A turning point or a dead end for Labor?

Geelong Advertiser, Saturday 9 December 2006, p. 39.

The Australian Labor Party has cast the dice with the appointment of the ‘dream team’ of Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard to lead it into the next Federal election. Will this be an echo of the 1983 election when Bob Hawke led Labor to victory over Malcolm Fraser very soon after he replaced Bill Hayden as Labor leader? Or could the new leadership implode, as Mark Latham did in 2004, under the blowtorch which will be directed against it by John Howard and his coalition colleagues? When Bob Hawke succeeded it was not just because, in Hayden’s phrase, ‘the drover’s dog’ could have won the election, but because the public had a clear appreciation that the industrial strife and economic instability of the time was better tackled by conciliation rather than confrontation. Hawke, with his industrial relations background, was seen as someone who could deliver. And he had a powerful team of young policy-orientated politicians to back him.

For Kevin Rudd it is going to be difficult to walk the fine line between being more open and consultative than Kim Beazley was perceived to be, without giving the coalition a chance to portray him as being indecisive. Yet Rudd must appear to live up to his promise of firm leadership, independence from factions and trade unions, and offering clear, comprehensible and distinctive policies. Any suggestion that he and his deputy are not singing from the same songsheet will be ruthlessly exploited and could prove electoral death. Julia Gillard is a very bright and dynamic politician with leadership ambitions of her own, but then so is Peter Costello and he still serves under John Howard.

One of Kim Beazley’s legacies will be a great deal of hard work which has been done on policy formation by the Labor Party in the last two years, though this has not yet had an impact on the electorate. Indeed it was the sense that the voters were not really listening to what Beazley had to say, sound though it often was despite the occasional gaffe on personalities, which contributed to his demise. Whether this policy development, essential as it is, will gain traction in the middle ground of politics is the key for Labor.

In the United Kingdom in somewhat similar circumstances, Tony Blair, who had only recently taken over the leadership on the death of John Smith, was able to promote ‘New Labour’ as both a clear break with the past and a distinctive alternative to the policies of the Conservative government.  Here it is already evident that Labor has distinguished itself from the coalition on industrial relations, education, the environment and the Iraq war, but turning differences into a coherent alternative and sellable package remains Labor’s major challenge. It may be a sad commentary on all of us as voters but the success or otherwise of Labor at the next election may be determined by the way the message of difference is sold, rather than its intrinsic substance, even though the latter exists. At the moment the opinion polls favour Labor with the Rudd-Gillard ticket, but we are still several months away from an election, and recent experience shows that much can change in that time, even without external events like the Tampa incident and 9/11.

The one certain thing is that the future will not be the same as the past, even though there may be similarities. We do learn and change, and in 2007 we will be faced with choices which will have a significant effect on the future of Australia. That double-edged Chinese wish, ‘May you live in interesting times’, seems certain to be fulfilled for the new Labor leadership.

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