punches on the Greens, and at one point prevent Bandt from speaking in the chamber, but in winning that parliamentary battle some in Labor fear they could lose the war in key seats at the next election. 

Blame the bureaucrats

It’s been a rough week for bus drivers with the rate at which ministers have been throwing their departments in front of them.

Immigration Minister Andrew Giles was the first to deploy a bureaucrat before a bus, doing so under the cover of frenzied speculation about whether or not former treasurer Josh Frydenberg was going to mount a rear-guard action and have the already pre-selected Liberal candidate punted from his former seat. (As has often been the case with a possible return of the Liberal prodigal son, it proved all sizzle and no steak). 

Bill Shorten and Andrew Giles walk through a car park
Bill Shorten and Andrew Giles both engaged in blame the bureaucrats this week.(AAP: James Ross)

With the media distracted, the embattled Giles quietly released a written statement about the number of visas he’s cancelled in the last week in which he buried a whoops-a-daisy about an unrelated matter

“Last week, in an interview on Sky News, I stated that Operation AEGIS was using drones,” the minister wrote.

“I relied on information provided by my department at the time, which has since been clarified.”

Days earlier, amid scrutiny about his handling of the 150 immigration detainees released after a landmark High Court ruling last year, Giles erroneously claimed the government was using drones to “keep track” of people and “know where they are”.

Quite the price for speeches

The NDIS and Government Services Minister Bill Shorten took blame the bureaucrats to a new level when he not only deployed public servants before a bus, but got on his bike and frantically rode in the opposite direction. 

“If you’re trying to link me to that, you know, good luck,” he told Channel Nine amid revelations Services Australia was spending $620,000 over two years on a speechwriter for him.

Journalists who covered the revelation faced barrages from government figures eager to separate the political arm from the department.

On Thursday, in an interview with RN Breakfast, Shorten suggested reporters had ignored the truth in pursuit of “good clickbait”, later suggesting he’d not been given the opportunity to explain the situation — a claim not backed up by the number of media requests the ABC has confirmed were lodged with Shorten’s office.

Estimates also heard that since its high-cost recruitment, Services Australia has brought on two additional speechwriters — who combined are earning less than Julianne Stewart — into an almost 200-person strong communications team. 

It’s not like Shorten doesn’t have enough on his plate, as he seeks to rein in billions in forecasted NDIS spending, while contending with criminals exploiting NDIS participants to buy drugs, holidays and new cars.

In his RN interview, the minister offered a ringing endorsement of the speechwriter’s skills, while being clear that he wasn’t responsible for the recruitment. 

His comments seemed to miss that the criticism his government was facing wasn’t about the speechwriter’s talents but whether or not it was an appropriate use of taxpayers’ money.

Whether it was their actions or not, Giles and Shorten both seemed to forget that the Westminster system — on which Australia’s parliaments are based — has ministerial responsibility at its core, the principle whereby ministers administer and bear responsibility for the actions of an agency within their control

Shorten will represent Albanese at a peace summit for Ukraine later this month.

“Bill Shorten will no doubt have a great speech when he gets there, from his $600,000 speechwriter,” Liberal frontbencher Simon Birmingham offered.


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