CANBERRA OBSERVED: by national correspondentNews Weekly
Labor celebrates surviving its fifth year in power
, December 8, 2012
The fifth anniversary of the election of the Labor Government on November 24 was a significant event for the party, and one that went largely unheralded in the media.
In terms of Australian politics it signalled longevity in government and a sense of stability that belies the reality of underlying uncertainty and precariousness.
Perhaps Labor was being careful not to appear too triumphalist in celebrating this milestone.
Instead, most of the focus went on the achievements of the unbroken thread of continuity between the Rudd and Gillard administrations — in the person of the Treasurer Wayne Swan who, according to The Australian newspaper, had “joined the pantheon” of Labor treasurers.
Swan is now the third longest-serving Labor treasurer after Paul Keating and Ben Chifley.
Views about his achievements are mixed, with some applauding his role in staving off a recession when the rest of the world was going to ruin, and others critical of his failure of imagination to grasp the opportunity to be a reforming treasurer.
Regardless of the differing viewpoints on Swan, the five-year mark for Labor is an important achievement in survivability alone.
If the Gillard Government succeeds in running full term, Labor will have held on for more than twice as long as the Whitlam Government, but, more importantly, it will have succeeded in being in office for a majority of the 40 years since Whitlam won office.
In effect this means that, even post-Whitlam, Labor has been gradually edging toward the position of being a natural party of government at a federal level.
To put this in perspective, the history of federal politics can usually be broken into three distinct periods — pre-World War II, post-World War II up to either the beginning or the end of the Whitlam Government, and the post-Whitlam period. One could also argue for a fourth segment — the unstable early Federation period — before the emergence of a clear two-party system.
In any case, for the 71 years up to Gough Whitlam’s election, Labor enjoyed the trappings of office so seldom that it became a hoary old Labor chestnut that the party was elected only during times of wars and depressions.
To put it another way, up to the Whitlam Government, Labor had held office for fewer than one in every four years.
Since Whitlam, Labor has held office more than one in every two years.
Now all this may be swept aside should Tony Abbott be successful at the coming election, and doubly so should Labor be decimated as many predict, and a Coalition Government then goes on to win two or three terms.
Yet it does reflect genuine success for Labor in gaining and holding power and a warning to the many Coalition MPs, who have an expectation that the Treasury benches will always revert to them once the electorate has had enough of a Labor “experiment”.
It is difficult to gauge Tony Abbott’s thoughts on this matter, but from his parliamentary tactics it would seem that he half-expected the Gillard Government to crack by now.
Disappointed as he was at having won the majority of the votes at the last election but being robbed of the chance to govern, and a disappointment compounded by the betrayal of the electors by two rural “conservative” MPs Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor, Abbott went about applying maximum pressure on the Gillard Government in the parliament.
Given the knife-edged federal parliament and the travails of the Labor member for Dobell, Craig Thomson, Abbott applied every possible pressure to ensure an early election.
Instead, another from the Coalition’s side, in the person of Peter Slipper, was enticed across the green leather benches from the opposition to the government side of the chamber.
For every vote, Abbott has demanded all MPs be present in the chamber, and he has refused conventional reasons for being absent, such as funerals, except for familial relations.
But such is the level of antipathy toward Abbott from the cross-benches, the ragtag of Labor/Greens/independents, did not fragment.
In the battle of wills, Julia Gillard has stared down Tony Abbott.
Now Abbott faces what will be a year-long election campaign during which Labor will use every possible tactic to wear him down.
Fortunately for Abbott, the athlete, his bent is towards long-endurance events rather than sprints.
But were he ultimately to lose (and nothing can be ruled out in politics), it would be a severe setback for the conservative side of politics after so many Labor scandals and mishaps.
For Labor the achievement of longevity is indeed important, but the verdict of history has yet to be made on its ultimate bequest to the nation.