Can Labor Win? YES THEY CAN!


"Tick, tick, tick …" read one Murdoch tabloid headline over the weekend.

Seemingly written off by nearly everyone in the country, this Labor government appears fatally wounded. Surely it can’t survive. That is certainly the opinion of most of the nation’s media, who seem to have decided that Gillard is a goner.

There’s no doubt that last week was one of the worst in the Gillard Government’s short history. The High Court’s decision to strike down the Malaysian refugee deal — and perhaps offshore processing altogether — was a disaster for a government that had invested much of its precious political capital in the swap. And this government was desperately short of political capital in the first place. For many conservative voters, this has never been a legitimate government, an attitude Tony Abbott has worked hard to encourage.

Labor’s primary vote is now a risible 27 per cent, according to this morning’s Newspoll. Less than a quarter of those surveyed approve of Julia Gillard’s performance as Australia’s PM. Nor are these isolated figures. They are part of a long term trend toward electoral oblivion.

To understand why, we have to reach back in time to before Gillard was even the leader.

It’s my opinion that the rot set in for Labor in 2009. After cruising through 2008 while the Coalition licked its wounds under Brendan Nelson and Malcolm Turnbull, Labor under Kevin Rudd raised public expectations in a number of areas. Big symbolic events were prominent, like the signing of the Kyoto protocol, the apology to Indigenous Australians and the 2020 Summit.

Then, in late 2008, the global financial crisis struck. In a policy sense, it was Labor’s finest hour. The government’s willingness to go in hard and early with a very big stimulus saved Australia from recession. Hundreds of thousands of jobs were saved. But the government never got the credit for this. Instead, perhaps because two decades of economic reforms had entrenched the ideology of neoliberalism in the hearts and minds of voters, and certainly aided and abetted by a partisan media, many in the community simply refused to believe that all those stimulus payments and school halls were actually beneficial. It didn’t help that government seemed ashamed of its own success.

The hostility of The Australian newspaper and even some parts of Fairfax and the ABC to the Building the Education Revolution program was particularly damaging. It helped the Opposition paint Labor as wasteful and incompetent. The government has been unable to escape perceptions of incompetence ever since. Labor lost the argument on the stimulus, and once it lost this argument, it’s most potent achievement in office was suddenly a liability.

Labor also lost the argument about climate change policy, though here the fault was much more with the government itself. Labor squandered crucial time in the sunny months of 2008 when the issue was still at the forefront of voters’ minds. Yes, the CPRS was blocked repeatedly in the Senate. But Labor also failed to screw its courage to the sticking point and call a double-dissolution election, which it had every chance of winning.

By the time Kevin Rudd decided to walk back from his commitment to pricing carbon, the tide of public opinion on climate change was being swayed by a vigorous misinformation campaign by sceptics and industry. Rudd’s totally unnecessary decision to delay climate action compounded matters. It planted deep doubts about Labor’s courage and consistency. After all, the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme had been the main effort of Labor’s first term legislative agenda.

And then, instead of fighting on with the issue of climate change, the government decided to change tack and introduce a mining tax. The decision to take on the power of the mining lobby with the Resource Super Profit Tax was not taken lightly. But Labor made a grave miscalculation by introducing the tax proposal with so little prior discussion. Industry mobilised. The vast power of vested interests cranked into gear, mounting a savage campaign against the government. The results were disastrous.

And then Kevin Rudd was removed.

Quite what the factional bosses were thinking remains a fascinating point, even today. It will be many years before Mark Arbib or Don Farrell or David Feeney give on-the-record interviews about these matters, if ever. But everyone can now see the results of their experiment. As so often with this Labor government, a tactic that seemed politically expedient — even clever — in the short term has turned into folly in the longer term.

The manner of Rudd’s exit remains a key factor in Labor’s current nadir. It is the origin of Julia Gillard’s struggle to establish her legitimacy. A late night palace coup to remove a sitting PM, who was not even given a chance to face the voters for re-election, is not a tactic well suited to convincing voters of your government’s competence. Quite the opposite. If the Australian Labor Party had set out to reinforce all the worst stereotypes of faceless men, factional warlords and impenetrable internecine hatreds, it could scarcely have done a better job.

