CANBERRA OBSERVED: by national correspondentNews Weekly
Labor's federal election debacle
, September 4, 2010
The Labor Party machine's attempts to hoodwink voters into thinking that its disastrous election result was due to bad publicity after the leaking of sensitive Cabinet deliberations early in the campaign is symptomatic of the political style of the entire term of the Rudd-Gillard Government.
Rather than engage in some truthful and blunt assessment of the voters' disenchantment, the Labor machine opted for spin and shifting blame. Protect the leader at all costs and blame the election loss on unidentified traitors!
Ms Gillard performed to the script given to her by ALP national secretary Karl Bitar. Others, including Victorian MP and one of the perpetrators of the coup against Kevin Rudd, Bill Shorten, did likewise.
There was no contrition, no acknowledgement of mistakes, just a case of blaming an unknown leaker inside the Government for undermining an otherwise perfect campaign.
Labor needs a blunt assessment and is doomed for further setbacks if it continues to try to delude voters and itself with such inadequate self-appraisal.
Labor's primary vote dropped by 5.4 per cent to 38.51 per cent - the lowest since 1931. It required the strong preference flows from the Greens to drag it over the line in many of its seats.
The reasons for the Rudd-Gillard Government's loss of a majority are many, but a few important ones are worth noting.
1) The decision of the party (at the behest of Julia Gillard) to hand over the power of the Caucus to the Prime Minister, overturning a century of Labor Party tradition. This decision gave Kevin Rudd unprecedented power, and he used it ruthlessly. The Cabinet system was mothballed, key policy direction was made by the "gang of four", and everything else had to be run through the Prime Minister's office.
2) Kevin Rudd made too many grandiose promises and failed to deliver on most of them. Everything from FuelWatch to GroceryWatch, to eliminating homelessness and leading the world on tackling climate change. The decision to appoint Mr Rudd as leader seemed like a good idea at the time (a conservative Labor leader as a more youthful and dynamic alternative to John Howard); but Mr Rudd was a bureaucrat rather than a politician. He was caught up in process rather than the delivery and selling of policy. Mr Rudd was a dismal failure as a politician.
3) Allowing the "Hollowmen" to infect the party and the Government and influence decision-making. The Labor machine is becoming dominated by young political operators with little real-life experience and few convictions. Political parties need to return to their role of developing policies and convincing the public of their merits - in other words, returning to politics where there is genuine conviction and persuasion, rather than branding and "keeping on message".
4) The idea of swapping leaders midstream in order to convince voters that the Government has somehow changed is fanciful. It is a methodology well rehearsed by the New South Wales Labor Party's right-wing faction, but voters are smart enough to see through this ruse. The problem was compounded by Ms Gillard's multiple makeovers during the campaign, including the re-badging of the "real" Julia after the trussed-up Julia was not resonating with voters. The decision by Ms Gillard to do a photo shoot with the Woman's Weekly
magazine was also, in hindsight, a mistake. While there was initial euphoria about Australia having its first female prime minister, the dramatic makeover of Ms Gillard in the magazine reinforced confusion about Ms Gillard's political values.
5) Despite the media's attempts to portray things otherwise, Australian voters are still quite resistant to change and lean towards social conservatism, and any party that ignores this is likely to suffer as a consequence. The Coalition outpolled Labor by 500,000 votes. And, while the Greens gained their highest level of support at this election, they are still very much a minor third party.
The recriminations inside the Labor Party were muted during the protracted counting of votes as party chiefs tried to throw a blanket over the critics.
However, the biggest mistake of the past three years of Government was a preference for spin over substance, for political gimmickry over serious policy development.
Former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was guilty of trying to do too much, too quickly and all by himself. And no one in the Government, including the person who succeeded him, tried to stop him until it was far too late.
In New South Wales, Labor is heading for a cataclysmic defeat, from which it will take years to recover.
It is important that Labor takes serious stock of its performance in government at the federal level because voters will be even less forgiving next time.