Thursday 8 September 2011

Labor's lost love

Jack the Insider Blog
  •  September 07, 2011

Are we witnessing the end of the once great Australian Labor Party?

After Kevin Rudd’s election win in 2007, in electoral terms the party was at its zenith. There was not a state or territory not under Labor’s control.

And so disarmingly attractive did Rudd’s prime ministership appear that the polls indicated a long period of Labor federal government. A decade of Labor rule was considered a fait accompli. Rudd even hinted at a measured leadership turnover. He may wander off into the sunset after another election victory allowing a smooth leadership transition to his deputy, Julia Gillard.

Just four years later, the party is in tatters, reduced to a footy team on the opposition benches in NSW, beaten in Western Australia and Victoria and forced into an uneasy minority government in Tasmania with thumpings looming in South Australia and Queensland.

Federally, Rudd was rumbled and his successor, Julia Gillard, came to the job. It has since become clear that she was unprepared for it. The 2010 election result was an embarrassment. Just 18 months before, a Newspoll put Labor ahead of the Coalition by 20 points. After a two per cent swing against Labor in the election, the party was forced into an uncomfortable alliance with the Greens and could govern only with the support of the independents
This crisis may have come quickly but it has been bubbling away now for a decade or more. Back when Labor was deeply ensconced in opposition, a particular preselection scuffle took place that reveals at least in part why it is struggling now.

A Labor MP of little note had held a safe seat in Victoria for many years. He was never a man likely to sit on the front benches. He had seen off a few potential challengers over the years but his seat was going to waste. So the machine men went looking for a big name replacement. The factions considered suitable candidates. The Left found one, as did the Right, or centre unity faction.

The Left’s prospective candidate was a man with a long history in social activism. He had turned his attention to the commercial world and had done well for himself, something few of his colleagues in the party could boast. In short, he was ministerial material.

Meanwhile the Right found a candidate of its own. This man had the resume to die for. High profile, successful at everything he had tried his hand at, possessing a fine mind and a solid grounding in economics. Here was a treasurer in waiting.

The factions hit the trenches expecting a long, drawn out fight for preselection. Both men had been keen to put their hands up for the often difficult business of public service but could not countenance the ugliness set to bubble around them. Sensing the ugly brouhaha set to embroil them, both prospective candidates walked away.

Thus the stock of talent was diminished by the factions. There are a number of similar stories but this was perhaps the most glaring example of the party suffering at the expense of the factions. In their definitive sense, factions are mere happenstance; organic in nature. Both major parties have them. Both major parties are broad churches and it is only natural that those of like mind will congregate under the same philosophical roof.

It is only when the factions cease the business of the exchange of ideas and policy development in favour of the pursuit of personal advancement that things come unstuck. And this is where the factionalism has driven Labor to date. In politics, talent is always hard to come by but the factions have conspired to keep the best people out of the Labor Party.

Outside the party room, Labor has turned its back on its core constituency. Only three Labor leaders since World War II have defeated Coalition incumbents - Whitlam, Hawke and Rudd. On each occasion, they did so with the support of what we might call urban progressives.

Now, if you only had urban progressives supporting the party, it would very quickly find itself in minor party territory. Clearly, Labor has to appeal to mainstream Australians but when it has, it has done so with progressives driving the agenda.

In 1972, the progressives drove Gough Whitlam into power on the back of protest at Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War.

While Bob Hawke pitched to the middle on core themes of full employment and social inclusion, the narrative was propelled by the progressives still smarting from Whitlam’s ejection from power in 1975.

In 2007, the hot issue was climate change, again pushed hard by the progressives.

Labor went backwards in 2010 largely due to inaction on climate change amid furrowed brows about the brutal end to Kevin Rudd’s leadership.

Since then the party has further alienated its base by running hard with a raft of incomprehensible conservative policy, most notably, the ill-fated Malaysian Solution.

And with that, Labor’s heart has left it. The progressive base has moved on, perhaps permanently to the Greens, leaving the party bereft of ideas and the cattle to bring these ideas into black letter law.

In The Australian today, Paul Kelly chronicles Labor’s current woes. As Kelly points out, the problems go much wider than the current leadership. Shuffling leaders around will never solve the root cause of the problem.

Prime Minister Gillard, battered from crisis to crisis, faces almost certain defeat at the next election. Gillard may yet come back and has two years to do it, but this is unlikely given the circumstances in which she finds herself. An historic turnaround is even less likely given the intellectual atrophy that afflicts the party itself.

This is a political party that has lost its way, lost its sense of itself and lost its soul.
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