LAURIE PATTON. How the OTIS group did Albanese a favour

A group of disgruntled federal Labor politicians  known as the OTIS group and dubbed by some  the ‘outside the inner sanctum group’ has helped Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese in a number of ways they probably didn’t intend.

For starters, forewarned is forearmed. His supporters – which is a majority of the caucus and overwhelmingly the grass roots party membership – want ‘Albo’ to become our next PM and nothing else comes close to being second prize.

To quote Sir Humphrey Appleby, from the TV series Yes Minister: ”If one is to have a secret one must first keep it secret that one has a secret”.

At least one or two OTIS group members were apparently quite pleased when it became publicly known they are unhappy after its existence found its way into the media. However, having been exposed their activities will henceforth be carefully monitored, and potential neutered.

Reports as to the number of active group members vary, but it seems some are less disgruntled than others. It’s expected they’ll need a smaller table when next they dine.

There are presumably two reasons for joining the OTIS group. Some might have genuine philosophical positions at odds with Albanese, but by far the dominant factor seems to be they think they deserve more than they are getting for their efforts. Such is politics.

Whoever came up with the line that OTIS stands for ‘outside the inner sanctum’ belled the cat on that one. Of course, OTIS could also mean ‘oh, this is silly’.

A person clearly at odds with one of the party’s likely future policy directions – and it must be said the direction in which a majority of Australians would apparently like to see the country head – is the man who calls himself @fitzhunter on social media. Joel Fitzgibbon is the member for the historically solid Labor seat of Hunter, and shadow minister for agriculture and resources. A guy generally well-liked for sure, but in politics you’ve always got to back self-interest, as Paul Keating poignantly observed (although it was originally credited to former NSW Premier Jack Lang).

Fitzgibbon had a near-death experience at the last elections, which he and others blame on Labor’s failure to actively support coal mining. However, while this was certainly a live issue in his electorate (and others) it ignores another factor. Labor didn’t lose a lot of votes in Hunter to the Coalition which did favour coal mining. Its nemesis is One Nation, and for other reasons.

Twenty years ago a hitherto largely unheard-of Pauline Hanson emerged from her fish and chip shop to mount an electoral rout in Queensland. Understanding how this happened is important when analysing Labor’s problem in the seat of Hunter and, likewise, predicting what will likely be its leadership’s response to the demands of the OTIS gourmands.

One Nation rode onto the electoral landscape on the back of a very particular cohort of erstwhile Labor supporters. These were largely older, white, mostly male, and firmly in the socially conservative wing of the ALP. Putting it bluntly, Hanson’s bigoted and racist ranting was music to their ears. It validated the long-held thoughts and fears of this group of otherwise ‘salt of the earth’ Labor types.

All of a sudden, booth workers who for decades were out of bed at 4am on polling day ensuring Labor had the best poster sites, etc. were doing so for One Nation. Hanson’s seemingly extraordinary ability to mount grass roots campaigns in selected seats was aided by the defection of members of the ALP.

Whoever in Hanson’s team targeted the Hunter electorate made an inspired strategic decision because its aged voter population mirrors the one that originally saw One Nation flourish.

While Labor’s equivocation on coal mining didn’t help in electorates like Hunter anyone who thinks that Labor actually advocating for more coal-fired power plants makes sense could eventually find themselves dining alone as a cold Canberra winter approaches.

The seat of Balmain in the NSW Parliament provides a useful analogy and one upon which Labor needs to reflect. For a hundred years the good folk of Balmain solidly voted Labor, with one exception – when local identify and Olympian Dawn Fraser ran as an independent.

Three elections ago a Greens candidate took the seat and has consolidated his hold ever since. Last year an extremely impressive Labor candidate who worked hard during the campaign period lost by five percentage points – on top of a four percent negative swing suffered four years earlier by a different candidate. While the local Labor team worked tirelessly the hard heads over at the Sussex Street Labor HQ essentially wrote off Balmain as a possibility.

So, here’s the problem for @fitszhunter and why the OTIS group has done Albo a favour.

The only way Labor’s strategists could have improved prospects in Balmain was by advocating policies which would have been disastrous elsewhere in the state. As evidenced by a formal post-election report, the party’s campaigning was bad enough but it wasn’t suicidal.

So, will the federal Labor caucus, much less its leadership group, risk another electoral drubbing – and will nervous backbenchers in other vulnerable seats and ambitious hoping-to-be ministers-in-three-years-time be keen on lurching to the right as climate change becomes an overwhelming national concern? Or, will they prefer to risk sacrificing the seat of Hunter for the greater good?

Given that there will more than likely be a swing of some proportion back to Labor and given he knows he needs to campaign harder it is unlikely Joel Fitzgibbon will lose the seat IMO. But if he does it won’t just be about coal mining.

As Prime Minister James Hacker told Sir Humphrey, having decided against nuclear submarines: ”I am the leader of my people. I must follow their wishes”. Labor would be wise to follow that principle as it decides its policy on climate change.

As I’ve observed previously, Labor faced a similar dilemma four decades ago when it became clear the feeling across the country was we should stop chopping down rainforests.

The Wran Government was wracked with division. ‘Richo’ was yet to become a greenie and the timber workers union had a good deal of support within the caucus. Wran’s team, of which I was a member, solved the problem by developing a plan that saw displaced timber workers looked after and at the same time implemented a policy that has seen more rainforests across the state retained and protected by subsequent administrations. This strategy no doubt contributed to Wran’s continuing electoral success. It also quelled internal dissent.

Some party members may well want Albo to take a stand on coal mining – one way or the other – right here, right now. The reality is Labor has a good two years to devise plans to win government while eliminating as much as possible climate change as a potentially negative issue. This won’t include bowing to the wishes of a hungry OTIS group.

