The sad truth is that Labor has run only one efficient government at the federal level since the Second World War ended nearly seven decades ago. Ben Chifley's government floundered on an ill-advised and bungled attempt to nationalise the private trading banks and was defeated in December 1949.

The ALP did not return to office until December 1972. As prime minister, Gough Whitlam certainly made a difference. However, his administration was beset by incompetence. The most severe critics of Whitlam have come from the Labor side. 

In The Hawke Memoirs, Bob Hawke referred to the Whitlam government's ''fiscal irresponsibility''. In 1987, Paul Keating acknowledged Whitlam had no policy ''for dealing with inflation and unemployment''. The Whitlam government's woeful economic performance was analysed by Peter Walsh (Hawke's finance minister) in his ironically titled 1995 book Confessions of a Failed Finance Minister.

It was the Whitlam failure that motivated those who came after him to demonstrate Labor could run a modern economy with competence and professionalism. This drive was commenced by Bill Hayden in opposition after Whitlam stepped down and was continued by Hawke when he succeeded Hayden just before the March 1983 election. The Labor government headed by Hawke, and later Keating, between 1983 and 1996 was one of Australia's best. It set up the long-term reform agenda which was continued by John Howard and his treasurer Peter Costello.

It is too early to judge the achievements of modern Labor and it would be foolish to foretell the outcome of the 2013 election. Yet we have it on the evidence of numerous senior Labor figures that Kevin Rudd ran a disorganised, even dysfunctional, administration before he was replaced by Julia Gillard in June 2010. And now Rudd's supporters are putting around the assessment that Gillard cannot communicate a clear message and is into self-delusion with respect to Labor's standing.

Unlike Hawke and Keating, Rudd and Gillard are admirers of Whitlam and his legacy. Both inherited one of the best-performing economies in the world. This made adjustments to the global financial crisis much easier than would otherwise have been the case.

Australia remains one of the strongest performing economies in the Western world. The problem with the Rudd and Gillard governments has turned on the implementation and/or mishandling of a range of policies. Including the carbon pollution reduction scheme, which became the carbon tax, along with the bungled imposition of a mining tax. Then there was the abandonment followed by the restitution of an asylum seeker policy aimed at controlling Australia's borders.

The current focus on Labor's leadership overlooks the essential fact that Labor's problems have turned on policy and its inability to withstand the critique of the Coalition since Tony Abbott became opposition leader in December 2009.

Gillard took over from Rudd since it was believed that the government had lost its way. However, she did not resolve the policy failures associated with the mining tax and asylum seekers. Moreover the decision to introduce a carbon tax, embodying as it did a broken promise, has caused the government serious damage.

Former Labor leader Mark Latham has entered the debate with a remarkably bland Quarterly Essay titled ''Not Dead Yet: Labor's Post-Left Future''. Latham now claims that ''Rudd and Gillard, in their differing ways, have done much better'' as Labor leader than he did. Yet in the lead-up to the 2010 election, on 60 Minutes, Latham urged Australians to vote informal since he could see no difference between Gillard and Abbott.

The former Labor leader claims credit for having drawn attention to the problem with Labor's ''organisational roots'' in his 2005 book The Latham Diaries, which is ridden with personal abuse and invective. But Labor's organisational problems, including its reliance on the trade union movement, have been discussed for eons. The late B. A. Santamaria, for example, banged on about this way back in his 1971 pamphlet The Australian Labor Movement: The Issue of Control.

As to policy, Latham's remedy for Labor is to run on climate change – despite the fact that this issue has proved disastrous for both Rudd and Gillard. On education, Latham's approach resembles that enunciated by Coalition front-bencher Christopher Pyne over recent years. It's not fresh.

Latham advocates, correctly, that Labor should embrace the Hawke/Keating approach. He neglects to mention that Howard continued the economic reform process and voters remember this.

Whatever its current difficulties, Labor's political fortunes will almost certainly recover. Above all, Labor needs to demonstrate that it can be efficient and professional. In politics, good government is usually enough.

Gerard Henderson is executive director of The Sydney Institute.