CANBERRA OBSERVED: by News WeeklyNews Weekly
Vultures circle Crean after Cunningham debacle
, November 2, 2002
Simon Crean can claim some mitigating circumstances for the Labor Party's unprecedented defeat in the New South Wales Cunningham by-election, but this will not stop the vultures starting to circle around his leadership.
Large sections of the ALP and the union movement in Wollongong, dominated as they are by the left, campaigned against Labor's endorsed candidate, putting up its own grassroots Labor candidate who took 10 per cent of the vote. The other 12 candidates all preferenced against Labor, including parties normally sympathetic to the left side of politics.
The local media, led by the locally powerful Illawarra Mercury
, encouraged a contest for the entirely justifiable reason that there had never been one in Cunningham before.Safe seat
Labor had always taken Cunningham for granted. It was a safe seat and the increasingly moribund and divided New South Wales right wing machine yet again imposed an unpopular candidate on the local rank and file membership. This candidate, incidentally, was originally from the left, a factor which only increased local resentment.
The ex-member, Stephen Martin, had only won the seat 12 months ago and his exit was a snub to the people who sent him back to Parliament. Martin has never given a satisfactory reason for quitting politics, and the media have never pressed him on the issue because it relates to family circumstances.
However, none of these factors took away from the key fact that official Labor won just 38 per cent of the primary vote - a truly woeful result.
Crean ran the by-election from his office. He spent many days campaigning in the electorate during a busy period in Canberra, and he sent his Shadow Ministers out to talk to local stakeholders about what Labor could do long-term for the electorate.
Labor spent huge amounts of funds and manpower to try to retain the seat and the Liberals did not stand a candidate.
So, by any measure, Labor's defeat in Cunningham was extraordinary. Only two elections ago, former Member Stephen Martin held the seat with an 18 per cent majority. Even the ALP's primary vote has been above 50 per cent in most recent elections.
The list of "firsts" in Cunningham is formidable:
- the first time in its history that the industrial seat based around the steel city of Wollongong has not been in Labor hands;
- the first time the Labor Party in Opposition has lost a by-election - almost always there is a swing away from the government of the day in a by-election; and
- the first time the Greens, or any minor party for that matter, have secured a seat in the House of Representatives - or certainly at least since the early years of federation.
Crean's defenders argue that the ALP leader is not being given a fair go or the credit he deserves for "reforming" the party. He works hard, he is "on message" (whatever this means), and he is prepared to flesh out policies now rather than wait until the campaign proper.
But Labor's reforms have been of little consequence, and failed to attend to the one simple question the Australian electorate have been asking for three elections: what does Labor stand for?
Another difficult problem facing Labor, with or without Crean at the helm, is the rise of the Greens who now, after the internal troubles of the Democrats, must be considered as the future third party in Australia.
The Greens' success is going to embolden the left wing of the Labor Party to argue for more say on issues such as the environment and border protection.
For Crean, the Cunningham loss was both personal and a sign that his leadership style does not resonate with the electorate.
Everything Crean does now will be viewed with Cunningham as a backdrop - his first electoral test being a disaster. What will happen in a general election? Disillusionment within the parliamentary party now runs very deep and with that will come more division and acrimony.
As has been stated before, no immediate alternative comes to mind, although there are many possible contenders.
Crean actually has the full support of most of the left and the centre of the party and his main enemies come from the New South Wales and Queensland right.
Replacing him before the next election would have to be done with an extremely popular candidate - along the lines of Bob Hawke. No one near that calibre is on the horizon. This may not prevent a change of leadership in panic - someone whose credentials may not be impressive, but who could pull off a good campaign.
Removing Crean would be painful and ultimately pointless until the party acknowledge the deeper issues - that it lost touch with ordinary Australians during the Keating era and that a re-examination of its basic values and principles must be undertaken.