The shark and the elephant

New MatildaPonder if you will the situation of the shark and the elephant.

Both marvels of evolution, they are perfectly adapted to their circumstances and consequently lords and masters of their very different realms.

The herbivorous elephant uses its size and weight to munch the sweetest leaves and drink deepest from the waterhole.

As the biggest beast in the jungle, the elephant wins all its arguments by just turning up, and scarcely has ever to brandish a tusk in anger.

How different is the shark – a lean, mean killing machine that owes its position to its pre-emptively deployed sharp teeth, lighting reflexes and singular dedication to eating its competition.

While their worlds remain separate, the question of who might triumph in a showdown between shark and elephant could only be of academic interest.

But were their worlds to collide and merge, then the new environment would doubtless bring forth a new solution to meet Stephen Sondheim’s cutting observation “ ‘…the history of the world, my sweet, is who gets eaten, and who gets to eat.’

Ponder therefore the situation of the Labor and Liberal (and its antecedent) parties as they embark on the second century of their joint management of the affairs of Australia.

The Labor elephant reigns supreme over the states and territories.

Its vast bulk, inertia and weight (of numbers) give it a great advantage in organising at provincial and municipal level.

It sits, if that is the right word, at the apex of a vast menagerie of lesser beasts and birds, all of whom benefit from its kindly paternalism and protection.

While from time to time disloyal members of the elephant’s kingdom might tip the balance of jungle power (as the nurses seem set to do in the Western Australian election), the elephant is difficult to dislodge, and even harder to keep from returning to the waterhole at the next election.

For all its faults, the elephant serves its noble purpose pretty well.

But in the harsher world beyond the beach, the Liberal shark thrives.

It cares very little for having a retinue of lesser creatures around it – especially confused apprentice sharks dreaming of careers as elephants.

It is a remorseless hunter and scavenger, unable to move in any direction other than forward.

It is neither tactful nor considerate in its dealings with the other creatures of its realm, but commands their respect for the single mindedness of its core proposition “ you are either for me, in which case you live, or against me, in which case you are lunch.

The Liberals command the heights of Australian national government as completely as the shark does the depths of the ocean.

In 2005, a rational observer might be forgiven for thinking that the deal between the shark and the elephant was a pretty good one – the Labor party in more or less eternal control of more or less all eight state and territory governments, while the Liberals retain more or less eternal control of national affairs.

But Australian politics has little place for rational observation.

For while the shark is more than delighted to remain a shark forever, and to cede control of trains, mains, sprains and drains to the elephant, the elephant cannot shake off its dreams of becoming a shark.

Yes, some small part of the elephant’s brain yearns to return to its ancestral, watery home.

Every three years, its rebellious brain drags its supremely disinterested body to the beach to dip its tusks in the water, lick the salty brine and stare at the far horizon.

Unhappily for the elephant, just beyond the breakers lurks and grins the extremely large, white-haired, bespectacled Tiger Shark Howardis Triumphalis.

Three times in ten years, the Shark has made a meal of each of the elephant’s babies foolish enough to go swimming in the seductive surf.

Even to the elephant, it must now be clear that it cannot beat the shark in its home waters, at least as long as it remains an elephant.

Nor can it have much hope of success even if were it to become a compromise beast “ a shelephant, or even an elephark.

No, the way to beat the shark is to become a shark, albeit a nicer, more caring and sharing sort of shark.

At the risk of torturing this metaphor to death, and in case you hadn’t noticed, the tide is rising.

Both politically, and literally, the water is taking over the land.

Very soon, we will all live in the one ocean that will wash away provincial, and even national, borders and sovereignty.

The race to run the new single political pond will be won by the creature that best understands and adapts to this new environment.

Labor can only hope to survive, let alone compete, if it now adopts a one ocean structure and strategy.

Structurally, that means one national party, with National ALP leader Beazley having ticket number one, each member having one vote and voting for the national leadership and on all national ALP policies and candidate selection, no bloc voting and no delegated representationalism “ in short, a genuinely democratic party structure.

The strategy must be to run the pond better, not just for the benefit of the other sharks, but for all the creatures that live within it.

Happily for Labor, the science of political zoology permits elephants to become sharks as fast as roosters become feather dusters.

If the elephant’s new brain, in the guise of Mr Beazley, wants to become a Shark badly enough, he can.

And if he can’t persuade the elephant to change, then why not subcontract the whole business and create a National Labor Shark Party that can at least give the Old White Pointer a run for his money in 2007?

No sane Australian can take another three years of turgid, pub-bore talk about Labor, its leadership and the cultish mysteries of how victory will be theirs in 2007 if only five improbable things happen before breakfast, and nothing unforseen happens after it.

Above all, no-one deserves another rendition of the all-purpose apparatchik’s excuse: ‘…if only you’d seen the polling, and but for (insert name of Labor leader)’s brilliant campaign, we would have lost by sixty seats!’

C’mon Kim, show us those pretty, pearly Sharky whites!

SS Iyengar and MR Lepper, ‘When choice is demotivating: Can one desire too much of a good thing?’ Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79, 995-1006.

National Audit Office Report 18 March 2005 ‘Directory Enquiries – From 192 to 118’

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