Self-harm: Labor’s fall from power in Australia

September 13, 2013

By David Hetherington

Last Saturday night, in a heaving pub in the gritty inner-Sydney suburb of Redfern, Federal Health Minister Tanya Plibersek climbed onto a chair to address her campaign volunteers.  Plibersek looked tired – one of Labor’s stars, she had been criss-crossing the continent for five weeks, often three cities a day, helping candidates in tight races.

Plibersek thanked her team and then apologised.  Your MPs have let you down, she said. “I’d give us nine out of ten for governing the country.  I’d give us zero out of 10 for governing ourselves.”

It was an insightful remark, and one reflected in the election result.  Labor was roundly beaten.  It lost around 25 seats, leaving it with less than 60 members in the 150-seat House of Representatives. Tony Abbott’s centre-right Coalition will have a majority of at least 30.

Plibersek is right to be proud of “governing the country”, of Labor’s policy achievements.  In six years in office, the Australian Labor Party (ALP) introduced a carbon price and paid parental leave, rolled out a national broadband network, legislated a national disability insurance scheme, lifted pension superannuation contributions, and dramatically increased funding for underperforming public schools.  Most impressively, the Labor government navigated Australia through the Global Financial Crisis without a recession and with consistently low unemployment.  It leaves office with the budget deficit and public debt amongst the lowest in the OECD.

Plibersek is equally right to be despondent about Labor’s record of governing itself.  Labor won office with Kevin Rudd as leader, deposed him and installed Julia Gillard, saw Rudd challenge Gillard and lose, before finally deposing Gillard and reinstating Rudd.  This game of musical chairs was accompanied by bitter infighting, public squabbling and toxic leaks. As Plibersek acknowledged, voters concluded that a party that couldn’t manage itself did not deserve the confidence of the electorate.

A gift to Tony Abbott

Labor’s self-indulgence played right into Tony Abbott’s hands.  Conventionally, an Opposition must present a positive alternative platform to win back government.  With Labor’s dysfunction, the Coalition was not obliged to do that.  Instead, it ran a classic “small target” strategy.  It made a bet that Labor’s behaviour would be enough to turn off voters and that this dissatisfaction could be amplified with a negative campaign about confected crises: a “budget emergency”; a flood of asylum-seeking boat people; cost of living spiralling out of control; a carbon price that would destroy the economy.

None of these crises stood up to critical review, but nor did they need to – Labor’s mismanagement allowed a perception of incompetence to take hold.  In fact, Tony Abbott’s single signature policy was a “big government” paid parental leave scheme designed to convince women voters that his misogynist reputation was undeserved.  This was hardly consistent with the rest of his platform, or the small-government philosophy of his party, but consistency was less important to the Coalition campaign than the assiduous, dramatic attacks on Labor’s failures.

Kevin Rudd’s “New Way”

The ALP campaign was equally uninspiring.  Kevin Rudd appeared incapable of acknowledging many of the achievements of the Gillard prime ministership, depriving Labor of its strongest arguments.  Instead, the Labor pitch was based on the insipid tagline “Labor: A New Way”, an incongruous message from an incumbent government of six years and a Prime Minister on his second rotation.  Having just regained office in June, Rudd appeared short of campaign fitness and only hit his straps in the week before polling day.

On election night, Rudd delivered an interminable concession speech more reminiscent of a winner than an election loser, much to the bemusement of the Labor faithful in their Redfern pub.  The most enthusiastic response from the crowd came when Rudd confirmed he would not recontest the Labor leadership.

Before examining Rudd’s share of responsibility, it’s worth noting that the outcome could have been far worse.  Many Labor insiders were expecting the party to be wiped out in the mining state of Queensland and its traditional heartland of western Sydney. However, an aggressive marginal seat campaign saw Labor retain almost all of these seats, meaning the party can rebuild with realistic hopes of regaining government within a term or two.  Rudd’s lingering popularity no doubt played its part in this.

The extent to which Rudd delivered a better result than Gillard might have will be endlessly debated and never resolved.  The avoidance of a wipeout lends Rudd supporters ammunition in the debate, but as senior Gillard staffer and former State of the Left columnist John McTernan has argued, Gillard’s poll numbers were 50/50 with the Coalition at Christmas before she was exposed to a further bout of internal destabilisation by Rudd.  After she lost the leadership, Gillard maintained a dignified silence throughout the campaign, a courtesy Rudd had not extended her in the 2010 poll.

