Melbourne: Two Kinds Of Politics

It’s Saturday afternoon and I’m standing in front of Melbourne’s State Library. A large crowd has gathered for the Equal Love rally in support of gay marriage.

It’s a motley crowd. Many carry placards, one of which reads, “I can’t believe we’re still protesting this shit”. Others demand amendment of the Marriage Act. There are calls for equal rights and many challenges to the conventional definition of “family”.

My interest is to see how the election candidates fare. In a week’s time, the electorate of Melbourne will have a new member in the House of Representatives. This Federation seat, established in 1901 and represented by the ALP since 1904, may be about to reject the Labor candidate in favour of the Greens.

The Labor Party contingent has set up a table to distribute campaign literature. Next to them, the Australian Greens have done likewise. Posters of the ALP candidate, Cath Bowtell, and the Greens candidate, Adam Bandt, are held aloft. Nearby, a handful of people sporting Australian Democrats regalia have also gathered. Signs of times past and present.

Bowtell is a former Australian Council of Trade Unions official. She was the ACTU’s lead negotiator in the development of the Fair Work Act, introduced by Julia Gillard, after the government’s election in 2007. When it is her turn to address the crowd, Bowtell tells them union people like a good rally. The reception is at best lukewarm.

The Labor Party helpers distribute copies of the State ALP’s position on gay marriage to anyone who asks. Potential critics are disarmed to some extent when they discover that the ALP is not as hostile to their cause as they think.

But Bowtell gets a hard time from the crowd. When she tells them she supports their cause, they boo. “Cross the floor,” they yell. There are hoots of derision. Some demand she resign from the ALP.

Bowtell, a tall woman, doesn’t budge. She tells the crowd the Labor Party is the only party that has ever worked for and achieved equality. They’re not impressed. The anger directed towards the ALP at this rally is intense. Bowtell’s address is the only one of the day not greeted with good-natured enthusiasm. They are not much interested in her lesson on practical politics.

“How hard was that?” I ask Bowtell. Her voice betrays a touch of irritation as she reiterates her argument that real reform doesn’t come from operating on the fringes. It comes from arguing and winning the case inside the only progressive party that is capable of forming a government.

Adam Bandt is welcomed to the platform as the crowd favourite. He tells them this is an election where the choice is between Labor and the Greens. Unlike the other marginal seats around the country, where the choice is between Liberal and Labor, this one is different. They have an opportunity to elect someone who offers the values of “compassion, sustainability and equality”.

When seats like this change hands, Bandt says, the big parties will take notice. His priority will be to introduce an amendment to the Marriage Act in his first term. “Love is love and love makes a family,” Bandt tells the gathering, to much applause.

Bandt and Bowtell represent two strands of political action on the left, or “progressive”, side of politics. One represents the disaffected voice of protest and balance of power politics, the other the cause of political action through a mainstream party that compromises in order to achieve power and takes its gains where it can.

It’s an attitude I discussed earlier with Hutch Hussein, a National Co-Convenor of Emily’s List, the lobby group which works to promote Labor women. Emily’s List stands for “equity, diversity, choice, equal pay and childcare”. An organisation of around 1600 members, of which two-thirds are ALP members, it supports affirmative action within the ALP and works to provide financial assistance and political training to Labor women candidates in State and Federal elections.

Abortion is the defining issue for Emily’s List. After a woman has been pre-selected for an ALP seat, Emily’s List invites her to commit to the organisation’s aims. The process is largely self-selecting, Hussein tells me. Candidates who are not pro-choice tend not to respond to the invitations.

Emily’s List doesn’t offer its support to women in other political parties, certainly not the Liberals but nor the Greens. It is, Hussein says, about “who can govern”. Emily’s List operates inside the Labor Party to support women who can be part of a party that can form government in the lower house.

Cath Bowtell is supported by Emily’s List, as is Laura Smyth, the candidate for La Trobe, in Melbourne’s east. Smyth received $1000 earlier in the year to kick-start her campaign. Online fundraising has delivered more money since then. In total, twenty-eight Labor candidates around the country are receiving support from Emily’s List during this election.

Candidates endorsed by Emily’s List are provided with a mentor, an ex-MP or an experienced campaigner. Women don’t operate on a level playing field, Hussein says. “No-one has a monopoly on merit,” she says. There are unwritten rules about the way power is exercised and Emily’s List aims to demystify the process in order to empower Labor women to build networks of support which can compete with the long-standing networks men employ.

Hussein speaks highly of Julia Gillard’s work with Emily’s List. As a lawyer in the 1990s, Gillard wrote the organisation’s constitution. She’s a popular drawcard at fundraising dinners. The office we’re meeting in is littered with posters Gillard has signed. “Don’t get mad, get elected,” one of them says. Gillard’s signature will deliver extra dollars when the fundraising auctions take place.

At the Equal Love rally, Labor women are treated with suspicion. Tell these people that the ALP is the only path to progressive policy outcomes and they will scoff. One of the ALP campaign helpers tells me there has been some hostility expressed towards them by people attending the rally.

Bowtell and Hussein are canny political operators, well-versed in the internecine warfare of factional and union politics. For the crowds gathered in Melbourne and around the country, they possibly represent an ALP that has sold out its principles on issues of equality. The professionalism of the ALP is repugnant to these people, even though the retiring member for Melbourne, Lindsay Tanner, is held in high regard.

It’s a contrasting approach to politics. As the crowd marches off to stage an “illegal” gay wedding, their style of protest politics could not be in greater contrast to that of the ALP, engaged as it is in a great electoral battle.

Yet these people represent a natural constituency of the ALP. Their support for the Greens, which may propel Bandt into Parliament on Saturday, threatens to cannibalise the ALP on the Left whilst it simultaneously fights its main enemy on the Right. It is an exquisite dilemma.

Last week, the Labor law firm Slater and Gordon offered its support to Bowtell, shunning Bandt, one of its former partners.

It was a response to those important questions: Who can govern? How are political goals to be achieved?

This article first appeared on The Drum.

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