Monday, September 9, 2013


So, Labor's out.

Just part of the cycle? Or is this actually a significant moment?

How does the left rebuild? Can the 'Left' find enough common ground to rebuild?

Karl's analysis doesn't hold much sway today

In this bit of News Analysis for the Canberra Times I argue the problems besetting Labor are deeper than is immediately apparent . . .

Where to from here for the Left?

This election result is a disaster beyond belief for the Left. Labor's lowest vote in a century. The beginning of a collapse in support for the Greens. And, perhaps most critically, no obvious blunders or easy explanations for the debacle. And this is because, as the party wise-heads understand, Labor's problem is now structural.

But that's not what the strategists are saying publicly, of course. Instead, they're using another narrative to explain this defeat. The hardheads would have you believe it was (entirely) caused by party infighting. That's the public line and, like all good lies, it's based in fact. Everyone knows the rivalry between Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd paralysed the government. But this “explanation" doesn't really hold water – although it's the one that's been settled on for public consumption.

Its big advantage is it allows the real problem to be swept under the carpet until the party has a plausible answer. The fundamental issue besetting the party is what the “left" now stands for.

The great project, first begun by Gough Whitlam and later rebuilt by Bob Hawke, is threatened as never before. In the long, barren decades of defeat after Labor lost office in 1948, Whitlam’s critical insight was the party needed to reach out. It could no longer simply rely on the workers votes. It needed a broader base: cultural workers, environmentalists, and the middle class.

On Saturday, that alliance fell apart. Gillard had defined the fault line by identifying herself with the workers, rather than the progressive elements of the party. That was a desperate attempt to bolster her own internal support. But Kevin Rudd has also proved unable to reach out. Voters decided that he – and Labor – have been unable to present a plausible narrative for Australia's future. In the end the party was reduced to scare tactics; warning voters of disaster under Tony Abbott.

The party strategists understand the root cause of the problem. When Rudd came to power in 2007 his words unified the many different elements of the community. He offered something for everyone; from the environmentalists to the Christians, from the worker to the aspirationals. But words weren't enough. The alliance had already begun to disintegrate long before the government did. Wayne Swan's failure to craft an economic story was simply icing on the cake, guaranteeing a Liberal victory.

This is the other issue that's vital if the party is to rebuild: renewal. Gillard has gone but there are too many faces that remain from this terrible period. While people like Swan, Penny Wong and Stephen Conroy clog up the benches the party will be unable to put this defeat behind it.

There remains one other issue for Labor to face. Kevin. His 21-minute victory speech on Saturday night demonstrates clearly that he remains living in a parallel universe. The significant factor in saving the party from an even more disastrous result was a last-minute decision (in Western Sydney and Queensland) to withdraw any references to Rudd. Campaign literature in those last days was changed to scrub the leader.

When Rudd became Prime Minister the party's strategy changed. Suddenly the accomplishments of the past three years – the disability scheme, education reform, etc – were scrubbed from the narrative. The focus was going to be on the leader’s personality. It was thought that Rudd's popularity would be enough to overcome all the lead in the saddlebags (much of which he'd actually placed there).

By the fourth week of the campaign, however, it had become obvious that the electorate had looked again at Rudd and decided they didn't like him. Focus groups clearly showed the two decisive issues. The announcement the Northern Territory would become a special economic zone, coupled with his sudden brainwave to move the Navy to Brisbane were disasters. The takeout was that Rudd was spinning policy on the run. More critically, it demonstrated voters were no longer willing to vouchsafe him any goodwill. They felt they had seen it all before.

The grand vision; the impressive announcements – none of it was going to work any more.

By the second last week of the campaign it had become obvious that Labor was going to lose: the only question was by how much. Pulling Rudd was critical. He continued travelling and meeting the party faithful – but there would be no more announcements. This was why Anthony Albanese could honestly admit (to the ABCs Hamster Wheel) that the government had no hope of winning the election.

By that time, just four days out from the poll, the party was staring annihilation in the face. Rudd's only contribution was invisibility. Many in the party still believe, however, that he still has one great gift he can still give to Labor. Leave.

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