CANBERRA OBSERVED: by national correspondentNews Weekly
Labor in worse shape today than in 1975
, July 6, 2013
When historians eventually look back on the 2007-2013 Labor Government experiment, the Rudd and Gillard administrations will likely always be seen as two broken and separate governments without continuity and with barely a discernable thread of policy continuity between them.
Rudd Labor and Gillard Labor will likely be forever remembered as the period the Labor Party tore itself apart — not over ideology or policy, but personality.
For Labor it will be a watershed moment, because it will be either a turning point — as it was after 1975 — or the beginning of the end of the party.
The Rudd government will be remembered almost entirely by its response to the global financial crisis (GFC) and its subsequent rash and chaotic decision-making and profligacy, but also as being a period in which an individual, who was not of the Labor Party, usurped it and managed to make it bow to his will.
For over 100 years, all Labor frontbenchers were chosen by the Caucus — or, more often than not, factions within the Caucus — a democratic rule that kept Labor leaders in check and gave ministers the confidence to stand up to Labor leaders without fear of being sacked.
But Mr Rudd, a former bureaucrat, managed to quash this rule in the name of reform and thereby gained unbridled power inside the Labor Party. Julia Gillard has resisted efforts to reverse it.
It is difficult to underestimate the disastrous effects this singular rule change has had on the current Labor period.
For Rudd, who had a natural propensity toward being autocratic, it resulted in a shambolic one-man government.
And for Julia Gillard — who, as it turned out, lacked sound political judgment and seldom heeded counsel — it led to catastrophic political blunders.
Prime Minister Gillard’s single worst mistake was not the enacting of the carbon tax she had previously promised not to introduce, but her decision to enter into a coalition with the Greens. And it was a decision she made single-handedly without consultation with her Cabinet or Caucus colleagues.
Moreover, there were many subsequent decisions she made in presidential style that would have been tempered had she consulted more widely.
The lessons for Labor after 1975 were that Labor had to be much better at government and at being competent economic managers.
It was a lesson that Bill Hayden and Bob Hawke drilled into the party in the painful march back to government in 1983.
That lesson seems to have been forgotten by the current crop of Labor politicians. If we put aside for a moment the actual policy blunders, one of the hallmarks of the current Labor period has been its dysfunctional running of government.
But the problem afflicting the Labor Party now is much worse than in 1975.
While the Whitlam period was characterised by immaturity, lack of experience and incompetence, at least the Whitlam-led Labor Party had a cohesive set of beliefs and policies. And those polices had been discussed and debated by Labor long before it came to power.
Labor goes to this election with two policies it has cobbled together in the current period — a new federal welfare body to take care of people with disabilities and their carers, and a schools funding policy that it has absurdly been allowed to be called “Gonski”.
The National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) remains an open cheque-book — the taking over of responsibility a myriad of state responsibilities without any real idea of where the cut-off point for disabilities will be.
There is enormous expectation about the scheme, but it is likely many people will be disappointed.
Nevertheless, the scheme has bipartisan and voter support, but it is far from a developed policy and will take a decade to implement properly.
“Gonski” is worse. The Gonski reforms are simply a promise to all sectors of the education system that none will be worse off.
While the idea behind it is to lift and assist poor public and badly resourced private schools, all the other sectors will get more money so there won’t be any complaints.
It is a political fix rather than a proper cohesive policy.
And without looking at actual teaching standards, and tackling the protection of bad teachers, there is simply not the remotest guarantee that the tens of billions of dollars to be poured into the schools sector over the coming years will make any improvement to student “outcomes”.
However, if you ask any Labor backbencher what they believe in as a political party, you are likely to be told they believe in the Gonski reforms.
And that is Labor’s fundamental problem.
It believes only in winning government, and will do anything to achieve that, including dumping prime ministers and installing leaders they know are flawed because they think it will somehow help them to win.
The Gillard government will of course also be remembered for one of those rare terms in Australian politics when the government of the day did not have a working majority in the lower house.
Given the disaster that has followed, it is not an experiment the Australian people will want to repeat for a long time.