Future historians will recall that from November 2007 to September 2008, Labor held government at both federal and state levels in Australia. They will note that this was a reverse of the 1969-1970 situation, where all governments were run by the Liberal-Country Party.
Late last year, the incoming Labor Federal Government found its opposition in disarray: the Liberals’ long-standing leader had lost his seat, the heir-apparent had declined to run, and the party had turned to a weak, populist leader. The new Government made three bold gestures to signal its departure from the previous government: first, signing the Kyoto Protocol on carbon emissions; second, an apology to the "stolen generations" of indigenous Australians forcibly removed from their families; and finally, a new and closer relationship with the People’s Republic of China.
As that was it, really. From then, it was back to the usual grind of politics, two-steps-forward-one-step-back (or vice versa, depending on the issue and your perspective).
Any hopes that true believers may have had for their party in power across all Australian jurisdictions above the municipal have now been dashed: the WA Government may be tentative but cannot be considered fragile. The Governments of Queensland, Tasmania, the ACT and Victoria suffer the problems of long term incumbency. And it would be a brave Labor partisan who’d bet on their party holding office in NSW for much longer.
The worst fears of "wall-to-wall Labor governments" have not been realised. There was no far-reaching change to the Constitution, far less the nationalisation of the means of production, distribution and exchange in the name of the proletariat! Calls for a republic weren’t sounded until the election of Malcolm Turnbull as Opposition Leader. The only intergovernmental deal of any substance was the Murray-Darling water reallocation agreement. This achieved little and precipitated the decline of hopes for a new environmental consciousness in this country. The rollout of laptops to schools is still a fraught issue, with the added complication that many schools require both extra electrical power and teachers with IT skills. Furthermore, senior public office-bearers have not been replaced with long serving Labor partisans.
Neither were the best hopes for this clean sweep of governments realised. Howard undertook piecemeal interventions into high profile areas like education, health, transport and law enforcement. Where was the comprehensive Labor policy in these areas? Where was the harmonisation on best practice, or at least the exchange of different ideas on what works and what doesn’t? As we brace for an economic downturn, where are the corporate regulations that reach from the top end of town all the way to the fair trading and consumer protection level? Having spent more than a decade in opposition, the ALP front bench in Canberra and the "experienced states" should have had a bottom drawer chock full of ideas about what they’d do if Labor’s ducks all lined up, right?
At a stretch, you could include the defence thinking surrounding Kevin Rudd’s recent speech in Townsville among the achievements of the Rudd Labor government, and chalk it up as a significant point of difference from Howard and the Coalition. (You think you’d talk to veterans about veterans’ affairs policies — but the less said the better on that, perhaps.) Still, you don’t need co-operation from the states to pull off a defence white paper. (Or, for that matter, veterans’ affairs. Let’s have another fruitless inquiry into Melbourne/Voyager!)
There were no significant changes to contentious workplace laws: the WorkChoices laws against which unions campaigned hard has not been untangled and there have been no changes to special IR laws applying to the building industry. This is not to say that no changes will be made, but workplace regulation is core business for Labor and getting those changes through and applied and enforced where people work will be that much harder without coast to coast ALP governments.
Labor had the chance to effect far reaching, deep change to the way this country is governed, and to the lived experience of ordinary Australians. While the Coalition east of Eucla is still experiencing Relevance Deprivation Syndrome, no current Coalition politician held office during their 1969-70 zenith. Can you imagine what Howard would have done with a convergence during his term? The Labor Party had a real chance to show what it could do, and it frittered that chance away.
People in government have often cursed partisan bickering between federal and state/territory governments, and with the advent of at least one Coalition government we can now expect that old dead horse to be dragged out for another flogging. Have no sympathy for Labor: they had control of all federal, state and territory governments at one stage, and they blew it. Labor people will be working toward this situation recurring. If it does, hopefully they will do something more useful and substantial with their next five minutes of political sunshine.
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