Monday, September 26, 2011


Late again, I'm afraid, but the message remains valid.

Labor will not find succour while Gillard is at the helm . . .


It would be churlish in the extreme to deny Swan his brief time occupying the pantheon of fame. Unfortunately, by nominating him “Finance Minister of the Year", the magazine Euromoney has simply drawn more attention to the hollow, echoing void at the very centre of government.

This is a ministry without a gospel; a church without a preacher.

If Wayne Swan wants to understand why such bitter cynicysm has greeted the news, he could do worse than read his own book, “Postcode”. In this he outlined the need to move beyond using material prosperity as the measure of all things. It’s a message Labor’s fogotten in government.

Swan did navigate us through the treacherous shoals and economic whirlpools of the Global Financial Crisis. It all could have been far, far worse. Widespread and intense personal misery would have accompanied significant unemployment. This would have inevitably led to declining prosperity and living standards, and this is the one thing that politicians fear more than anything else. They're terrified that if we can't buy enough flat-screen televisions to put one in every room, voters will vent their anger on the government.

But there should be more to life than just material wealth. That’s the message Labor forgot.

It's difficult to avoid the conclusion that Cabinet in particular became so tightly bound up in its session in side-stepping the economic downturn that it lost sight of our long-term goals. There should be more to being in government than simply increasing our prosperity. Labor forgot this, and that’s why it’s become engulfed in its successive crises.

As Julia Gillard announced so boldly when she took over from Kevin Rudd, the government had “lost its way". The problem is that she’s still looking around for a road-map. If Labor wants to begin heading in the right direction it will need to unearth the older, moral compass that guided the party to victory back in 2007.

In their book “Shitstorm", Lenore Taylor and David Uren painstakingly detail the way the government (thanks in particular to some excellent Treasury advice) was quick to perceive the dangerous rocks on which the US crashed in 2008. This threatened to engulf Australia but, thanks to the surplus built up under years of coalition government, there was enough money in the bank to finance the stimulus package quickly authorised by the government. Thanks to the accidental earlier, almost unconscious way in which our markets had become more diverse, we weren't immediately caught up in the contagion that beset other advanced industrial economies. And finally, thanks to Asia's continuing demand for our mineral resources, we've so far escaped being pulled back down into the recession that's again buffeting the West.

This is why Swan got his gong. It's not just us, it's them; Europe and America. For the past two years, just like our stock market, the world economy has been going nowhere. Fundamental problems remain. Until these are addressed the stink of economic failure will linger. The problem is that we've become hooked on growth. Our habit has now moved to an unsustainable level. Weaning society away from this addiction will take decades.

Swan understandably (and rightly) basked in the good news when his award was announced – after all, he's the person who's been awarded the accolade of "world's best". The Treasurer did distribute praise to others, nevertheless, it would have been nice for him to specifically name his former Secretary, Ken Henry, as well as the former Prime Minister. Both of these people are at least as responsible as he was for crafting and implementing the stimulus package so swiftly. But politics moves both too swiftly and viciously for that. Additionally, today (although probably not tomorrow) Rudd is a “nonperson". The name of the former leader remains expunged from the pages of ALP history.

But the attempts to whitewash over his image have failed. It's indelible. He looms in the background, overshadowing those who replaced him and making them appear like political pygmies in the process. For all his many faults, it's now obvious that Rudd possessed the one breakthrough political skill that Gillard so evidently lacks. Rudd not only had a story about the sort of country Australia should be, he could communicate it to the electorate and inspire them to believe in his vision.

It’s a story Labor desperately needs to tell.

Rudd’s faults, such as they were, were personal. The didactic, autocratic behaviour. The arrogance and hubris accompanying his utter, insufferable confidence that he knew exactly what to do in any given situation, coupled with prolonged periods of frustrating dithering as he attempted to make up his mind before finally acting.

By comparison Gillard seemed to promise so much; particularly to those who weren't prepared to simply do what they were told, people who thought that they had a policy contribution to make to government as well. People like the politicians who make up the ALP caucus.

The right-wing political machine that had installed Rudd plotted behind-the-scenes. The key detail that still remains unrevealed is exactly when Gillard first got the whiff that the keys to the Lodge might be dangling, ready to be picked up. Her personal failing was no greater than pocketing something that was being pressed upon her, when she knew it really belonged to someone else. One of the failings of modern politics is the absence of genuine friendships and respect for others. Self-centredness is the norm, and those pushing for Gillard to become PM cloaked that ambition securely in altruism. She was acting “for the good of the party" which had “lost its way".

But who cares when Gillard's ambition ignited – the question today is how long it will take her to accept that her premiership has now passed its use by date. The party is directionless, wandering aimlessly in the wilderness. No one should be governed by the polls, but Gillard used them as her compass to overthrow Rudd. She must now accept what they are telling her about her own need to stand down. For the good of the party.

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