This post looks at their beginnings. Was it all the PM's fault, or does the problem reside deeper within the system?
ANOTHER DAY, ANOTHER POLL DISASTER
How could it all go so wrong? The easy, simplistic answers stare us in the face and (depending on the strength of your allegiance to the Labor Party) go back either five minutes, or five years.
By the end of 2006 the party was tired of being consigned to perpetual opposition. Many feared that the leader, that old warhorse Kim Beazley, was to lead the party to yet another near victory. It would be close, but not close enough. No one doubted his grasp of policy however it seemed that the country wanted more. When the New South Wales Right finally transferred its allegiance to Kevin Rudd it appeared to be part of a natural shift to youthful dynamism. The thrusting young faces –not just Rudd, but also Peter Garrett and Julia Gillard – were being blocked by the ageing dinosaurs who had dominated the party for ages.
But it wasn't just the NSW branch that was involved in the conspiracy to bring down the leader. Rudd desperately needed Gillard's Victorian supporters; without her his coup could never have succeeded. But big Bill Ludwig supported of Beazley. In the end a deal ensured Queenslander Wayne Swan became Rudd's Shadow Treasurer. We could go on, but you see the point. In 2007 the party decided it wanted power. The critical importance of Labor's media image was understood. Everyone accepted that this was the dimension of victory that had been lacking of years of defeat. Good policy came second.
A relentless focus on image was maintained during those initial months of power. Rudd displayed no hesitation in commissioning detailed studies that would present roadmaps detailed for the government to use as it took the country into the future. Ideas supposedly infused the policy debate. Yet nothing workable ever seem to emerge from the black hole that the Prime Minister's office became. It's relentless focus was on the next headline. But then, occasionally, Rudd would sometimes insert himself to “cut through" arrogating to himself the power to arbitrarily take dramatic decisions.
Such as the National Broadband Network. This may yet prove to be wonderful, however the manner of its genesis and execution has left lingering question marks over the multi-billion dollar project. In the end the decision to build the network was taken by Rudd and Stephen Conroy as they flew in a plane across Australia. It's hard not to suspect the decision to unroll the network in New England has a great deal more to do with Tony Windsor's influence as an independent member of Parliament than it does with the regional (or national) need in this area. The implementation of a good policy has been beset with the rank stink of politics.
This is because, despite protestations to the contrary about the need for intellectual rigour, there were some things that simply remained articles of faith for the party, or individuals like Rudd. One of these was the treatment of asylum seekers. Rudd announced that he was dispensing with John Howard's “solution" to the problem. In an ideal world this should have worked. Yet today not even Labor pretends that the so-called “pull" factors are irrelevant. That's why the government is currently threshing about searching for another island where it can send the sad cargo of the leaky boats that are heading to our shores.
Yet it is still obsessed with playing politics. One single piece of the government Solicitors advice has been dribbled out. Immigration Minister Chris Bowen suggests this “proves" that Nauru is not an option. If you bothered to read the advice you'd find that's not the case at all. And if we can be provided with this one missive, why is the government withholding previous advice on this issue. It's difficult not to suspect that the lawyers had previously advised the government their case for transporting asylum-seekers to Malaysia was riddled with problems, difficulties and inconsistencies. It's just as unfair to the governments own lawyers to tarnish them with the same brush of incompetence that is currently being demonstrated by the government as it is to attack the High Court, safe in the knowledge that none of the Justices will attempt to rebut wild assertions by the Prime Minister. Transparency in government apparently evaporated the minute John Faulkner departed the ministry.
But we have jumped ahead of ourselves in the story of Labor's disintegration. Rudd and Swan understandably used the global financial crisis as an excuse to further centralise decision-making within a tight executive, the gang of four people (although even this was only ever really three-and-a-half; Lindsay Tanner was always relegated to a peripheral role by the others). Thanks to their actions, Australia escaped recession. Nothing should ever downplay the government's success in piloting the economy through the shoals of recession. Equally, using stimulus provided by the cash splash and increased government spending did nothing to address the fundamentally troubling problems that still lie at the root cause of the crisis.
These have reasserted themselves in Europe and have led to the crisis of confidence that's already resurrecting concerns about another global contagion. Rudd's confident rhetoric inspired us all to think he had the answer. Yet, as time went on, it became apparent that instead of trying to find a new way to achieve his rhetorical flourishes and balancing consumer desires against the deeper needs of the spirit, Rudd was trapped in a desperate desire to appease the mythical swinging voters of the Labor heartland.
But, like a young child demanding new toys, such voters cannot ever be satiated by baubles. They could, however, be persuaded to accept difficulties and hardship if the case for doing so is outlined clearly to them. That's what the party had hoped would happen when they switched to Gillard. Instead, as today's poll indicates, the party has finally switched to an empty vacuum. The irony of tomorrow nights debut of an ABC programme about the first de-facto couple in the Lodge is vicious. It should never have been commissioned. Labor's problem, however, runs far deeper than whatever the portrayal of the “real" Julia is like on television. Whether the party has the ability to find an answer remains an open question.