And that has created I think a crisis in confidence for Labor, something that needs to be changed, and people need to be empowered, to have a big discussion, to look at the big picture and say, “What is the great step forward that Australian Labor will take the Australian people on in this next generation? What is the big social reform that Labor will instigate to make Australia a fairer, more prosperous society?”

Paul Howes Lateline

Hang on a sec’? You mean to say Labor doesn’t already know? What on earth then are they doing in government?

Paul Howes is out and about redressing perceptions after he appeared on Lateline the night before Rudd was dumped and regretfully made himself “a part of the story”. He’s doing this by, er, writing a book and going back on Lateline to promote it.

However sincere Howes is about avoiding the limelight (certainly he wasn’t shy while Rudd was PM), his need to come back and explain himself, like Bitar’s performance at the NPC the other day, is being driven by what has happened since.

It’s not surprising the justification for the coup has morphed somewhat since June. Then it was supposed to be about popularity and policy. The popularity excuse is looking a bit strained now. It’s one thing to try and blame the lousy election campaign on the pro-Rudd leaks, while conveniently ignoring the damage the earlier anti-Rudd leaks did, which continued, by the way, right through the campaign itself.

But it’s quite another thing to try and explain what has been happening since. The normal post election bounce has not happened for this government and Labor is now polling worse on two party preferred that at any time during Rudd’s tenure. The primary vote has limited meaning in a 2PP electoral system, but the collapse in Labor’s primary was certainly an issue at the time of the coup, when on 2PP Rudd actually had a winning lead. Labor’s primary is now the worst since the dog days of Crean in 2003.

The policy excuse is wearing a bit thin as well. Howes is talking as though Gillard came in with a clean slate and we all know Rudd and Howes fell out because of Rudd’s Howardesque performance on asylum seekers. Presumably then, Howes was mortified then when Gillard came in and said that Rudd was actually too soft on asylum seekers and began proposing a nice, lean, sustainable Australia against Rudd’s big, slobby, fat one. Or maybe Howes wasn’t that worried. He seemed much more prepared to go with the flow about dumping them in East Timor, than he did about doing the same in Indonesia only a few months ago.

We have now a memory lapse that pretends Labor doesn’t stand for anything while ignoring that indeed, Labor has stood for quite a lot of things over the last few months. Just not for very long periods at a time, as the leadership has flopped and turned to first appeal to those rednecks it imagines in its core seats, then the Greens it needs to appeal to stay in office now.

Watching a party as aggressively anti-intellectual as the Liberal Party of Australia engage in a ‘battle of ideas’ was grim enough. At least the Liberals had the decency to do it in opposition. Labor is quite brazenly having a brainstorming session in government, basically saying right, we have bent over backwards to get here, now what will we do? When they aren’t talking about reforming anything that’s not tied down, they seem to be grabbing at anything; same sex marriage, an indigenous preamble etc. All terribly important things, of course – just not that important you would actually campaign for them at an election only a few months ago.

Rudd was not against having his own carnival of ideas, of course, but it was aimed at shunting aside those who are now back in charge. While ostensibly these ideas are about improving Labor’s flagging polling, in reality it’s not too concerned about that, attention is elsewhere. Exactly where was made clear by Howes near the end of the interview, when he explained why this blooming of a thousand flowers was necessary:

I think the problem was that you had probably the most powerful Labor prime minister in the history of the Labor Party in Kevin Rudd. He had more power concentrated into his hands than any other leader of the Labor Party had ever had in our 119-year history. And there was a lot of people that were in the caucus that were afraid to speak up. And for a long period of that government, you had the most popular prime minister in Australian history. I can understand that. But I think with retrospect now you’re seeing a lot of people in the Labor movement, in the Labor caucus, in the ministry, in the Cabinet talking about the need to be a more open party, to be a more inclusive party, that we actually are a team and that we are a movement. We’re not a support group for one individual, and that’s where Labor went wrong.

This is an extraordinary assessment and it was disappointing that it wasn’t probed further. Because for those not attuned to the finer points of ALP logic, it prompts the obvious question: if Rudd was so powerful, how could he have been summarily dismissed within barely a blink of an eye?

In reality of course, in the traditional sense, Rudd had one of the weakest holds on the party of any Labor leader. He had no real base in the party, certainly not in the union movement, just a couple of celebrity shoo-ins and some in the left who saw Rudd as the only chance to put down the faction system that had kept them in permanent second place.

Rudd’s hold didn’t really come from his popularity either, as helpful as it was. Otherwise, the party wouldn’t have taken the risk of dumping its only winning leader in nearly twenty years who was polling much more comfortably than most of his predecessors in the run up to re-election.

It ultimately came from the bankruptcy of a party and its powerbrokers who, no matter how they compromised and twisted and turned, couldn’t win an election unless they were hiding behind someone who openly showed their contempt for them. A big deal was made of Rudd leaving Labor off his 2010 election placards, clearly unaware of how Labor, especially in Queensland, won in Kevin07.

