CANBERRA OBSERVED: by national correspondentNews Weekly
Five lessons that Labor must learn
, September 14, 2013
It sometimes takes a devastating defeat to shake a political party out of its complacency and torpor and to force it to undertake a re-examination of the fundamentals from the ground up.
Surely that moment has come for Labor.
With total devastation at state levels, particularly in Queensland and New South Wales, and now a crushing defeat at a federal level, a fundamental rethink needs to be undertaken if Australia’s oldest party is to have any long-term future.
Because the way things are going, Labor will only regain government if it shares power again with the Greens (a party which aims ultimately to destroy Labor) or if a Coalition government messes things up.
The brutal truth is that Labor’s current malaise has been a long time coming and predates both the Rudd and Gillard governments, although these two administrations have made things worse.
Here are five lessons Labor must learn in order to reform itself:
1) Accept that being in government is a privilege, not a right.
Many on the Labor side of politics believe in the pendulum theory of politics — that every two or three terms you get a chance to be in government for two or three terms. In fact, at a federal level Labor in office has been an aberration rather than the norm.
Bob Hawke realised that after the Whitlam debacle, in order to gain and retain power, he had to run a government that was a good economic manager and prove Labor’s competency in office. The Gillard and Rudd government forgot this lesson, with disastrous results.
2) Dispense with spin and return to substance.
The adoption, particularly by state Labor governments, of absurd public relations and media control practices has resulted in a huge gap between performance and perception. Attempting to manipulate the media and over-hype programs has proved a disaster.
The object of any government should be first and foremost good governance, sensible policy-making and long-term thinking for the benefit of the country.
“Winning” the daily news cycle is ultimately an exercise in futility if you don’t perform.
3) Stop trying to find a saviour.
Labor has been shuffling leaders virtually since it lost government last time in 1996, with disastrous consequences.
It has experimented with unstable, megalomaniacal and deeply inexperienced leaders; it has chopped and changed; and it has gambled on unproven leaders.
The simple truth is that Labor should have stuck with Kim Beazley, or rested him and then brought him back. Beazley would have made a very good Labor prime minister when John Howard ran out of steam in 2007.
4) Find some real people to enlist as MPs.
Labor needs to broaden its base and find some genuinely talented people to enter politics. ALP members of parliament, both at a state and federal level, comprise an extremely narrow demographic — unionists, former Labor staffers, former Labor lawyers. It is totally unrepresentative of Australian society.
And, worse still, prospective MPs are not even the most talented from that demographic, but advance on the basis of favours owed and other forms of nepotism.
Labor is a closed shop. It is incestuous and narrow. And, unless it changes, its appeal will continue to decline.
5) Finally, and probably most importantly, Labor needs to decide what it believes in.
In days gone by, Labor was fundamentally a democratic socialist party (with a strongly socialist rump) with a clear and comprehensive platform; it was a party of ideas and debate.
It was not always right, but there was never any doubt about what it stood for. Now it is a party of clichés from focus groups. Apparently, according to its website, Labor believes in “fairness” and in “opportunity”, in “families”, “education”, “workers” and “better health”.
These are empty platitudes.
No one person has done more in recent years to adulterate Labor’s belief system than Kevin Rudd. He has been prepared to chop and change policies at every point, declaring to every audience that he is with them.
Rudd was anti-Howard, yet copied his policies. He was a passionate global-warming proselytiser, who dumped the issue when it no longer suited him.
He has also been variously a nationalist, a globalist, a populist, a fiscal conservative, a fiscal profligate, pro-China and a China sceptic, a social conservative (defending traditional marriage) and a social progressive (pushing for same-sex marriage), a Catholic and an Anglican (with a side-interest in Lutheranism).
He was compassionate about boat people, then hardline on boat people. He was at various times pro-free market and anti-free market.
In short, he was all over the place, and his schizophrenic policy reversals and post-modernist approach to values (which, whatever they happened to be at the time, were always right) made it very hard for “Labor” and its erstwhile supporters to know what the party ultimately stood for.
Now is the time for its members and supporters to think and debate and write and reflect.
Though such self-examination will be a painful process, now is in fact a good time, because the Labor Party has an opportunity to rebuild without the impediments of the trappings of office.