CANBERRA OBSERVED: News Weekly
Labor in shock after its disastrous rout
, November 6, 2004
The ructions inside the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party are in part a result of a belated but shock internal realisation of a clear message from the Australian public.
That message has now been repeated four times, but on each previous occasion the party has been in denial, claiming trickery and deception as reasons for the Howard Government's return.
This time however, with the Coalition trouncing Labor by more than a million primary votes and taking swathes of voters from the Labor heartland, the reality has finally sunk in.
The Australian people have wholeheartedly rejected Labor and what it supposedly stands for, and have embraced the Howard Government instead.
The professional careers of senior and capable Labor politicians, such as Kevin Rudd and Stephen Smith, are in tatters with the present likelihood that the party will be out of office for a couple more terms.
The opportunity of getting their feet under the Cabinet table is not only the ultimate political prize but essential experience for any prospective future leader.Wilderness
Labor's 23 years in the wilderness without any experience in office was one of the seeds of disaster for the Whitlam Government.
Senior MPs with a modicum of political nouse, such as Senator John Faulkner and Bob McMullan, have quit the frontbench, knowing that the next couple of years at least will be a political wasteland for Labor.
For the rest of the political pygmies inside the Labor Party, there has been a tawdry squabble over the spoils of Opposition.
The mood of the party room in the first week back after the election was one of bewilderment, but strangely without recriminations.
It was never meant to be like this.
The 2004 election was meant, at a minimum, to "set up'' Mark Latham for the Prime Ministership.
Labor believed Latham would achieve three things as leader: he would give the party something to believe in - so-called traditional Labor values; he would win back the traditional Labor voter who had abandoned Labor in 1996; and he would lift the party's primary vote.
The reason why the disenchantment is so deep is that the Latham leadership achieved none of these.
The party has tried the small-target strategy under Kim Beazley, the supposed big-target strategy under Mr Latham, and both have failed.
Labor is predictably blaming the October 9 loss on tactical and strategic errors - releasing policies, such as those on tax and forests, too late for the public to digest, and its failure to strike back immediately against the Coalition's fear campaign on interest rates.
In a wider sense, Labor also seems to be attributing the loss to its poor credentials in the economics field.
While all these may be true to a certain degree, they also mask the deeper problem which the party has failed to address - which is what the party actually believes in.
Labor's campaign was filled with gimmicks and dated left-leaning class warfare, notably the Medicare Gold proposal which, according to internal party polling, actually repelled voters rather than attracted them.True believers
Labor strategists obviously liked it because it harked back to Whitlam's Medibank crusade - here at last was a policy for the true believers.
Its schools policy also sought to divide the public, dredging up old-fashioned class envy designed to enlist the wider public in a witch-hunt against privileged schools.
The schools policy might have come up a treat inside the left-dominated, private-school hating Caucus, but the public simply didn't buy it.
Labor may not yet realise it, but the nation has moved on from 1950s sectarianism.
And, of course, the Tasmanian forests policy was a disaster. It wove all the doubts the electorate had about Latham and Labor into one cohesive view - that the party was far from ready to be trusted with government.
Mr Latham himself clearly does not know what he believes in.
On the one hand he portrays himself as the housing commission kid whose views mirror those of his working-class background, but then he betrays them by embracing a policy which destroys working-class families simply to appease a Greens icon.
Until Mr Latham comes to terms with this fundamental problem, the party he presently leads will be doomed to permanent opposition.