Monday, August 23, 2010

Voters censure Labor's lack of principles

The one thing we can be sure of is Labor has suffered a huge reverse. While we wait to learn which party will form government, it's instructive to ponder what it did wrong.

By all the rules of federal politics, Labor should have romped home. The rules say first-term governments get an extension to finish proving their worth. They say governments get tossed out after they've allowed the economy to bomb, not after they've seemingly avoided a recession. They also say voters distinguish between federal and state. But one rule has stood up: oppositions don't win elections, governments lose them. This disaster for Labor is its own fault.

Labor has been a remarkably timid government. Saturday's failure could make it even more so, but that would be fatal. Similarly, the conclusion Labor's reversal was caused just by a bad election campaign would be delusional.

No, if Labor wants to learn from its drubbing it needs to draw the obvious lesson: voters punished it for its lack of principles. Those who still voted for it did so with no enthusiasm and many registered their protest by turning to the Greens.

The great paradox of politics is that though voters hate change and hip-pocket pain, they want to be led by people with convictions and the courage of them. First Kevin Rudd and then Julia Gillard were too conscious of the former and oblivious to the latter.

Every politician wants to be re-elected, but good politicians don't want just to preside over the economy and keep it on track, they also want to reform it. They understand the hard part of politics is getting re-elected and making reforms. When the going got tough, Rudd threw overboard the economic reform that, along with rolling back the Work Choices false reform, had been at the centre of his case for election: introduction of an emissions trading scheme.

The end of Rudd's remarkably long honeymoon with the electorate can be dated to his decision to give up on climate change rather than fight for its approval by a joint sitting following a double dissolution.

Even those relieved to be free of a "great, big, new tax" were shocked by such a cowardly repudiation of one of Labor's core values. Sensing this, the Liberals immediately switch from criticising the scheme to criticising Labor's abandonment of its "greatest moral challenge". With this act Labor sent the electorate a signal: we're not moral.

When Gillard deposed Rudd and set about getting the government back on track she had an opportunity to redeem the position to some extent, but again Labor's lack of conviction let it down. She toyed with taking tentative steps towards a carbon price, but in the end decided on a gimmick the public instantly saw through: the 150-person citizens assembly. The end of Gillard's own brief honeymoon can be dated to that gutless decision.

Voters work on instincts and impressions, not rational analysis. They can smell a politician who puts self-preservation ahead of the national interest. They can smell it even when they're not sure they fancy the measures need to advance the national interest. And they're never impressed. But Labor's loss of principles extends beyond its loss of core belief in the need for reform. It also involves standards of acceptable behaviour in public life. It's now clear many voters were repelled by Labor's ruthless treatment of Rudd, and by Gillard's part in it despite all her protestations of loyalty.

No policy reform principles and no personal principles turned out to be a deadly combination. Gillard stands revealed as little more than a careerist. Such people never endear themselves to the electorate.

Labor should dispense with the unprincipled Sussex Street thugs who were behind-the-scenes urgers on every major false step it made in its first term. It was they who (acting behind Gillard and Wayne Swan) persuaded Rudd to abandon his climate-change commitment, they who staged his beheading in a way that offended so many Labor supporters and they who advised Gillard to rush to an election while her honeymoon lasted, when she should have allowed more dust to settle and given voters more time to get to know her.

These are the same geniuses who've brought us the debacle of the Carr-Iemma-Rees-Keneally government (which itself contributed to Gillard's drubbing). They're uncomprehending bunglers of the first order. They're so ruthless and cynical they've lost consciousness of the electorate's basic decency.

They're all expediency and no values, all tactics and no strategy. But with all their pragmatism and tricky tactics, they can't deliver the goods.

Labor must abandon its obsession with controlling the 24-hour news cycle. The spin doctors kept Rudd in control of the news for the best part of three years, but where did that get Labor in the end? This preoccupation with control and an unending stream of trivial "announceables" distracts ministers and their departments from real work. The excessive control antagonises the press gallery, which waits its chance to strike back when you're vulnerable (as Rudd discovered as soon as his ratings slipped).

Apparatchik Labor's lack of convictions saps it of the will to fight for needed but controversial reforms; the 24-hour spin doctors' dark arts sap it of the ability to fight. It's a snare and a delusion. Senior ministers get so used to relying on media stunts and emotional button-pushing their ability to explain and defend complicated policies atrophies.

That Labor ended up on the defensive over its enviable economic performance shows how badly it was served by its media minders. Their stock in trade is always to change the subject, never to stand and fight; to bamboozle, never to educate.

Labor's Hollow Men period has brought it disaster. Time to recover some values.