CANBERRA OBSERVED: Labor pushes the self-destruct button
by national correspondent
News Weekly, March 3, 2012
The federal Labor Party is spiralling out of control and no change of leader will be able to repair the damage of the past few months.
At the time of writing, any number of scenarios could be played out from Julia Gillard remaining as Prime Minister for a period (still the most likely), to a painful return to Kevin Rudd, to Simon Crean being drafted as a compromise leader, or to possible “clean-skin” alternatives such as Stephen Smith or Bill Shorten being enlisted.
There is also the distinct possibility that an election will now be called with disenchanted Labor MPs deciding to quit Parliament and force a by-election.
It is a sorry mess, and one that is doing irreparable damage to the reputation of our federation’s oldest political party.
It is an uncomfortable comparison, but the Whitlam Government, for all its considerable warts and faults, did not descend to the backbiting, personal rivalry and vendettas that exist in this Government.
The Whitlam Government had a program and a vision for the country that included boosting local government, constitutional reform and decentralisation.
It abolished fees for university and spent money (that it admittedly didn’t have) on legal aid and an expansion of the bureaucracy.
Whitlam’s ministers were inexperienced and ill-equipped for the job, and some were self-indulgent in their personal behaviour, but at least they were trying in a misguided way to modernise the nation.
The late Rex Connor, for example, had a grand ambition for Australians to actually own the mineral wealth of their country. In a naïve and quixotic enterprise, he tried to raise billions of petrodollars from the Middle East to finance his dream.
In the end, the Whitlam Government ended disastrously and ignominiously, but no one could have accused it of not being true to its ideals.
It was inconceivable in 1974-75 that people would be discussing that any future Labor Government could prove to be worse than the Whitlam Government.
The Hawke Government went out of its way to wipe clean the memories of the Whitlam Government’s blunders in terms of managing the economy and probity.
Yet we now have a Government where personal ambition is being put ahead of the nation and the Labor Party itself. Leaders are chopped and changed on the basis of the vagaries of polling and reputations are shredded through anonymous “briefings” to journalists and videos of private moments of exasperation.
The Rudd video was designed to show Rudd at his worst, a reminder to MPs of his short temper and poor personal skills as prime minister.
In fact, the leaker of that video probably helped shore up Rudd’s reputation among the Australian public because it showed him to be ordinary.
All the problems that have been evident in the Labor Party for the past decade or more are coming home to roost in this leadership debacle.
The absence of any basic belief system, dependence on polls to determine political decisions and policy, personal fiefdoms replacing the traditional factions that had previously been based on broad political philosophy, political careerists with no real understanding of life outside politics, obsession with the media and messaging, brand differentiation between the parties rather than the battle of ideas, etc. — all these have combined to hollow out the Labor Party.
It is now simply about personalities.
Of course, it would be wrong to deny that the Labor Party still has good people. There are still the stalwarts and the men of honour such as Martin Ferguson, John Faulkner and Simon Crean, who uphold the Labor tradition and understand that the party is there to serve the people, not them as individuals.
It is a sorry situation and the only way it can possibly be resolved is through the ballot box.
The peoples’ verdict on the Labor Party appears to be the only thing that will bring the party to its senses.
Even then, the failure to address the fundamental issue — which is what a modern Labor Party believes in — remains unresolved.
If the Labor Party’s free market economics is exactly the same as the Liberal Party, how does it differentiate itself as a political party?
If it wants to wind down heavy industry and big electricity users through its carbon tax, what exactly does it want Australia to produce?
Does it continue to ally itself with the Greens on the left, or does it abandon its flirtation with the concerns of the affluent inner-city bohemians and come back to the mainstream?