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.
Peter Gallagher is a leading Australian consultant on trade and public policy.[bio].
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