Here was a man who only three years ago had won an election against a political giant of the modern era, in a highly presidential campaign. As I wrote at the time, the coup was a stunning blow against trust in our political system. The disconnect between the Australian political classes and ordinary voters was never so evident as on the morning after, when many Australians awoke to find their elected leader had been swapped overnight.

Even as Gillard’s record in office has sunk under the weight of this ballast, other leaks have been sprung. There have been plenty of unforced errors, which Tony Abbott and the hostile parts of the media have capitalised on. Entrenched sexism has also played a significant role. The disdain that drips from every sentence of an Alan Jones or a Clive Palmer is not merely the fractious contumely of the political fray. Much of the rhetoric about Gillard borders on sexual vilification. It’s taken on a character that future generations will look back upon and feel bemused about, if not ashamed.

As a result, things are now about as bad as they can get for a Labor government. With Julia Gillard’s approval ratings now in Keating-esque territory — and that’s not a compliment — matters are not merely bleak. They’re apocalyptic.

There’s no way Labor can win the next election, right? There’s no way Julia Gillard can survive? Wrong. Gillard can survive. Labor can win the next election. Here’s why.

First, why Gillard won’t be removed. Here, there’s the minor matter of the Parliament itself. Tony Windsor, Rob Oakeshott and Andrew Wilkie did a deal with Julia Gillard personally, not with the right-wing of the ALP. A change of leaders now opens up the possibility that they could simply switch allegiance and vote for Tony Abbott, as much as Windsor clearly loathes him. The government would then change without an election. The risk of that is enough to give even the most perfidious plotter pause.

Secondly, let’s examine the factional numbers. Gillard is there because she became the candidate of Labor’s Right factions. They have always controlled the party room numbers, and they still do. If the Right decides to swap leaders, which many think they want to, they will have to find another candidate from the Right. But no one is putting up their hand. Bill Shorten might be ambitious, but he’s not stupid. He must realise his best chance of being prime minister one day is to let Gillard fail. Other names being mentioned, like Simon Crean or Kevin Rudd himself, are simply wishful thinking. If the NSW experience has shown anything, it is that no captain can save a ship with a serious leak.

Thirdly, leadership change can’t solve Labor’s biggest problem, which is its past three years in office. Changing leaders again will only remind voters about what happened to Kevin Rudd. It risks destroying what little credibility the government still retains. Of course, no one can predict the folly of the Australian Labor Party. But even the ALP seems incapable of this level of self-destruction … just yet.

Given this, there are good reasons to believe that Gillard can survive as Prime Minister to the next election, albeit one of much diminished stature and credibility. But can she win it? It certainly seems unlikely right now.

But it still more than two years away. Two years in politics is an eon. Between now and then, with the help of the Greens in the Senate, Gillard and Labor can pass a large program of significant legislation, including the carbon tax and the mining tax. And whatever else you might think about her, Julia Gillard has a superb record when it comes to passing legislation. Many big picture policies can also be bedded down. Stephen Conroy can make the NBN a fait accompli. The budget will be returned to surplus (Labor will cut as far and as hard as it needs to make sure this happens). Money from the hospitals reform package will have begun to flow. The National Disability Insurance Scheme will be on the way to fruition.

Notice I haven’t written anything about asylum seekers. But this too is an issue that can rebound to Labor’s advantage. The reason is simple: it can hardly get worse.

Perhaps most importantly, assuming the northern hemisphere can avoid catastrophe, the economy will most likely be growing strongly. If we are to believe the Treasury and Reserve Bank forecasts, 2013 looks like the beginning of a new boom. The current weakness in retail and other sectors will seem like transitory blips. In the meantime, the current flap about cost of living pressures (which for middle and high income earners is illusory anyway) may have abated.

All this sounds like castles in the sky. Perhaps it is. But if someone told you in mid-2008 that in two years time, Kevin Rudd would no longer be prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull would not be the opposition leader, and that Tony Abbott would be on the verge of winning office from Julia Gillard, would you have believed them?

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.