THE fight to apportion blame for Labor’s historically disastrous result has begun, although with uncharacteristic public restraint and politeness, given the desperate need to convince the independents that Labor can form a stable government.
But much of Labor’s self-analysis is missing what really went wrong.
There are two camps spinning the election post-mortem – one arguing that the ”hollowmen of the NSW party squandered a parliamentary majority by assassinating a leader and then running a pathetic small-target Sydney-centric campaign”, and the other that ”it would have been even worse under Kevin, and the only reason Labor didn’t win outright was the leaks”.
Members were split roughly according to their level of participation in the leadership coup on June 24 and the need to justify their actions.
A few Labor strategists concede that both analyses could boil down to the same endemic weakness – the overriding electoral caution driven by focus groups and the policy disregard of the Labor machine.
”By the end our government lacked a coherent purpose, and our campaign did as well,” one senior Labor figure said.
The weakness at Labor’s core is symbolised by the decision in April to delay the emissions trading scheme – the beginning of the Rudd government’s unravelling.
The delay, pushed by ALP headquarters and NSW power-brokers, and supported even more enthusiastically by Julia Gillard than Kevin Rudd, precipitated Rudd’s brick-like fall in the polls, which in turn was used to justify the move against his leadership, which some then blame for the huge backlash in Queensland that brought Labor to the brink of defeat.
It entrenched such voter cynicism about Labor’s policy credibility – especially in states where Labor colleagues were already thoroughly discredited – that the election promise of $2 billion for the Epping to Parramatta railway was met not with gratitude but with snorts of derision. In addition, the citizens’ assembly on climate change became a kind of national running joke.
And it was a big factor in the split in the left-of-centre vote, between Labor and the Greens, something that now threatens to become a permanent and – for Labor – debilitating schism. Rather than develop a sensible interim climate policy, Rudd diverted attention to the Next Big Thing: his health policy.
In yet another demonstration of why all but two or three ministers felt like bystanders in his totally centralised government, everyone else was directed not to talk about other issues, so all attention could be concentrated on Rudd’s epic fight with the premiers over health.
No one seems to have factored in that the cease-and-desist direction didn’t apply to Tony Abbott, who continued to hammer the emerging evidence of waste in the school halls program and the alarming house fires and electrocutions from stimulus-funded roof insulation.
By the election Rudd’s health victory over the states was forgotten. But Abbott had successfully tainted Labor’s greatest success – its economic management during the global economic crisis – with the twin evils of ”waste” and ”debt”.
And while Rudd was agonising over climate change and crusading over health, Treasury and Wayne Swan were taking charge of tax reform, coming up with a
mining tax even the resources minister learnt about only days before it was announced, and one that the broader cabinet would almost certainly have counselled against on the eve of an election, if anyone had asked them.
Once again Labor was mired in self-created controversy while Abbott hammered his negative messages home. And then Labor tried to fix the political backlash against its resource super profits tax with taxpayer-funded advertising. Cynical? Voters? Can’t imagine why.
But the overwhelming role of short-term political strategy over credible policy appeared lost on some of those energetically engaging in post-election ”spin”, who were preoccupied with the damaging leaks and the change in leadership.
Those who engineered Rudd’s demise claim polling at that time had Labor losing 10 more seats than it did on Saturday night, that the campaign would have been a winning one but for the hugely damaging leaks from ”sources close to Kevin Rudd”, that the swing against Labor in Queensland was because that state government is on the nose, and that NSW had heroically held back the anti-Labor tide, given that NSW Labor is even less popular. In other words, they blame it on Rudd and the states.
”If Tony Abbott wins it will be because he was elected the first federal premier of NSW and Queensland,” the Victorian powerbroker Bill Shorten said.
The federal campaign director, Karl Bitar, said that after the leaks in the second week Labor was ”facing absolute wipeout”.
Others say the Rudd assassination played a huge part in the Queensland losses, that the campaign was ridiculously focused on western Sydney and comprehensively failed to defend the government’s economic record and Australia’s small and manageable levels of debt. They blame it on the party machine and the plotters.
“Clearly you cannot have the removal of a Labor leader and prime minister and two months later have an election and not have that play into the outcome,” a disappointed Maxine McKew said on election night. ”We kept the nation working – that’s an extraordinary achievement. But that was not the central message of our campaign. It should have been built more around jobs.”
One fact in the startling new political landscape pointed to the problem being all of it – the leadership change and the leaks and the campaign – because they were all driven by short-term, poll-driven politics.
Having ditched the emissions trading scheme because Labor was worried about losing a ”carbon tax” election, then assassinating a leader because his credibility was destroyed by ditching the scheme, then thinking a citizens assembly was a good idea, then nearly losing the election anyway, a minority Labor government would most likely have to negotiate with four independents in the lower house and a Greens balance of power in the Senate.
And at least three of the independents appear to want a more ambitious carbon price than the one Labor proposed in the first place. The focus groups didn’t predict that.