Running against the Murdoch press

What is certain is that Labor must put the politics of personality behind it.  It is still unclear who will be the new Labor leader. A requisite of any candidate will be the capacity to restore unity and discipline, and to place personal ambition behind the task of rebuilding the party.

No doubt the history of this period will be marked by the personalities, but the personalities must not overshadow Labor’s achievements.  The battle over that history has already begun, with the first salvos launched in the Murdoch papers early Sunday morning.

The role of the Murdoch press leading up to and during the campaign has been remarkable.  In recent years, the broadsheets, tabloids and TV channels of News Corporation have marshalled an unbroken drumbeat of criticism against Labor. The only good Labor politician was the next Labor leader, whom the Murdoch press would build up in order that (s)he could be then torn down.  During the campaign, these outlets strayed from the normal practice of simply editorialising in favour of a party; instead their coverage more closely resembled conservative advertorials.  One memorable front page depicted Rudd as a Nazi officer.

On election night, Rupert Murdoch himself tweeted that the Coalition won because voters were “sick of public sector workers and phony welfare scroungers sucking life out of economy”.  Recall that this is an economy in its 22nd consecutive year of growth, with unemployment below 6% and inflation and interest rates below 3%.

Now the results are in, these outlets have set about rewriting history – they argue Labor jeopardised national security, damaged the economy, strangled business, and sunk the country into debt.  Of course, none of this is supported by the evidence but if it becomes conventional wisdom, Labor’s return to electoral viability will be that much harder. For this reason, progressive historians, writers and thinkers must take up the case and aggressively stake out Labor’s genuine of record of achievement.

Professional politics?

Labor’s battles will not only be external, however.  This defeat, not just in scale but in substance, leaves Labor at a fork in the road.  Does it operate a ‘business as usual’ approach, which envisages the fastest way back to government as a healing of the personality divisions, a re-embrace of polls and focus groups, the mending of bridges with the Murdoch press, and the pursuit of the median voter?

Or does it redefine its social democratic mission for the 21st century, adapting its enduring social justice values to contemporary challenges including insecure work, the ageing tsunami, the maintenance of high quality public services, and the fair distribution of income and wealth?

The internal debate will have two important dimensions.  The first is about Labor’s style of politics.  Since the 1980s, Labor has conducted its politics with a ruthless professionalism, labelled as “whatever it takes” by one-time Labor kingmaker Graham Richardson.  This style entails tight control of the political machine by factions and their supporting unions, extensive use of focus groups and internal polling, rigorous media management to win each day’s headlines, and an approach of perpetual campaigning even while in government.

The signs are that this style of politics has run its course with voters: cynicism and mistrust amongst voters are at an all-time high.  It reveals policy weakness too, with important decisions made on the run in response to media and polling pressure.  During the campaign, in response to such pressure, Labor announced plans to create a northern tax-free zone and to relocate Australia’s biggest naval base, in policies that would kindly be described as “thought bubble”.  The position it ultimately adopted on asylum seekers was far to the right of what the conservatives were arguing even 12 months ago.

Labor’s future electoral prospects depend on its ability to transcend this style of politics.  The exact contours of a new approach are unclear, but they involve changing the party’s rules and culture to deliver greater internal democracy, using time in Opposition to create a compelling policy agenda, and rebuilding goodwill amongst one-time Labor members, supporters and volunteers.  One simple example would be to allow party members to directly elect Labor’s candidates for the Senate, positions currently appointed by factional fiat.

These questions have been the stuff of hundreds of opinion pieces about Labor over the years. But there is a bigger, overarching question: what does the party stand for? What is the mission of social democratic politics in the early 21st century?  As the country’s political centre of gravity has moved to the right over 20 years, has Labor been correct in moving with it?  By doing so, has Labor unwittingly allowed the drift, or worse, contributed to it?

Some defenders of Labor’s Hawke-Keating legacy suggest that moves to remove generous concessions on high-income earners constituted a return to “class warfare”, tantamount to a betrayal of the successful economic rationalist policies of that period.  But that is to misunderstand the Hawke-Keating agenda, which married prosperity through liberalisation with a strong social safety net.

Labor’s social democratic mission has become lost when its own MPs can describe limited redistribution as “class warfare”.  The challenge for Labor now is to refashion this mission: to apply its enduring values of fairness, community and social justice to the economic and social conditions of contemporary Australian life.  The challenge is Olympian in scale, and on it rests the long-term viability of the Australian Labor Party.