How the OTIS group did Albanese a favour

Anthony Albanese and Don Farrell

The OTIS group of disgruntled federal Labor politicians 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 Labor Caucus and overwhelmingly the grassroots 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 election in 2019, 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 grassroots 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 per cent 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 @fitzhunter and why the OTIS group has done Albanese 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 at the next election and, given he knows he needs to campaign harder, it is unlikely Joel Fitzgibbon will lose the seat, in my opinion. But if he does lose the seat, it won’t just be about coal mining.

As the fictional 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. ‘Graham Richardson’ 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 Albanese 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.

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About Laurie Patton 2 Articles
Laurie Patton is a former journalist and media executive, former CEO/Executive Director of Internet Australia, and currently Vice President of the Telecommunications Society (TelSoc). Some of the views expressed here are those of the writer and are not necessarily shared by TelSoc or its members.