Why Howes is not the man for Labor - Felicity Wade

Why Howes is not the man for Labor

September 14, 2013 SMH

We rank and file of the Labor Party have begun to recover, assuring one another that it could have been worse. Not much choice, really: it's a case of suck it up, keep the faith, have another beer.

As the vote and the membership of the ALP collapses there has been much promised in terms of renewal, democratisation and opening up the place to talent and energy from beyond those who have served the machine. Hearing that Anthony Albanese will stand for the federal leadership is positive. The parliamentary party seems to have worked out that its original plan of avoiding an embarrassing outbreak of democracy by offering a unity ticket was breaking our trust.

But the headlines, however shortlived, suggesting Australian Workers Union national secretary Paul Howes might be appointed to the Senate rattles the faith to the core.

Since Independent Commission Against Corruption evidence described the way Ian Macdonald had his preselection protected even though rumour was rife about his activities, it's in the open how these deals happen. Four or five men sit and offer or withdraw support and with it the crown. So we get another union chief parachuted in. But, be assured, Labor is committed to democracy and not a party of union fiefdoms.

And it's a generous place, where individuals are not expected to take responsibility for their mistakes. Where making government-destroying judgments, such as ousting a popularly elected prime minister, has no implications for your future career.

And what about the costs of expressing dinosaur views that fundamentally threaten the Labor Party's future?

My beef is Howes' position on environmental protection. Over the past year he has spoken out against environmental protection in the Tarkine forests in Tasmania, the decision to protect the Kimberley coastline from industrial development and the notion of sensible environmental controls on the coal seam gas industry.

He's called small farmers ''extremists'' for supporting the lock-the-gate movement, exhorted his rhetorical troops ''to be vigilant about the ever-present threat of mindless environmentalism'', and said parties owe it to the nation to exploit its resources.

None of this would matter if Howes was a harmless anachronism. But he is major player in the ALP in NSW, a kingmaker in Australia's largest reformist party about to be rewarded with a place in Parliament. As such, he is a dangerous force in a weak Labor Party. Labor will never again form majority governments in Australia if Howes' world view becomes synonymous with the party. He represents an anti-environment throwback that will push more voters into the arms of the Liberals and Greens.

Gough Whitlam and Bob Hawke were the public face of the transformation of modern Labor. Sensible steps to ensure the protection of the environment was central to this project. The election-winning formula included civilising capital, providing opportunity, limiting inequity as well as recognising that sustainable use of natural resources was an issue of concern to all Australians. The Franklin River, the Daintree and Kakadu were protected. Recently this tradition saw the creation of the world's largest network of marine parks and an end to the battle over Tasmania's forests.

But a party that is seen to be rewarding those who echo the ghosts of the reactionary forces Gough Whitlam so famously stood up to at the Victorian Labor Party conference in 1967, risks losing the heart and soul of the party that still clings to the glittering promise of the Labor Party at its best.

Felicity Wade is the co-convener of the Labor Environment Action Network.


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