The muffled roar of applause last week was coming from Scott Morrison and the coalition, cheering,, of all things, the Supreme Court of Victoria. Justice Peter Riordan reserved his decision over the maverick union leader John Setka’s appeal to block Anthony Albanese’s attempt to expel him from the Labor Party.
That in itself was a cause for celebration – a serious knockback for the leader of the opposition. But wait, there was more.
Riordan added that there was no great urgency to resolve the matter: “we’re a long way from a federal election,” he observed, which is true, although its legal relevance is not entirely clear.
But the mere idea that the Setka case could drag on for years – perhaps to the High Court, Riordan noted – was just what the Tories wanted to hear. Take your time, Judge, you could imagine them whispering. Spend just along as you like, and then take some more.
And why set a deadline of just one election? We’re happy to have Setka around for two or three. Justice delayed is just fine by us.
And initially at least, Labor has buckled – not that it really had any choice. This week’s national executive meeting has shelved the dispute, presumably indefinitely.
This is more than just knockback – it risks becoming a humiliation, and an ongoing one. Albanese, flushed with his unanimous elevation to the leadership, obviously thought he had the clout and prestige for a decisive strike – a quick, clean kill to demonstrate the Labor was under new management, that unacceptable conduct would not be tolerated.
But while he might have aimed at the right target, he picked the wrong issue. It turned out that Setka may not have denigrated child protection warrior Rosie Batty — his remarks were more general. And his supporters, predominantly but far from exclusively from his union, the CFMMEU, hit back.
Albanese doubled down – whatever the form of words, Setka’s long record of offences, culminating in a guilty plea for domestic violence, should make him an outcast. And hence the battle was joined.
The ACTU boss, Sally McManus, lined up behind Shorten – she wanted Setka out of her realm as well. But the union movement as whole was split, and the outcome remains fraught and divisive.
The prospect of an endless legal wrangle is the last thing both he ALP and the ACTU want, but one appears unavoidable. Setka has no intention of backing down, and Albanese cannot now afford to; having declared an ultimatum, he has to stick to it.
But there is already a political cost, and Morrison and his government intend to squeeze every last drop of blood out of it. The right is constantly devising what it calls tests for the new opposition leader. Most of them are confected and self-serving. But the Supreme Court has set him a real one. How he manages it in the months – perhaps years – ahead will be both a challenge and a distraction. Perhaps he should have spent more time on his listening tour before he acted.