It’s the desperate need to turn this bankruptcy around, now that it has come out after Rudd’s dumping, that has made it necessary for yet more tales about Merciless Ming and how he held back all the creative talent in the Labor party. So we now have a flurry of reform and ideas to fill a hole that they helped create.

It’s certainly not about the policies themselves. Does Howes believe in dumping asylum seekers in offshore detention camps? Whatever it takes. Does he think the IR laws have been rolled back far enough? You can’t have everything. Does he agree with a punitive mining tax? Who’s asking? What’s important is that they are totally open to new ideas and a free debate on what they’re about – even if they’re now in government and you would think they should already know. What’s amazing is their total lack of embarrassment about how this looks to everyone else.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Wednesday, 10 November 2010.

Filed under State of the parties

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18 responses to “The last thing they need are ideas – ALP edition”

  1. Tweets that mention The last thing they need are ideas – ALP edition :The Piping Shrike -- on 10th November 2010 8:08 am

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by bronislava lee, The Piping Shrike. The Piping Shrike said: Howes lets it all hang out […]

  2. nick on 10th November 2010 8:13 am

    a class a fuckwit, in a party full of them

    Labor need a serious clean out

    They could do worse than bringing back rudd and getting rid of Gillard ….

  3. kymbos on 10th November 2010 8:35 am

    I’m really not sure what your main point is here, or what your benchmark for modern Government is. Am I wrong in remembering that Howard really had no agenda when he got into Government, and invented one on the fly? I know he at least took the GST to the second election, but he was certainly swimming for ideas and found one or two that stuck.

    It seems to me that that itself is the story of modern Government. You get in however you can, and then come up with ideas to shape your agenda. Did Hawke come in vocally planning to deregulate the banking sector, float the dollar, remove tariffs? I presume the Accord was on the agenda, but I’m guessing the others weren’t.

    By your standards, all political parties all around the world are ‘bankrupt’. What does this tell us?

  4. kymbos on 10th November 2010 8:36 am

    Oh, and ‘punitive mining tax’? Please.

  5. The Piping Shrike on 10th November 2010 8:55 am

    It’s a good point. The early Howard years are similar. Except there criticisms about the government standing for nothing and being tricky were made against Howard or leaked as internal memos. The difference is now that party bosses are openly making a virtue of ‘the battle of ideas’. To see this acknowledged so openly is very odd.

    Hawke was seen as pretty light at the beginning but it was not seen as a problem. Neither Fraser or Whitlam had the problem. Depends what you mean by ‘modern’.

    I very much see this as a global problem but taking a particularly clear shape in Oz as there is no immediate economic crisis.

    Howes was originally a big supporter of the mining tax, but then had no problem seeing it watered down as needs must.

  6. john on 10th November 2010 9:48 am

    Because Labor, Liberals and the Greens all agree to the Washington consensus, there isn’t really any politics in this country. It’s just Tories v the Whigs v slightly more farsighted Whigs.

  7. Old Hack on 10th November 2010 9:51 am

    Spot on! You’ve nailed it.

  8. Graeme on 10th November 2010 10:57 am

    This may seem tangential, but it’s apropos of a cornerstone Shrikeian theme of the baseless-party (especially parties of the old left) versus the one with ideological work to do, and hence the debate Peter Brent weighed into the other day (‘standing for something’ not being a key to enduring power).

    Slate ran this very Whitlamesque piece on the Democrats being victors not losers in the US – because health care reform there was an effing big deal: The welfare state is still a work in progress for social dems there.

  9. Mr Denmore on 10th November 2010 9:55 pm

    Isn’t this happening because of the exhaustion of the neo-liberal imperative? Hawke and Keating, with Howard’s support, opened up the economy, freed capital markets, floating the dollar and deregulated the labour market within the confines of the Australian compact.

    Howard, in 11 years, made one additional reform of substance – the GST – which itself was a hangover from Keating’s Option C at the national tax summit of 1985. Lost for new ideas, he tried to force US-style working poor labour deregulation, and then came a cropper.

    Since then, as you have written about previously Piping Shrike, Rudd won success by embracing the new global agenda of action on climate change and reversing some of the over-reach of the market zealots. But the combination of the failure of Copenhagen and (ironically) Australia’s relative immunity to the GFC meant both those platforms fell from beneath him.

    Now, Labor is a party about nothing – and the Liberals plain reactionary. It’s a depressing situation. Some, like Latham in The Monthlhy, argue the future lies with The Greens and the politics of sustainability. But I suspect change along those lines is going to have to be forced upon people by the weight of circumstances.

  10. Riccardo on 10th November 2010 11:13 pm

    yeah the issue is not the bankruptcy of the party system, which Keating finished, but that they so openly parade it.

