November 2010


No exit

By Mark Latham
Campaign poster for the NSW Labor Party, circa 1928. Courtesy of the National Library of Australia
Campaign poster for the NSW Labor Party, circa 1928. Courtesy of the National Library of Australia

As history closes in on the Rudd era, political post-mortems have turned to questions of personality: Rudd as a flawed leader, Rudd as a tyrant, Rudd as a process-freak and, during the 2010 election campaign, Rudd as a saboteur leaker. Of greater importance, especially for the future of the Labor Party, is to understand the collapse of the Rudd project as a form of governance. How did a popular prime minister with extensive experience in public sector administration and a competent ministerial team fall apart so quickly? What was it about his uniquely technocratic approach to government that concertinaed his term in office to less than three years?

The lingering mood in the federal Labor caucus must be one of puzzlement. In terms of political brevity, direct comparisons with the Rudd government are those of James Scullin (1929–31) and Gough Whitlam (1972–75). But these experiences offer little instruction for understanding recent events. The Scullin government dissolved under the weight of the Great Depression and scarifying internal divisions – the antithesis of Rudd’s administration, which, against the grain of a Global Financial Crisis, presided over a growing economy and, until its very last days, was remarkably cohesive and free of party conflict.

So too, the Whitlam period offers few lessons. It was characterised by an ambitious reform program and corresponding level of ministerial incompetence. For every scandal of public office (and there were many), the Whitlam government created a new social democratic program of lasting significance, among them universal health insurance, equitable schools funding and the irreversible expansion of welfare payments. History now views this period as reflecting the folly of doing ‘too much, too soon’ but, after 23 years in opposition following the defeat of the Chifley government in 1949, Labor had an abiding passion for social change and a reservoir of reforms to enact.

Comparisons with the Rudd era are unhelpful. Other than for the resignation of its clumsy defence minister, Joel Fitzgibbon, Labor’s first term in office was scandal-free. It generated a matching reputation, however, for being achievement-free. Many in the political class had expected an exciting departure from the agenda of the Howard government. Gradually, the thud of fallen expectations could be heard around the country. This was not a replay of the reformism of the Whitlam and Keating years, an audacious experiment in conviction-based politics, but the clearest example of a do-nothing government in Australia since Malcolm Fraser was prime minister.

This is the core difficulty confronting the ALP’s parliamentarians, re-assembling under the banner of a Gillard minority government: for all the activity, for all the heightened rhetoric, for the seemingly endless creation of summits, committees and policy review processes, the lasting impression from the Rudd years is one of emptiness. Its defining initiatives were symbolic: the apology to the Stolen Generations and the ratification of the Kyoto Protocol. Most of its big promises, such as action on climate change and a revolution in education policy, were unfulfilled.

The problem is one of identity. That is, answering the two basic questions a political party must confront in defining its purpose: Which parts of society does it seek to represent? What are its burning passions and ideas for those constituencies? I believe Labor is no closer to resolving its identity crisis than it was in 1996 when the Keating government was defeated and the party entered a lengthy period in opposition.

In many respects, the 2007 election was a false dawn. The Howard government gifted the ALP the perfect issue: deregulation of the industrial relations system. It was perfect for the way in which it not only frightened the so-called Howard battlers (upwardly mobile working families in the outer suburbs) but for its role in uniting the Labor movement. The party was able to set aside its contentious debates on economic liberalism, aspirational politics and environmental protection and, instead, focus on a winning issue. Conveniently, it defined itself by what it opposed: it was not the party of WorkChoices. The bigger questions of what it actually supported and how it saw its purpose in society were left unresolved.

Labor’s years in opposition had been characterised by a declining electoral base and the difficulties of wedge politics. With changes in the nature of work and the dissolution of class boundaries, trade unionism has become a minority position in the workforce. A growing number of people see themselves as free agents. Notions of conflict between capital and labour have a limited shelf life for the ALP. Once the Rudd government abolished WorkChoices, industrial relations faded as an issue. Indeed, one of the remarkable aspects of the recent election campaign was how little traction Labor achieved in trying to resurrect the spectre of workplace deregulation. It only works if the Liberal Party re-gifts it, an unlikely prospect given the lessons of 2007.

The shrinkage in Labor’s blue-collar base has left it juggling the demands of two irreconcilable constituencies. One comes from the outer suburbs, with a hard-nosed, materialistic attitude to politics. The other is entrenched in the inner city, taking an abstract, classically liberal approach to issues. This duality has left Labor vulnerable to wedge politics, controversies that set one constituency against the other. In its last months, the Rudd government experienced this problem with respect to asylum seeker and climate change policy. Its polling in outer suburban seats showed that it had been too ‘soft’ on border protection, while its backdown on the emission trading scheme (ETS) legislation lifted the Green vote in gentrified electorates such as Melbourne, Sydney and Grayndler.

Rudd paid a morbid price for the failure of Labor policy-making while in opposition. Post-Keating, attempts had been made to redefine the party’s purpose and find new reformist causes but, ultimately, these were unsuccessful. As Opposition leader, Kim Beazley adopted a ‘small target’ strategy, believing he could surf into office on the unpopularity of the Howard government’s GST. No greater progress was made during the 2001–04 parliamentary term, first under Simon Crean’s leadership and then under mine.

By the time Rudd took over in late 2006, the problem had become institutionalised. Labor stopped debating its identity conundrum and instead become starstruck by the strength of its new leader’s electoral honeymoon and the likelihood of WorkChoices propelling it into office. It had found a new wave to surf. The bigger challenges facing the party were left on the sand, an underlying weakness that re-emerged earlier this year, once Rudd’s personal popularity in the polls faded.

Without a guiding philosophy of politics, Rudd’s prime ministership was an exercise in populism. He avoided tough decisions and mastered the art of media manipulation as a way of extending his honeymoon. He defined himself by what he opposed, not by what he believed in. First he was against WorkChoices; then, in his notorious essay in the Monthly in February 2009, he widened the net of Labor oppositionism to include all aspects of neo-liberalism – a stance inconsistent with the economic reform program of the Hawke–Keating government. In mid 2010, scrambling to revive his position in the polls, he took aim at the foreign owned mining companies for no other reason than they were foreign owned, a throwback to the worst excesses of economic nationalism.

In politics, a vacuum is always filled. Rudd’s inability to give Labor a clear sense of purpose delegitimised his leadership and left him open to attack from the factional system. In the days following Gillard’s coup, one of the machine men said of Rudd, “He only had one faction inside the party and that was Newspoll. As soon as his numbers fell apart we got rid of him.” That is, he lost the leadership the same way he had gained it – as a function of opinion polling. Public policy and ideology were irrelevant. The lasting impression of Rudd in the electorate was as a dithering reviewer, the leader of a government that had – to use Gillard’s words – “lost its way”.

The bigger truth is that Labor has lost its way. History only gives the party credit when it champions big political causes. Does anyone, for instance, remember the Curtin and Chifley governments for clever electoral strategies and media manipulation? Such a notion is absurd, denying the struggle for postwar reconstruction and bank nationalisation. The same can be said of the Whitlam and Hawke–Keating governments, the former with regard to social policy achievements and the latter with its liberalisation of the Australian economy.

Ultimately, parties to the left of centre only achieve political legitimacy through nation-changing reform programs. This is their raison d’être, the only logical way by which the electorate can relate to them. This approach does not always garner majority support, of course – often it induces lengthy periods in opposition – but at least, through the championing of causes, it gives voters a chance to acknowledge that the party itself has a purpose. That it might be something more than an opportunistic grab for power.

No one in Australian politics ever talks of ‘the Liberal movement’, recognising that it has little to move towards. It is, especially under the Howard/Abbott leadership genre, a truly conservative party chartered with preserving the power relations and institutions of society. Traditionally, when people have spoken of ‘the Labor movement’ they have done so in the context of big-bang reforms and passions. Some of them were simply rhetorical, such as “the light on the hill”, but others formed the substance of a genuine political movement: the early struggles of labour against capital, the creation of the postwar welfare state and the universal expansion of community services under Whitlam.

This highlights the chief failing of Rudd’s technocratic approach to governance. By placing undue emphasis on the processes of policy-making, by pursuing incremental change to the machinery of government as his preferred method of reform, he incrementally built an impression of himself as belief-free. In Rudd-land, as the first Labor prime minister with a career background as a senior bureaucrat, the techniques of public policy were more important than the passions of public life. Electorally, this was his soft underbelly.

Throughout 2009, even though he appeared unassailable in the opinion polls, doubts were building in the electorate’s mind. This was why Rudd’s failure to fight a double dissolution election on climate change in the new year and the subsequent shelving of the ETS were so devastating. These decisions confirmed the Opposition’s attack-line that he was “all talk, no action” and, even worse, convinced Labor’s true believers that their leader was vacuous.

As a technique for reform, the technocratic template is inadequate. The lengthy process of reviews and policy re-evaluation simply allows the opponents of reform to mobilise their resources. For instance, while Rudd was reviewing and, ultimately, postponing action on climate change, Tony Abbott was scare-campaigning across the country. So too, Rudd’s delay in legislating for the new mining tax (the product of yet another policy review) gave the industry time in which to run an expensive advertising campaign against him. The fastest strategy for implementing a contentious idea is usually the best strategy.

There is another difficulty in delegating policy-making to committees and summits. It sidelines the role of politicians in arguing their case and directly persuading the electorate. The review process assumes a high level of bureaucratic expertise, de facto acknowledgement that the intellectual energy for public policy is best found outside the parliament. This marginalisation of elected representatives sterilises the public debate, delivering policy without passion. Voters are left asking: if these proposals are so important, why didn’t the politicians themselves come up with them instead of rubber-stamping the recommendations of a committee?

This shortcoming was evident in the Rudd government’s approach to health policy. It heralded its reforms as the biggest change to the Australian health system since the introduction of Medicare, yet the level of public interest was minimal. People who complain about healthcare (magnified many times over by hysteria in the tabloid media) usually cite bureaucratic delays and inadequate treatment in hospital emergency wards. It is not difficult to understand, therefore, why the public was uninspired by the government’s decision, acting on recommendations by the National Health and Hospitals Reform Commission, to create new layers of bureaucracy in the rearrangement of hospital funding. The process of government was given greater priority than the practicalities of patient care.

Perhaps the worst failure of the technocratic model was Rudd’s approach to alleviating poverty. In May 2008 the government established the Australian Social Inclusion Board, appointing representatives from social policy interest groups, plus the TV presenter and football club president Eddie McGuire. Typical of agencies of this kind, its work has centred on the formulation of discussion papers and performance measures. Its impact on the poor has been negligible. Indeed, very few disadvantaged citizens in Australia would know it existed.

Yet this could have been a policy area that animated the Labor faithful, implementing bold new solutions to social exclusion. At least under Rudd, the board had cabinet status, answering to Gillard as the minister for social inclusion. In the minority government, however, it has been downgraded to the outer ministry, one of the responsibilities of the ineffective Tanya Plibersek. Such a mournful reflection of modern Labor’s priorities: Gillard spent three years supposedly working on social inclusion, only to sideline it as an issue under the so-called new paradigm of politics. Perhaps privately her conclusion is the same as mine – technocracy does not work.

So what can work? The generic dilemma of the Left. With the end of communism and the rise of economic liberalism, Labor movements internationally have struggled with their identity. Their founding purpose for economic justice has passed. The merits of an open market economy are beyond question, reducing policies for central planning and income redistribution to joke status. After 20 years grappling with this challenge, the Centre Left is no closer to its resolution.

Having studied the literature and, at one time, been part of these debates, I can identify just three credible ideas that have been advanced for the renewal of the social democratic project. Each seeks to move beyond economic issues, beyond the material realm of politics, to stake out new ground. The first tries to reclaim social capital, the rebuilding of mutualism and community, as a Labor icon. The second positions Labor as an anti-establishment party, breaking down the entrenched centres of power in society. The third champions a crusade on climate change, an uncompromising attempt to roll back the materialism of western society in favour of environmental values. Let’s analyse these ideas in turn.

With the release of Tony Blair’s autobiography, attention has again focused on the former British leader. Regrettably, most reviewers have engaged in amateur psychoanalysis, a futile task for those who do not know the man in person. Television, with its selectively superficial images, is a poor guide to depth of character. As with Rudd, the policy consequences of Blair’s career have been overlooked. Yet in his time, the promise of a Third Way was highly significant for Labor politics.

While ambiguity surrounded much of the Third Way polemic – a puff of smoke that one could touch but never grasp – it nonetheless revived an important concept: that the good society depends not just on the fair distribution of material goods but on the mutual trust and support of its citizens. Blair called it ‘social-ism’. The new British prime minister, David Cameron, ostensibly from the other side of politics, has repackaged this as the ‘big society’ – the rebirth of voluntarism and community spirit as an answer to entrenched social problems.

As with most aspects of his government, Blair had all the rhetorical skills of social capital but none of the know-how of implementation. I remember at the height of these debates (circa 1999) meeting with his mentor, the Australian clergyman Peter Thomson, at the Bromley by Bow Centre, a community development project in east London. When I asked Thomson about his prime ministerial protégé, he said he was disappointed that Blair, burdened by the heavy duties of international diplomacy and economic decision-making, could not devote enough time to community development.

This was a telltale remark, highlighting the discontinuity between political leadership and social capital. Modern politics is fought in an exceptionally brief time frame, while community building is a long-term endeavour. It is impossible to convert the machinery of the state, with its large-scale programs and top-down implementation, to suit the practicalities of social-ism: the diffuse and small-scale development of networks of trusting relationships in society. Square pegs do not fit into round holes. Blair’s Third Way floundered from its failure to turn a well-intentioned theory into political practice.

In 2002 I urged Labor to become an anti-establishment party, aimed at the dispersal of power and influence in society. This idea had the advantage of co-opting ideology from both sides of the traditional political divide, the development of a ‘new radical centre’. The proposal was to draw on the libertarianism of the Right and the anti-authority traditions of the Left to attack elitism and inequity.

Many people forget that, historically, the Left and Right have shared common ground in their attitudes to political freedom. Strains of the Left, such as anarchism, for instance, use liberty as a way of empowering the individual to rebel against the authority of the state and other capitalist institutions. Anarchists, therefore, often give the appearance of being libertarian. To give a recent example: the outgoing finance minister, Lindsay Tanner, started his time in politics as an anarchist but subsequently, during his term in parliament, developed a reputation as a Labor libertarian.

Ultimately, this radical centre is too radical for modern Labor. Its union and factional leaders have become part of the establishment, actively socialising with Australia’s media and business elites. One has even gone so far as to marry into the family of a Tory millionaire and then of the governor general – evidence of how the grand old workers movement has changed.

Politically, an anti-establishment stance means taking on the corporate sector, elite private schools and big media houses, challenging their status and cosy relationships with government. I tried it during the 2004 election campaign with disappointing results. This is not something the ALP is likely to revisit. Gillard’s policy is to work closely with big corporations, elite schools and media executives. 

In 2007, when Rudd described climate change as “the greatest moral, economic and environmental challenge of our generation”, it offered hope for Labor reframing its identity. The party’s capitulation on this issue earlier this year is one of the saddest turning points in its history. The institutional barriers to environmental reform are insurmountable. The fight against climate change upsets too many entrenched interests in the economy and the electorate to be palatable to modern Labor.

In opening up the Australian economy in the 1980s, the Hawke–Keating government created tensions inside the ALP between producer and consumer interests. As a union-based party, there was resistance to reform (such as lowering tariffs and removing production controls) because industries and workers faced increased competitive pressure and job insecurity. The benefits for consumers from lower prices and greater product choice were spread across the economy, meaning that the voice of those who benefited within the political system was relatively diluted.

These tensions, however, were minor compared to the degree of difficulty the ALP faces on climate change. Bold policies, such as a carbon tax or compensation-free ETS, disadvantage both producers and consumers. Consequently, affiliated unions representing workers in the mining industry, such as the Australian Workers Union (AWU), have pressured the government into soft-pedalling on this issue. The AWU’s senior representative in the Labor caucus, the Treasurer Wayne Swan, has run this line: first by diluting the effectiveness of the proposed ETS with huge amounts of compensation for consumers and producers of carbon, and then by shelving the legislation itself.

The new minister for climate change and energy efficiency, Greg Combet, is sympathetic to the coal industry, representing a Hunter Valley electorate and having worked as a coalmining engineer and senior union official. No one should underestimate the ALP’s institutional baggage on climate change. It is sometimes said that Labor can never break free from factional control of the party unless it breaks free from the union movement (which supplies voting blocs in support of the factions at party conferences). This is also true of environmental policy. In defending producer interests, the unions are a roadblock to reform in the mining and forestry industries.

As the factions have increased their hold on the party, Labor has become more dependent on opinion polling and focus groups. The correlation is straightforward: the factions need the power of office to dole out patronage and favours to their underlings; the simplest way of winning government is to tell the electorate what it wants to hear. Labor does not have the will to fight on climate change because the electorate does not want to pay more for its consumption of carbon.

A reliable guide to the public’s attitude on climate change is to look at what people have done in their homes. The statistics for green electricity accounts, domestic energy conversions, green car purchases and food self-sufficiency show that no more than 10% of Australians have tried to reduce their carbon footprint – an underwhelming outcome. The great McMansion dream is for 4WDs in the (double) garage, ducted air-conditioning in multistorey dwellings and ostentatious entertainment and home appliances. Environmental sustainability is an inner-city thing, a world away from the aspirational outer suburbs.

In many respects, Labor is hoist with its own petard. Keating’s economic agenda propelled the nation into a long boom, delivering huge material gains for most families. The Australian way of life is now framed around consumerism. Its centre of social capital is the local shopping mall. When Gillard, Swan and Mark Arbib sit down to analyse the findings of Labor’s focus groups, this is what they find.

It reflects the burning conundrum of the climate change debate: affluent nations do not want to weaken their carbon-based affluence, while poor nations aspire to their fair share of industrialisation. Copenhagen is the inevitable result. Eventually, nature will win this battle, forcing the death of capitalism and its attendant values of materialism and consumerism. I never thought I would write this, but logically I must: the future lies with the green movement, not the Labor movement.

An intriguing aspect of Gillard’s character is her failure to participate in the debate on Labor’s identity. Intelligent, feisty and at times irreverent, she is the type of person you would normally expect to have made a contribution. Yet she has not written books, essays or even newspaper articles on this subject. It is a striking gap in her political CV.

The problem is one of culture. Gillard has adopted politics not just as a career but as a social life. She has immersed herself in the minutiae of factional networking and personal relationships. She is, in the worst sense of the term, a political animal. This has left her poorly equipped, as a freshly minted leader, for renewing Labor’s purpose. Her public profile is closely associated with the execution of Rudd and the novelty of Australia’s first female prime minister. Public policy has been a low priority.

This was evident during the election campaign, when Gillard, incongruously enough, adopted a consensus model of political leadership, publicly embracing Bob Hawke as her mentor. In her formative years in parliament she was dismissive of Hawke as a “silly old thing”, someone who destabilised Crean’s leadership in support of Beazley. Gillard’s colleagues, myself included, agreed with her assessment.

Anyone who knows firsthand the vainglorious and mean side of Hawke’s personality knows the absurdity of his claim to having possessed special healing powers in politics. As the recent release of his biography has confirmed, the so-called great conciliator could not achieve consensus around the family dinner table, let alone the nation. In the Hawke government itself, the notion of consensus had a short shelf life. It carried Labor through the 1983 election but not much further. By the time of the 1985 tax summit, its usefulness had expired. It was, in effect, a mirage.

Whether we like it or not, party politics is inherently adversarial. Something as broad as a national consensus on transformative issues such as climate change is impractical. Or, as Hawke’s speechwriter, the revered Labor historian Graham Freudenberg, has argued:

It is always attractive for a political leader to dream of creating a lasting consensus within the party or the nation. It is an impossible dream because it denies the inevitability of conflict of interests and ideas. For a Labor leader it is doubly impossible because a consensus, something on which it may be supposed that 70% are agreed, must be essentially conservative.

Gillard’s embrace of consensus is best understood as a rhetorical tool for sliding past the difficult issues of an election campaign. In practice, it has deepened the ALP’s identity crisis. Consider, for instance, the damage to Labor’s credibility on climate change from her citizens’ assembly proposal. A hung House of Representatives is likely to make things worse, as the government’s leading initiatives will be the product of horsetrading and compromise, rather than conviction. Given the weight of history and the weakened state of the party, the problem of identity appears to be insoluble.

Mark Latham
Mark Latham is an author and former leader of the ALP. His books include The Latham Diaries, Civilising Global Capital and From the Suburbs.

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