Labor splitting over US FTA

Stephen Kirch­n­er “observes”:http://www.institutional-economics.com/ that Labor has end­ed the cur­rent ses­sion of Par­lia­ment in dis­ar­ray over it’s ambiva­lent posi­tion on the free trade agree­ment with the USA and it’s poor­ly thought-out han­dling of US alliance issues in gen­er­al. I dif­fer with Stephen,however, on the most remark­able aspect of last week’s vote in the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives. He points to the rar­i­ty of a vote in which 14 Labor MPs crossed the floor to vote with the Gov­ern­ment in sup­port of a bill. But Labor had already decid­ed, under pres­sure from Lath­am in the cau­cus, that it would sup­port the imple­men­ta­tion leg­is­la­tion in the House, post­pon­ing a debate on the FTA to the Sen­ate in the next ses­sion of Par­lia­ment. Michelle Grat­tan “reports”:http://www.theage.com.au/articles/2004/06/26/1088145020633.html?oneclick=true in The Age that the inde­pen­dents in the House, undoubt­ed­ly hav­ing fun at Labor’s dis­com­fort, called a divi­sion. In these cricum­stances Labor was sim­ply fol­low­ing through on it’s ear­li­er deci­sion by ‘cross­ing the floor’. The more remark­able—and for Lath­am, worrying—events of the night were the deci­sion of 40 Labor MPs to absent them­selves from the vote. This was a direct rebuke of Lath­am and his front-bench. A more elo­quent, but indi­rect, rebuke was deliv­ered dur­ing the debate by Kim Bea­z­ley from the back­bench who suc­cess­ful­ly implied crit­i­cisim of Latham’s scat­ty, oppor­tunist approach to crit­i­cism of cur­rent US pol­i­cy while fol­low­ing the cau­cus direc­tion to the let­ter. The State Pre­miers’ “intervention”:http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/common/story_page/0,5744,9956094%255E2702,00.html on behalf of the FTA and Bob Carr’s none-too-veiled warn­ings about the electorate’s sen­si­tiv­i­ty to Labor’s approach to the US alliance are good advice. At any point in the recent his­to­ry of our Fed­er­a­tion, the con­ser­v­a­tives have been more like­ly to loose gov­ern­ment than Labor has been like­ly to win it. There is a bet­ter-than-even chance of the for­mer, right now. So Labor is very poor­ly advised to be cor­ner­ing itself on mat­ters that real­ly don’t com­prise a point of sign­f­i­cant difference—such as the impor­tance to Aus­tralia of our alliance with the Unit­ed States—and much bet­ter advised to be adver­tis­ing its strengths as a gov­ern­ment. As a gov­ern­ment, it will be immense­ly more cred­i­ble, not to say ‘com­fort­able’, man­ag­ing the pros­per­i­ty that the FTA can offer than the uncer­tain­ty and loss that would result from fail­ure to rat­i­fy the agree­ment or put it into force. Per­haps the most remark­able aspect of this sor­ry debate has been the un-cau­tious way in which Lath­am has plunged into the trap, well-adver­tised by his­to­ry, of dis­cussing dis­tinc­tions between Labor and the Con­ser­v­a­tives in their for­eign pol­i­cy or secu­ri­ty pos­tures dur­ing an elec­toral cam­paign. Labor must sure­ly have under­stood by now that the Aus­tralian elec­torate is eas­i­ly spooked by such debates and is liable to bolt for the secu­ri­ty of the Con­ser­v­a­tives’ self-serv­ing reas­sur­ances, how­ev­er ill-con­sid­ered (Iraq war), unjust (con­sigment of cit­i­zens to the US mil­i­tary tri­bunals), or dis­hon­est (refugee pol­i­cy) they might be.

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