As Labor frontbencher Tony Burke has acknowledged, the ALP underestimated Tony Abbott. When Anthony Albanese said about Abbott that ”in your guts, you know he’s nuts”, the former deputy prime minister meant it. Yet, according to the most recent figures, the Coalition’s two-party preferred vote in 2013 is currently 53.4 per cent and close to John Howard’s 53.6 per cent in 1996. Not bad for a so-called nutter.
Labor appears to be in a state of delusion in attempting to rationalise the devastating loss on September 7 as primarily due to internal divisions and leadership changes. This has led leadership contenders Anthony Albanese and Bill Shorten, along with acting opposition leader Chris Bowen, to confirm support for a carbon tax or an emissions trading scheme (ETS).
After the Coalition’s defeat in November 2007, the Liberal Party and the Nationals decided to junk John Howard’s WorkChoices. The view taken was that industrial relations had been central to the campaign and that Labor’s victory had given it a mandate to do away with WorkChoices.
Compare and contrast Labor in 2013. From the time he became opposition leader in December 2009, Abbott has campaigned against Labor’s plan for action on climate change. Initially Kevin Rudd’s carbon pollution reduction scheme (CPRS), followed by Julia Gillard’s carbon tax and followed by Rudd’s ETS proposal. Yet Labor appears to have convinced itself that its climate change policies were not central to the 2013 election outcome and that the Coalition has no mandate in this area.
An objective analysis would support the conclusion that Labor’s internal divisions and leadership changes were a consequence – not a cause – of policy problems. When Malcolm Turnbull was intent on providing bipartisan support on the CPRS, Rudd Labor was well ahead in the polls. But when Abbott muscled up to Rudd on climate change, after succeeding Turnbull, Labor’s support began to wither.
On April 27, 2010, in the Herald, Lenore Taylor broke the story that Labor had decided to put the CPRS ”on ice to undercut the ‘great new big tax’ scare campaign”.
In other words, Rudd, Gillard and Wayne Swan dropped the CPRS because of Abbott’s relentless campaign to depict it as a great big new tax. This decision had the unintended consequence of de-authorising Rudd and he was replaced by Gillard in June 2010.
But Abbott kept up his unambiguous campaign and the Coalition accused Labor of having a secret plan to introduce a carbon tax after the 2010 election. This forced Gillard to make her ”there will be no carbon tax under the government I lead” promise on August 16, 2010. Gillard did relatively well in being able to form a minority government after the election and Labor’s polls were satisfactory in late 2010 and early 2011. Then in late February 2011, Gillard announced her intention to introduce a carbon tax. Writing in The Guardian Australia on Saturday, Gillard maintained that she erred in calling this a tax. But it was a tax.
The German sociologist Max Weber once wrote that successful democratic politics is about slow boring through hard boards. Abbott and his colleagues bore away at Gillard’s broken promise. In time Labor dumped Gillard for Rudd and he promised to replace the carbon tax with an ETS.
Of course, a carbon tax/ETS was not the only key issue in the campaign. Labor’s about-face on the proper response to unlawful boat arrivals was another, as was the bungled promise to return the budget to surplus.
To many electors, Labor looked incompetent. This perception was driven by policy failure of which leadership problems were but a manifestation.
Contemporary Labor would be well advised to adopt the approach taken by Bill Hayden, Paul Keating, Peter Walsh and Bob Hawke in the wake of Gough Whitlam’s defeats in 1975 and 1977. They resolved to move away from the Whitlam legacy with a view to proving that Labor could run a modern, efficient and reforming administration. And so it came to pass with the Hawke and Keating governments.
It’s theoretically possible for Labor to win in 2016 but it is unlikely to if it runs on the 2013 program. Both Albanese and Shorten were able members in the Rudd/Gillard/Rudd government. But Albanese achieved a primary vote of 47.5 per cent in Grayndler and Shorten 48.3 per cent in Maribyrnong. So both need time to build up popularity.
In Britain and New Zealand, Labour has ended up with leaders whom a majority of the parliamentary party did not support – Ed Miliband and David Cunliffe respectively.
The task of the new ALP leader is not to appeal to the party base but to win votes from those who supported the Coalition in 2013. The answer to Labor’s problem lies discount diflucan predominantly in policy – not personality.
Gerard Henderson is executive director of The Sydney Institute.