Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 26 October 1998, p. 17.
After the devastating drubbing that Labor received at the 1996 election, few expected it would bounce back so close to government so soon. Consequently, within the ALP there is a satisfied, warm inner glow about recent events (matched by the cooling white fury of Mark Latham over the editing of his education policy).
This sense of achievement within the ALP inspires a complacent view that Labor will find it easier to win government next time. Labor is in danger of drawing the wrong lessons from the 1998 election. Unless it thinks critically about its recent experiences and what needs to be done to win government, Labor may be in opposition for much longer than it expects.
The core challenge for Labor is to win back the Hawke constituency, the coalition of traditional supporters and aspiring middle-class professionals who backed what Labor stood for in the 1980s. Labor appeared to stand for new opportunities and change, where the Liberal and National parties appeared conservative.
This was especially so in the early days of the Hawke government in the way that Paul Keating painted the picture. The Liberals were portrayed as the dull, standstill party.
So what are the wrong lessons that Labor may be absorbing as part of its collective wisdom? The first myth is that star candidates (with the possible exception of sporting heroes) do not appeal to the mob. Since the election, a number of people have been critical of David Hill’s [unsuccessful] candidacy in Hughes and a few other star pretenders.
It is argued that the Liberals triumphed because of superior local campaigning with excellent “grass roots members and candidates” stealing victory from Labor in key marginal seats. Actually, Labor needs more talent, not less. David Hill fared no better than one of Labor’s best grass-roots campaigners, Maggie Deahm in Macquarie. Labor’s policies stubbed out those candidates’ chances. To paraphrase Shakespeare: “The fault is not in our stars, but in ourselves”.
The second myth is that a future win by Labor is very likely, even inevitable. Labor came close to winning this time because the Howard government was so poor in managing the public perception of itself in its first two years. Only when Howard seized the policy initiative with the GST, and risked all on that, did the Liberals re-gather credibility and momentum.
Kim Beazley understands enough about political history to know that next time will not be so easy; he will have to earn government. Howard is unlikely to provide the gift of a perception of poor leadership and a weak approach to Hansonism next time around.
The “softer, gentler” rhetoric of the Prime Minister and the promotion of the likes of Joe Hockey suggest the Liberals will be a harder target.
The third myth is internal. Labor is bound to run around in circles over who was responsible for the loss and whether head office could have done better. John Della Bosca does not deserve the bad press he has received. “Della” read the electorate well. Labor was always going to struggle in NSW given an incumbent state government with a wafer-thin majority and the tax package that it was saddled with at the Federal level.
Labor needs to think through new policies to extend its support beyond the base. That is where Mark Latham has a point about policy development. Labor appeared in the lead-up to the 1996 election to proffer a soft form of economic Hansonism. Labor appeared retrograde on many of the policy reforms [compared to positions] it took in the 1980s.
Here, Gareth Evans, an outstanding Minister for Foreign Affairs, lost the plot as Shadow Treasurer, not bothering with the hard yards in policy development that require courage in dealing with critics.
For example, Evans allowed the party at the Hobart conference this year to propose the abolition of the Productivity Commission – something that Hawke and Keating resisted in the days when Laurie Carmichael would rail about the “Industry Assassination Commission”, as he called the old Industry Commission body.
Evans was also, in the development of his tax policy, slap-dash. He presented the policy to the Shadow Cabinet as it was going to the printers. Taxes on four-wheel-drives and caviar appeared to be misplaced symbolism. Ironically Labor’s success in the 1980s in lifting the electorate’s sophistication on economic matters contributed to Labor’s undoing this month.
Where Latham is wrong is in seeking to influence the party from the backbenches. The real debate needs to happen in the Shadow Cabinet and he needs to engage his colleagues more. Australia faces huge difficulties in the immediate future. These include: curbing the current account deficit, finding jobs for those on the wrong side of the Bell Curve, tackling the funding and quality issues associated with health and education, refashioning competition policy.
All these areas require debate, discussion, hard work and initiative. The new Shadow Ministry should be judged and recast mid-term depending on performance. Labor’s policy initiatives will determine its prospects among the economically literate cohort Labor needs to persuade to win back government.
One of the difficulties in NSW is that the Labor party does not have a single outstanding Federal member of parliament whom people instantly think of when they think of NSW Labor.
Going into the Federal election, Victoria had the likes of Evans, Senator Ray, Simon Crean and retiring member Barry Jones adding to Labor’s appeal.
Hence, under the new line-up, capable shadow ministers such as Brereton, Faulkner, Lee and Martin and newcomer Robert McClelland need to become quickly identified as thoughtful policy initiators. The real risk for Labor is that in the next three years it might continue the course of playing safe and becoming the conservative party. This would be a betrayal of all that Hawke and Keating set out to do. Not only is it the lazy approach, but it’s also an approach that guarantees Labor another term in opposition.