Closing the chapter on personality politics

November 7, 2013

By David Hetherington

It’s been a rough couple of months for Australian Labor.  Losing government is never easy – supporters are despondent, political staff are newly unemployed and Cabinet Ministers are suddenly ordinary citizens. Jubilant opponents are occupying the corridors of power, and the media devotes thousands of hours and millions of words to your failures.

In Labor’s case, the pain is pronounced by the nature of the loss. Labor’s internal divisions contributed more to its defeat than any inherent qualities of the conservative opposition. The politics of personality came to dominate the government to the point of parody; the electorate passed judgement accordingly.

A procession of departing Ministers has emerged to offer sanguine reflection and advice to the next generation.  Labor’s national secretary George Wright has explained how two-thirds of the head office campaign team departed after the switch to Kevin Rudd two months before the election – little wonder that the campaign was dogged by persistent reports of internal chaos.

All is not doom and gloom, however.  The switch to Rudd clearly limited Labor’s losses, especially in its Western Sydney heartland, and leaves the party within striking distance of the Abbott government at the next election.  Paradoxically, the switch away from Julia Gillard may enhance her legacy since she did not preside over a catastrophic election loss.

There has been one ray of sunshine since the election defeat.  A more democratic process to elect the new Labor leader was one of the rushed reforms of the Rudd interregnum. For the first time, Labor members receive a direct vote in the election of their leader, with the membership’s vote weighted equally alongside the votes of MPs.

The vote was contested by Bill Shorten of the party’s Right faction and Anthony Albanese from the Left. Each candidate brought different strengths to the table.  Shorten is a gifted communicator with a sharp policy brain.  He is recognised as the architect of the new national disability insurance system, having driven the idea from its inception.  Albanese is a master legislator, tireless worker and respected custodian of the party’s values.

The exercise was conducted with remarkable civility, particularly in light of the rancour of recent years. This civility came at the expense of a clear contest of competing visions, but it has been a while since Labor has had that luxury.

Shorten narrowly won the leadership, despite the membership voting heavily for Albanese. His task will be a patient rebuilding of the party’s philosophy, policies and culture. His famous ambition may be tested by the long and arduous path ahead, but a resumption of business-as-usual Labor politics in the hope of a quick return to government will only weaken Labor’s prospects further.

The rebuilding effort has already begun. The leadership election process brought thousands of new members to the party, with membership exceeding 50,000 for the first time in years. Two major conferences this week have brought together Labor members and progressive activists to debate short-term opportunities and longer-term strategy. A new national policy forum has been launched to provide an improved mechanism for policy debate and development (although its effectiveness is yet to be tested). Across the country, the party is experimenting with primary-style candidate selection processes to rebuild Labor’s links to the community.

But, if Labor is serious about rebuilding, these processes can only be the beginning. The party is still beset by numerous corruption scandals, and the Abbott government intends to take full advantage.  A predictable conservative push is underway to rewrite the history of the Rudd/Gillard governments and to cast doubt on the genuine economic and social achievements of the period.  Labor thinkers must refute this effort at every turn. Bill Shorten has an enormous task ahead.