Scratching heads and hurt egos plague the left of Tasmanian Labor as they discern how their Senate faction deal fell through. Their plans to install union stalwart John Short as the number three candidate were quashed as soon as the Senate results indicated a “vote below the line” win for Lisa Singh, with whom they originally relegated to number six just months out from the election.
An unaligned-left Senator, Lisa was hung out to dry by the powerbrokers in her state and pleas for her reinstatement fell on deaf ears. In a nothing to lose situation, a grassroots campaign was born fuelled by the anger and frustrations of disaffected members that an injustice had been committed and that Lisa had to be re-elected. No one in the ALP expected this outpour of support against the decision to replace a capable Senator who represented the diversity of Australia with a middle aged, white male who came through the ranks of the union movement.
Ultimately, Lisa was re-elected not because of a closed door faction deal, but because she earned the trust and support of Tasmanians who voted for her impeccable track record and work ethic. The need to re-elect her transcended factional politics, because a vote for Lisa would be a vote for independent Labor thought, as well as a vote for action on climate change, re-settling asylum seekers and fighting racial discrimination – positions Lisa is known to be out spoken on.
So has the ALP learnt much from this experience? Probably not, because until it clears out the toxic forces within its ranks change will not come any time soon. Prior to the election, Mark Butler, President of the ALP spoke at the National Press Club and proudly stated that the ALP was modernising and adopting a “democratised” approach in its candidate selection processes to ensure rank and file members have more ownership in decisions that are made at both a local and at a branch level. It sounded quite hopeful that the ALP was on the road towards change, but old habits die hard, and in the case of Lisa, this “democratised” approach was not applied and the forces of the factions and powerbrokers ruled the roost. If ALP rank and file members in Tasmania were given ownership over the candidate selection process, Lisa would have been pre-selected into the number three spot. But because she was not afforded this opportunity, she was left to the wolves to fight alone.
Despite the fact that the ALP was of no help, grassroots campaign volunteers worked night and day and not only got Lisa re-elected as a Senator, but also increased the ALP’s vote in Tasmania. However, this win does not change the fact that the ALP is still riddled with major contradictions as it attempts to transform its relevance to match the growing diversity of Australia’s demographic makeup.
Relegating Lisa was a blow to multicultural representation, and the fact that this did not cross the minds of ALP decision makers is telling of its failure of being a culturally competent party which has lost its way in “democratising” its machine. Of course, having more women elected and on the Shadow front bench is extremely important and having a handful of senators and MPs representing other cultural communities is also imperative, but the truth remains that its representation of Asian Australians is quite dismal considering around ten percent of Australia’s population hail from an Asian background. And even though this should not shadow the achievements of newly elected MPs such as Linda Burney and Anne Ali who represent both Indigenous and Muslim Australian communities, they are just the one or two who have made it, but are still too few and far between to be considered as representative. If Lisa was not re-elected, Penny Wong would be the sole Asian Australian representative, sending the ALP backwards twenty years on culturally diverse leadership.
At the end of the day there were 20,000 Tasmanians who voted ‘1’ for Lisa and this is significant considering Bill Shorten gave her a call a week after the election to congratulate her. And despite being dropped from the Shadow front bench her return has defied all the rules of engagement in the ALP’s faction and power broking guide book. With continual advocacy and outcry from the multicultural and mainstream Australian communities, it is hoped that the ALP will soon realise and learn how important diverse voices are to truly represent the growing colour and diversity of this great nation, and how this trumps its current methods of operation. Let’s hope that modernising the party via a “democratised” approach will come to fruition one day, and that candidates are selected not purely based on factions but based on merit and contribution, and that the ALP lives up to its traditional roots and values of fairness and equality.
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