CANBERRA OBSERVED: by national correspondentNews Weekly
The party that has lost its way
, February 18, 2012
That Labor MPs are agonising over having to choose between a leader that the voters do not trust and a potential leader that they themselves do not trust is a shocking indictment on Australia’s oldest political party.
In contrast to the Liberal Party, which has had a tendency to aloofness toward its past leaders, the Labor Party was traditionally loyal to its leaders, past and present.
Often the party clung to leaders well passed their use-by date. Think of Gough Whitlam who was given another chance in 1977 to lead the party after the 1975 debacle, only to be humiliated a second time. Labor leaders (even the average ones) were honoured for their contribution to the wider “Labor movement” — in itself a phrase barely used any more.
The modern Labor Party, by contrast, with one eye on the polls and with its MPs infected by the disease of personal ambition and a sense of entitlement, is prepared to tear down even a prime minister when things start to get rough.
Kevin Rudd was removed because, in Julia Gillard’s own words, “the Government had lost its way”.
Now many in the party want him back because they fear that without him Labor will be annihilated at the coming election. Despite Labor’s lack of faith in him, Rudd remains popular with voters, according to polls.
If it were the case that Labor had lost its way back then, then things have gotten worse under Julia Gillard.
There have been fundamental breaches of faith with voters, the entering into a corrosive alliance with the left-wing Greens, an unnecessary tax on carbon dioxide emissions that will be higher and more pervasive than any other in the world, and university student style stunts from the prime ministerial staff that result in Julia Gillard herself suffering the ignominy of being bundled into her car by her security officers without a shoe.
There has been knee-jerk decision-making such as banning cattle trade with Indonesia and policy ineptitude exemplified by Australia’s current inability to keep the northern border of the nation secure from boat arrivals resulting in the deaths of hundreds of people. The list goes on.
With nothing seeming to have worked, Ms Gillard is now usurping the role of the Treasurer Wayne Swan and acting as Government spokesperson on economic matters.
Why? Because that is the only good story currently worth telling, while the carbon tax is not mentioned by anyone because voters don’t want it.
Rudd (according to the polls) at least has a chance to win the next election, and, despite the deep antipathy with which he is held in sections of the party, is seen as worth bringing back.
Yet Rudd himself was originally installed only because the Labor Party had burnt a series of leaders — Kim Beazley, Simon Crean and Mark Latham — and had run out of ideas on how Labor could beat John Howard.
Rudd was simply another experiment. After failing with a “radical” in Mark Latham, Rudd was promoted because he would be a safe conservative alternative to Howard, not because he was liked or admired in the party.
It worked for a while. Rudd was “Howard-lite”. He was a churchgoer; he was socially conservative; he was not beholden to the unions.
But as time went on, Rudd’s flaws surfaced. He proved to be more of a bureaucrat than a politician. His decision-making and his office were chaotic. He preferred the adulation of youngsters on his staff to having hard-headed advisers, and his overblown rhetoric trapped him into promises that were impossible to keep.
There is no assurance that the traits that caused Labor MPs to turn against him have been fixed.
The fact is that Labor’s problems are fundamental and go beyond its choice of a leader.
The party has run out of ideas — or, even more fundamentally, does not know what it believes in.
It now “believes” in a carbon tax regardless of the logic or the necessity of such a tax.
It “believes” in same-sex marriage regardless of the fact that its leaders (Rudd and Gillard) do not.
It is a sorry mess.
Now Ms Gillard is putting all her eggs into the economic basket, and on Labor’s record of being good economic managers.
This is a desperate and dangerous political strategy.
Given Australia’s vulnerability as a small trading nation, with its thin economic base and a small population, and given that the world’s economy is undergoing a painful process of de-leveraging not seen since the 1930s Great Depression, Australia remains vulnerable to events way beyond the control of the federal Treasury.
If the winds of the global slump blow Australia’s way, there will be very little that a Gillard or Rudd Government can do to stop it.
Labor’s strategy of taking pride in its management of the economy seems foolish in the extreme, but given the track record it should come as no surprise.