‘Moving forward’: where does Labor go now?

The political show must go on but Labor is running out of time and options if it is to have any hope of avoiding a devastating defeat in this year’s election. AAP/Matt Roberts

Labor starts this week still reeling from the “no show” leadership spill and its aftermath.

Labor’s electorally disastrous polls are likely to get even worse following those events. Are there any ways in which they can, to evoke a (much derided) slogan from Labor’s 2010 election campaign, move forward?

It may well be the proverbial rearranging of deckchairs on the Titanic, but there are some things that Labor could consider doing to try and salvage some hope for the election, although whether they can or will do any of them remains to be seen, given the toxic levels of dysfunction within the party.

Rebuilding Gillard’s and Labor’s Image

A key priority is clearly rebuilding Gillard’s and Labor’s brand. In particular, it was extremely damaging to Labor for Rudd to claim that he lost the Prime Ministership just because of “factional leaders” and “faceless men”.

Opposition leader Tony Abbott is the only clear cut winner from the internecine warfare within the parliamentary ALP. AAP/Lukas Coch

Such claims were a gift for Tony Abbott and cemented Gillard’s and Labor’s illegitimacy problems. Gillard was demonised. However unfair and ill-considered the decision to remove him was, the fact is that Rudd lost, and stayed out of, office because he didn’t have sufficient support from his caucus colleagues. The extent of that loss of support can’t be explained just in terms of the role of factional leaders, never mind “faceless” men. Rudd’s prime ministership did have problems and (whether Labor MPs made the right decision or not) Gillard has now been legitimately installed as Labor leader and Prime Minister on three occasions.

Some of Rudd’s erstwhile supporters could express their regret at Rudd’s past statements and work at trying to improve public perceptions of Gillard’s legitimacy and of Labor’s democratic leadership decisions. (Ideally, Rudd would put the party’s interest before his own and do that himself but that seems an almost unimaginable prospect).

In terms of rebuilding Gillard’s image, Labor needs to be careful about continually depicting Gillard as “tough", without also emphasising her compassion, because it is much harder for female politicians to achieve a publicly perceived balance between the two than for male ones. At the same time, Labor could use some of Abbott’s more contentious past statements to undermine Abbott’s current efforts to reinvent his image.

Party discipline

Secondly, in future, however unfair or incompetent they believe the government’s actions to be, Labor politicians could actually practise internal party discipline. Politicians could complain internally but never publicly and never background journalists on their criticisms.

Even last Friday, departing Ministers were repeatedly making criticisms publicly that once would only have been made within the party. The result was a gift for the Coalition and for the front page of The Australian.

Loose lips sink the ALP ship and lose colleagues their seats. Continued public implosions could also encourage key independents to support a vote of no confidence in a government.

Gillard’s poor judgement

Thirdly, key Labor politicians from all camps could do to Gillard what they should have done to Kevin Rudd in 2010. They could (privately) confront Gillard with the fact that her political judgement, and the judgement of some of her close colleagues such as Wayne Swan, has been seriously flawed on numerous occasions.

They need to ensure that the government follows proper process when decisions are made and that Gillard draws on good quality strategic advice from a broad range of Ministers, local MPs and staffers (though really broad consultation requires trust there will be no leaking).

Selling Labor’s agenda and vision

Fourthly, Labor could press ahead with its legislative agenda, while selling both what it has achieved and its future vision for the country. Labor has been dogged by poor communication.

Just before the leadership “spill”, Julia Gillard made an eloquent speech about the government’s legislative achievements and its plans for the future. Gillard mentioned the NDIS, better wages for community workers, pension increases, the school kids bonus, increasing the tax free threshold and education reforms.

However, such speeches are all too rare. The latest example was Labor’s inability to sell the need for reforms that protected people mistreated by the media.

Similarly, most members of the public are still probably unsure what the Gonski education reforms are. The government’s policy agenda for helping Australia to benefit from the Asian Century is also unclear. The Government could move beyond glib phrases about selling Australian products and services to the Asian middle classes to tackle the real infrastructural and structural adjustment issues involved. Labor could also argue that the Coalition’s views on the economic implications of the Asian Century involve austerity measures that will be harmful for both business and ordinary Australians.

Can Kevin Rudd and his supporters accept the result of repeated party room votes and move to work for the good of the ALP as a whole? AAP/Dave Hunt

Despite the government’s botched revenue measures and unrealistic surplus promises, the government could also make a stronger case that its debt levels are low compared with most other OECD countries and make a more effective critique of the coalition’s own economic credentials.

The government could also perform better at countering the Opposition’s and conservative media’s depiction of government positions e.g. that it is engaged in a gender or class “war”.

After all, it is not a “gender war” for the PM to defend herself from derogatory sexist attacks or to point out that Abbott holds conservative positions on gender issues. It is not “class war” to argue that the benefits from mining Australian resources need to be more equitably distributed across the economy and the population.

Nonetheless, while it is not unusual for Labor governments to critique particular sectors of capital, Labor governments have traditionally won and retained office by arguing that their policies were in the interests of the vast majority of Australians, both business and labour. The government could focus on communicating better the ways in which major sections of business will benefit from Labor’s vision for engaging with the Asian Century, the NBN, training policies, green energy developments as well as emphasising its policies for improving the incomes and employment prospects of ordinary Australians.

Martin Ferhuson is among a number of high profile resignations from the Gillard ministry. Can such disgruntled senior figures support her in public? AAP/Alan Porritt

In short, Labor could make a much more effective case that it has the best vision for Australia’s future. That doesn’t necessarily involve returning to Hawke and Keating style policies as outgoing Resources minister Martin Ferguson suggests.

Indeed, Rudd had also moved beyond aspects of Hawke and Keating in his critique of neo-liberalism. Keating’s economic rationalism couldn’t deal with the market failures involved in climate change, nor would it have been able to deal with the ongoing market failures at the heart of the Global Financial Crisis.

At his best, Kevin Rudd did have a vision of Australia’s future, including the role of a social democratic government in tackling market failures. The (almost insurmountable) challenge for Julia Gillard and her ministers is that they not only need to articulate a more convincing vision of Australia’s future than the Coalition.

They also need to convince the Australian people that Labor would be competent to implement it.