My prediction? There are plenty of other restaurants in Canberra. I’d be watching to see who is eating at some of these, and with whom.

Laurie Patton is a former public servant, ministerial advisor, journalist and media executive. This article first appeared in The Lucky General.


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7 Responses to LAURIE PATTON. How the OTIS group did Albanese a favour

  1. Charles Lowe says:

    “Wran’s team, of which I was a member, solved the problem by developing a plan that saw displaced timber workers looked after and at the same time implemented a policy that has seen more rainforests across the state retained and protected by subsequent administrations.”

    At the risk of egocentricity, I have been arguing for some time now that an implementation of this strategy is what is needed to regain the central Qld seats and to reverse the ‘anti-Labor trend’ evidenced at the last election.

    What is rarely (if ever) mentioned is that the AWU and the CFMMEU need to come on board. The Dark Triadistic office holders in those institutions will not let that happen.

    We remain their victims.

  2. Charles Lowe says:

    Malcolm – can you spell ‘patience’ and ‘strategy’?

    The single most important attribute Albo has (and in spades) is empathy. Genuine empathy. Unlike Morrison’s confection.

    Chifley was human too. He won the 1946 election in his own right.

    The second most important attribute is time.

    Time to overcome the single biggest political distortion in Australia – the reluctance of NSW Labor’s Right Wingers to agree to the implementation of Leftist policies and personnel which reflect those of 80% of its human membership.

    It is imperative that NSW Labor agrees to such depth of reform as to consequently adopt and implement Victorian Labor’s electoral donations legislation. Its absence is the single most critical distortion in Australian politics.

    Albo can then prove the Leader all of us need – warts and all.

  3. Allan Kessing says:

    Silly me, I thought that the maladjusted group chose OTIS because they want to lift coal jobs & exports – this was the take out from AA’s much vaunted, and then too quickly forgotten, November “headland speech”.

  4. Malcolm Crout says:

    Reading this article I get an impression that the ALP expects Albo to glide into Government at the next election. I don’t think this is even a remote possibility at this point in time. Two years will fly by in a heartbeat, leaving the ALP scrambling for inertia as the marketing bozo on the other side ramps up his dishonest, but almost believable rhetoric.

    Morrison and his cronies may be despised by the general populace over mishandling Australia’s crises and most of us are appalled by the LNP policy free zone of governance, but Albo is only level with Morrison in the PPM poll and not leading by any strength. Anyway, these are polls and as the last election demonstrated, are hardly a harbinger for future events. So he’s closer than Shorten ever managed, which may feel warm and fuzzy, but so what? That doesn’t translate to winning an election.

    The ALP may genuinely be enamored by the Albo working man style of leadership, but despite being laid a clutch of gotcha golden eggs by Morrison, he hasn’t managed to cut through where it matters, or anyway, this is the way it looks from the media coverage. Shorten may have been unpopular, but knew how to conduct a reasonable media interview and was given plenty of media coverage compared to Albo. Seriously, the guy looks lame in front of the camera. He stumbles around his answers by inserting so many caveats into his explanation and demonstrating his fairness in comment that he just loses the thrust of the message. I find myself shouting at the screen for him to grow a pair and just go for Morrison’s jugular …… he doesn’t. He loses the opportunity because he comes across as being scared of the bullying response that Morrison will throw his way if he crosses some line. For God’s sake trample over the bloody line and froth a bit if you want to lead the country!

    These LNP bastards are already being handed the keys by an inept and leaderless ALP, which can barely manage to even look like an alternative Government. They were better off with Shorten sans those bloody stupid policies on negative gearing and franking credits, which have been quietly dumped while they are still equivocating over coal. I despair at the quality of the political class in this country.

  5. David Brown says:

    what is the chance of the LNP self-destructing?

  6. Jerry Roberts says:

    Hi Laurie. If you have any idea of Labor’s “likely future policy directions” please let us know what they are. John Quiggin, who has just launched a new textbook on economics, says he can’t remember an Opposition from either side of politics as “lame” as the Albanese-led ALP. I agree but would not promise to use such gentle adjectives.

    We are totally dependent on Labor Senators working with the Greens, Pauline, Centre Alliance and Independents. The big test is the Currency (Restrictions on the Use of Cash) Bill coming to the end of its Senate Committee examination. This legislation if enacted threatens Australians with two years in prison for spending their own money. It should never have got past the Coalition Party room. Will Labor remember that even in Opposition it is part of the structure of Australia’s government?

    • Jocelyn Pixley says:

      Thanks Jerry, I think Laurie has some great points but Albanese remains a deep mystery and now is not the time to say Labor has 2 years to formulate principles, but rather it should put ALP principles to the fore. Concrete policy details are different. Wran was a great politician – Laurie is quite right. Today, emissions reductions are even more important, but Jerry also draws attention to this Currency Bill. The ALP has a world best history in managing money and banks; while the Bill’s “line” is that money launderers are “the” problem, that is not true. Banks have illicitly benefited from laundering (23 million times – Westpac) but restricting cash (further) is a bigger gift to banks. Banks already create 97% of the money we use, and a lonely 3% is state currency (cash). People have a right to use cash, to evade Banks’ and the ATO’s clutches. If I want to give cash to someone homeless, or give to WIRES, I do NOT want a tax deduction. The ATO is unable to catch the big tax evaders who certainly don’t shuffle “cash” to off shore havens. All I can say is that Albanese needs to get a grip on problems he appears not to understand. He could listen to, and heed many wiser heads in caucus than he does. He could learn from reading what opposing with Labor principles actually meant for the national interest.

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