Anyone who has been near suburban junior rugby league ground recently will hear one expression yelled out a lot by the parents: “up the guts”! For the uninitiated, it’s usually an instruction for the biggest, toughest kid on the team to rumble right up the middle of the field, would-be-tacklers hanging off him.
So “up the guts” really just means up the middle, staying away from the wings. But what does it have to do with politics? What does suburban footy have to do with the Labor Party and the contest of ideas in an election year?
It came to me as I drove past my local football ground in mid-February, listening to Greens’ leader Christine Milne’s Press Club speech in which she outlined all of the ways the Gillard Government had slighted her. This, despite Labor delivering a range of policies on the environment, climate change and tax that her members should support.
Ditching the Greens was a real blessing, particularly for Labor candidates in the field – both for those in the city where the Greens threaten to pinch the most votes from us and in the suburbs where the Greens seem most threatening to the voters. And beyond immediate electoral considerations, there are also positive consequences for Labor in the battle for the hearts, minds and activism of young people new to politics.
The severing of ties with Christine Milne and her ilk has other important consequences: it means that a space has opened up, in the middle of the field, for the Labor Government in Canberra.
This opportunity has also come from Tony Abbott, the most extreme and right-wing conservative leader the Liberal Party has had. The bloke who Andrew Robb says has a drawer full of secret policies that won’t be revealed until ‘closer to the election’. Based on previous form, we can expect them at five minutes to midnight.
But in that drawer, we can expect extreme industrial relations changes, Campbell Newman and Barry O’Farrell-style extreme cuts to jobs and services right across the country and tax breaks for big business and mining millionaires. Whatever is in that drawer, it has the blessing of Gina Rinehart and her mates. We know this because Tony Abbott is the best friend the anti-worker minority in this country has ever had.
It is therefore clear the Greens and Tony Abbott have two things in common. First, both have an agenda that should scare the bejesus out of those parents watching their kids play footy, whether at my local Logan Brothers Club or anywhere across Queensland and New South Wales. Second, both the Greens and their conservative foes always put a political calculation ahead of policy ideas. This is why they both say ‘no’ so often: because destructive negativity pays more in the short-term than constructive policy vision.
So we’ve got the Greens out on the loony left and the Coalition out on the Tea Party-inspired right. But it means that if Labor gets its pitch right, we can rumble up the middle of the field with a solid, mainstream policy agenda focused on schools (particularly in disadvantaged areas) and health services (particularly for the millions of people touched by disability), each delivered with a continuation of budget responsibility that prioritises jobs and growth over harsh cuts.
It will be difficult to win. We’ll have to cross the try line with tacklers and opponents hanging off us. Let’s call them the cynical right-wing media and some of their allies in the business lobby. We’ll need to make sure we don’t drop the ball. Ball security, like job security in the wider world, is the most important thing.
Now, before I completely exhaust this junior rugby league metaphor, there’s one more thing worth relaying, as told to me by one of the better judges of politics getting around Sydney’s western suburbs. He said we need to be as good at attracting rugby league people to our Labor cause as we have been in the last few years at attracting AFL people.
Like me, you would have noticed that some rugby league figures with big microphones, people like Ray Hadley and Gus Gould, have done what they can to make rugby league the home of the Liberal Party voter. They’ve turned their guns on us and found some success, particularly in Sydney’s west.
If we’re to be a chance in September, we’ll need to send people three signals. One, that we are unencumbered by the Greens they despise so much. Two, that with Tony Abbott out on the right-wing, we are the only mainstream party left. And three, that there’s only one set of policies in this contest of ideas that favours the silent many over the fortunate few: Labor’s policies according to Labor’s agenda.
The long way back to victory in this federal election begins with rugby league heartland of New South Wales and Queensland. We may not be on the same side at Origin time, but at all other times can agree that a solid, mainstream agenda is the best chance Labor has of taking the middle with sufficient size to keep out the Greens on the left and Abbott on the right.