    Rudd was the only one who waved it in his colleagues faces, they seemed well served by denial and self-delusion, ditto the media. But Rudd appears to have more faith in overseas interests than was warranted, eg the rest of the Anglosphere with warm and cuddly Cameron/Clegg and the bizarre nonsense that is the USA, business as usual for totalitarian China patiently waiting for the terms of trade to lean ever more in their direction.

    Don’t forget – Turnbull, the ETS and possibly even a more dysfunctional opposition and a big election win for the ALP, were only missed by one vote in the Liberal party room.

  11. Riccardo on 10th November 2010 11:17 pm

    I disagree about Hawke. It may be self-serving, but I suspect he was right that we were heading down the Argentine/Chilean road a bit much in the 70s and early 80s.

    It is all very well to suggest the unions are now empty shells but they were very active in the 1970s and issues like tariffs and price and interest rate controls had really meaning back then.

    I suspect that Hawke may have overegged it a bit by suggesting he planned to do, things he was actually forced to do, making him look wiser than he was.

    But no-one should imagine 12 percent inflation and 13 percent unemployment is a good alternative to a meaningless political system and bankrupt political class. I remember 1982 too well.

  12. Riccardo on 10th November 2010 11:28 pm

    I know Hockey has been done to death elsewhere, but have we ever seen a Lib Treasurer or shadow get stuck into the Lib core ie big business as much as now??

    And what’s the diff between obscene bank profits, and obscene mining profits (OK for the Libs)

    And doesn’t Joe Public have as many BHP/Xtrata/Rio shares in his super fund as he has the big banks?

  13. The Piping Shrike on 11th November 2010 12:16 am

    There is nothing remotely positive about the past other than its gone. I only refer back to then to see how things are moving. The unions were active and it caused problems for Fraser which is why Hawke had to do the biz.

    But fortunately our union movement was caught up in the White Australia Policy in its past, so we never need worry about getting caught up in sentimental nostalgia.

    Hockey is getting interesting (!). Someone else has raised it, but his line on the banks seems to have some momentum to it. His interview and confidence on the banks on Lateline was striking. Interesting to see how this pans out.

    Mr D I agree, and I wrote something about it when the GFC broke on the political angle. I think though it’s important to distinguish the right’s agenda from the actual movements in the state.

  14. James on 11th November 2010 12:25 pm

    Shrike, do you think Hockey has a chance of rolling Abbott and getting the Liberal leadership this term?

  15. The Piping Shrike on 11th November 2010 5:39 pm

    Yes. I know no one believes me but I think Abbott did himself serious damage over Afghanistan, which is why he will bang on about those who are up for trial until the cows come home.

    What Hockey is doing well is getting Labor on the defensive over an issue they can do nothing about. This has been handled very badly by Labor, they have forgotten everything learned during Rudd on killing an issue you can’t do anything about. Wong and Swan are instead upping the ante. Madness.

  16. Riccardo on 12th November 2010 2:45 pm

    On the thesis that the Greens are making life hard for the Libs as well as ALP, by splitting them on whether to make deals with them or regard them as the enemy, I’m wondering if this will start formalised factions within the Libs.

    It was fascinating to see the “never forget, the ALP is the real enemy” grouping come together. Costello accused Howard of saying the Greens were the enemy but preferencing them in office.

    Together with “all publicity is good publicity”, Greens couldn’t hope for better behaviour from the two majors than they are getting. They’ve forgotten the lessons of 12 or more years of Bob Brown and co simply being ignored as irrelevant.

  17. The Piping Shrike on 12th November 2010 6:49 pm

    Interesting idea. I think on the Libs side we are seeing the continuation of the values v electoral viability debate we saw during the Rudd government. This time it’s a bit more vociferous because they are talking about something outside the Liberal party (so they can be more open), but also the electoral implications are more direct. Ultimately, because neither side can properly win, it’s a phoney debate, as Costello brought out nicely re Howard recently (Brandt got Lib preferences as well in 2007).

    Labor is more interesting. Rudd used climate change to beat the party with. His fall has seen that subside but at the same time now the Greens are in a formal alliance with Labor, while at the same time they are now posing a real electoral threat to Labor, rather than just the catchment area for disillusioned Labor voters they used to be. Brown seems to be making life easier for Labor on this but if he pushed an aggressive climate change agenda it could get quite tricky.

    All very contradictory! Watch this space.

  18. Graeme on 12th November 2010 9:15 pm

    Compulsory voting + majoritarianism are stabilizing elements in our electoral laws. But they also lead to such centrism and a chasing of the apathetic ‘median’ voter that they accentuate the baselessness of our major parties.

    Abbott shored up his base whilst reinforcing his personal unelectability. Gillard and Rudd represent the opposite: personally popular but unable to engender respect or loyalty. Mumble will cavil but the trick is not to see it as base vs centre but to keep the former inspired whilst fawning to the latter.

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