Welcome to the NSW-isation of the Federal Labor Party.

The working theory at least in these parts is that the popular Julia Gillard will be a far tougher opponent for Tony Abbott than the damaged Kevin Rudd would have been. That fact that Abbott’s brain appears to stop working whenever he’s in Gillard’s presence doesn’t exactly undermine that theory.

But all of Labor’s problems won’t vanish with the Rudds’ furniture from the Lodge. While the question was validly and increasingly asked about what Rudd stood for, the same question could be asked of the Federal Labor Party. It is increasingly suffering from the problem that NSW Labor has long suffered from — of not standing for anything except staying in power, of being too focussed on media management and risk-aversion rather than using power to achieve reform.

Rudd and his conservatism and micro-management is partly responsible for this. But it also betrays the dire influence of the NSW Labor Right, which helped elevate Rudd to the leadership and which supplied a huge number of the new government’s staff once elected.

Now NSW Labor has joined with its right colleagues in other states to execute Rudd and install Gillard, in the same way Morris Iemma, Nathan Rees and Kristina Keneally were installed, while the essential problem of why NSW Labor wanted to be in power has never been resolved.

It’s a problem that may not cost Gillard the forthcoming election, especially against the deeply unpopular Abbott, but it is profound one that will continue to bedevil the party and leave it exposed to a fundamental voter cynicism about its motives.

Gillard has a chance to begin addressing this problem. As deputy prime minister she had a strong policy focus, picking the eyes out of the Bracks government’s best talent to staff her own office. Her policy substance has stood her in good stead in the face of regular attacks over IR and the confected campaign against the BER program. That policy focus now needs to be carried over into the PMO, which under Rudd seemed as often to be focussed on media management as on policy.

But the malign influence of the NSW Right remains embedded in federal Labor, deeper and more damaging than ever.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey