Labor Gets Serious


Labor leadership troubles are nothing new. The Labor Party was formed in 1891 and 35 Labor MPs were elected to the NSW Legislative Assembly in that year, becoming the first representatives of labour to be elected to Parliament in large numbers, anywhere in the world.

The new Caucus members came up with a novel solution to the question of who was to lead them. They simply postponed the decision, content to wait until, ‘the right man showed himself’ which he did, after two years. More about him shortly.


It could be said that Labor has done something similar in the two years since the last Federal election waited for leadership to show itself, either in Kim Beazley or in a suitable alternative.

The Party has now made the bold decision to replace its leadership team, principally because of the widespread perception that Beazley was not up to the job. Beazley’s critics pointed to the fact that the Howard Government has been cruising rather than faltering under a slew of problems of its own making: WorkChoices, Iraq, AWB, the refusal to properly fund education, the State/Federal Health mess, repressive anti-terror laws, lack of action on climate change, pitiful labour productivity growth, Federal encroachment on the powers of the States, crumbling infrastructure, inequitable welfare-to-work changes, foreign indentured labour. The list goes on and on.

After 10 years of the Coalition, the critics said Labor should have been a mile in front. Yet, it was perceived that Howard had Beazley’s measure. Beazley countered by saying that in a period of economic prosperity it was naïve to expect a government to be unpopular. If Labor was just ahead in the polls, this was to be expected and was good enough.

Whatever the reality, it was the perception that counted. The consensus was that Beazley was likely to lose next year’s Federal election.

My ALP Branch meets on the third Wednesday of each month. On that night last month, Beazley was interviewed by Kerry O’Brien on ABC TV’s 7:30 Report before we met, and some of our members saw the interview.

Beazley tried to deal with his then recent ‘Rove’ slip-up and later told O’Brien that he would not change his Shadow Ministry to introduce new blood, even though two members would be retiring at the next election. He was also asked about interest rates and instead of referring to the vast decrease in housing affordability under Howard, Beazley flubbed his lines. It seemed he didn’t answer a single question without an expression of incredulity crossing Kerry O’Brien’s face. At our Branch meeting later that night, the general view was that the Leader needed replacement as soon as possible. I don’t think we were alone in that view.

Of course, the perception that change was necessary did not arise out of just one interview. It built up over a long period of time. Beazley’s long-recognised inability to communicate succinctly was one factor. Another was his failure to reduce complex policy initiatives to simple terms but still sound intelligent. When the Bomber tried to keep it short it sounded like sloganeering. ‘Extreme Industrial Relations Laws,’ ‘reckless negligence,’ ‘skills,’ ‘tough on terror,’ ‘Kyoto,’ are all fine as far as slogans go, but Beazley’s undoubted intelligence remained well hidden.

You also need to convince the messengers: the media and the political class. To do that you need policy detail expressed fluently, persuasively and with passion. Journalists and Party rank-and-file are no different to anyone else, they also need to believe. Passion, sometimes even anger, is necessary in a good politician.

Kim, they were bored by you. Your decency and commitment were not enough. Your Deputy Jenny Macklin compounded the problem. For some reason she thought she had no public leadership role at all. Julia Gillard will not make that mistake.

Thanks to Fiona Katauskas

Kevin Rudd has the potential to lead and the Caucus knew it. On his pet issue, AWB, he did communicate. We all know that the Government got dozens of warnings of what AWB was up to, and did nothing. Rudd’s message cut through. It’s not his fault that Commissioner Terry Cole let the Government off the hook. Cole is the Howard Government’s favourite Royal Commissioner. He was there to do a job and did it so well, the seams do not show. Expect him to get an up-graded Order of Australia gong in due course not this Australia Day, though. Too soon, too obvious.

Rudd is not only a good communicator. He’s a moderate and he’s a Queenslander and of the 15 seats Labor needs to win to gain government, 10 are in the smaller States and Territories. He has administrative experience as the former head of the Queensland Cabinet Office and he has a brain, as he showed in his speech last month to the Centre for Independent Studies on the philosophy of Friedrich Hayek.

The negatives? People say he is prissy and too much the intellectual. When I met him last year, I was surprised to find him stocky rather than small with no pixie-like qualities to speak of. If he has a temper, he shares that with Whitlam, Hawke and Keating but he would likely keep it under control better than at least two of them.

His side-kick Gillard brings other things to the table. She is a lawyer and the Opposition sorely needs a lawyer’s analysis at the leadership level. This may help prevent a repetition of the Opposition’s weak and dispiriting capitulation to a fair chunk of the repressive anti-terror laws introduced in the last few years. You would not believe the number of ALP Branch members who complain that the Parliamentary Party has been prepared to ditch fundamental principles of personal liberty.

Julia also has a good mind her intelligence was on show in an impressive speech in the House last Thursday in support of the private member’s Bill on Therapeutic Cloning. The issue is complex but her analysis was lucid and compelling. Her soft-Left political position will also provide balance to the social conservatism of the new Leader.

Howard is now in real trouble, make no mistake. This leadership team will not make Latham’s errors and should have the strength to fight tooth and nail when a fight is necessary rather than caving in to the Coalition’s atavistic instincts at every turn. In addition, the recent electoral redistributions in Queensland and NSW have made it significantly easier for Labor the necessary seats can now be won with a uniform swing of 3.3 per cent.

It was no accident that Rudd’s first statement on policy as Leader was to advocate ‘fixing the federation,’ meaning the crazy distribution of powers between the Commonwealth and the States. This will resonate precisely where he needs those extra seats in the smaller States.

On another policy issue, Rudd was assisted last Sunday by former Reserve Bank Governor Ian MacFarlane in his fourth Boyer lecture. MacFarlane defended the interest rate policy of the Hawke Government in 1989  and said that the Reserve Bank and Treasury agreed with the policy at the time. He did not concede that it was incorrect even now. You will hear a lot more about those views during the election campaign if Howard attempts to run that issue again.

So who was Labor’s first NSW leader, the ‘right man’ who ‘showed himself’ in 1893? It was Joseph Cook, who l
asted only 9 months before defecting from Labor. In 1913 he became a Liberal Prime Minister proving he’d been the wrong man all together.

But after that false start, his successor was definitely the ‘right man.’ It was that early lion of Labor, James Sinclair Taylor McGowen, who led the Party in NSW for the next 19 years and became the first Labor Premier of NSW. His political opponent George Reid described him as ‘one of the straightest and most courteous men I have ever met.’ Without Jim McGowen, the NSW Branch, the engine “room of Labor, may have foundered.

Kevin Rudd will now walk in his shadow.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.