What with the party’s primary vote down to 27 per cent, New South Wales and Victoria losing the recent state elections, South Australia and Queensland about to lose their next state elections, anyone who doesn’t think the ALP is in diabolical trouble is in denial. Yet, denial is exactly how the party’s factional leaders responded to the recent call by Senator John Faulkner for party reform.
So, how did the ALP come to be in such a state? In my opinion there are two main reasons: firstly, the Government’s inability to get its message across to the electorate and secondly, the party structure. Because of the Gillard Government’s lack of skills in selling its policies, there is a perception in the electorate that it is incompetent. As the party’s membership is at an all-time low, reform of the party’s structure is long overdue.
These communication problems go back to the Rudd government. Indeed, they were the main reason for changing leaders, but the situation has not improved since the leadership change. During the 2010 election campaign the party had a good story to sell with regard to the success of its global financial crisis policy which proved that they are good economic managers. Australia was the only developed country to avoid the recession and the economy is still growing, unemployment is below 5 per cent and interest rates are low. Australia is the envy of countries like USA, yet the government was not able to sell the story to the electorate.
During the week when government brought down the 2011/12 Budget, it also announced the Malaysia policy on asylum seekers. Instead of selling the budget, which received favourable responses from most commentators and economists, it had to go and defend the Malaysia policy.
Another factor contributing to the public’s perception of incompetence is the government’s habit of announcing incomplete policies in dribs and drabs. Want examples? Try the half-announcement that East Timor would be used as an offshore processing centre for refugees, the mining tax, and of course the carbon tax.
I am at a loss to know the reasons why the Government is not able to sell its message. It could be the quality of advice it is receiving — Kevin Rudd surrounded himself with very young people who he could control and received advice that he wanted to hear. There is a shortage of good advisors, I believe, and no advisors of the calibre of Bob Hogg and Peter Barron who both worked for Bob Hawke. Rudd admitted recently in an interview that perhaps he should have had a few greybeards as advisors. Using good communicators and media performers like Greg Combet and Bill Shorten more often would help.
When I joined an inner city branch of the ALP in Melbourne in 1982, our branch meetings were standing room only. These days they would be lucky to get more than a dozen members, half of whom would be the branch executive. Back in 1982 we not only had members of parliament at our branch meetings but we had guest speakers such as academics, people from community groups and journalists (yes journalists). And we had robust policy debates. Today, it’s just a case of getting through governance procedures.
The late John Button wrote in his 2002 Quarterly Essay, "Beyond belief: what hope for Labor" that the ALP, a political party of the left, devoted to social justice has a powerful obligation to its members: "An obligation to make members feel that they belong to a community of individuals sharing common political and philosophical values. It should give them a genuine say in its deliberations". Button claimed then that ALP was no longer such a party. Nothing has changed since 2002.
Paul Keating said after NSW lost the state election that the "party machinations had torn the party from inside out". We have seen the NSW Right machine men in action in the federal arena. Mark Abib, a former NSW State Secretary was one of the "faceless men" responsible for the leadership coup which saw Gillard replace Rudd as leader. Karl Bitar another former NSW state secretary was the 2010 federal election campaign director — and we all know that the election campaign was a disaster.
I believe that the reform of the party should start with full implementation of all the recommendations from the Faulkner, Carr, Bracks report. In addition, there should be Federal Executive intervention in NSW. The NSW Branch should be sacked and a committee appointed to run the branch and implement a democratic structure. This is what happened to the Victorian Branch in 1970; the result saw the election of Gough Whitlam in 1972.
Unless the Government can learn to sell its policies, especially its carbon tax, engage with the electorate and reform the party structure, the ALP will as John Button put it, remain an unelectable rump. And after the next election, it will be a dead party.
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