In the week that several of Labor’s powerbrokers decided the time had come to remove Kevin Rudd, the Essential Report poll — which proved more accurate than any other poll over the weekend — had Labor’s primary vote at 38%, the Coalition at 40%, and the Greens on 11%. On the current vote count, on the weekend Labor managed 38.5%, the Coalition 43%, the Greens 11.42%.
In short, the installation of Julia Gillard did nothing to fix Labor’s problems, even if that wasn’t by any means the whole story for why Rudd, and his Downfall-based executive style, were turfed. Indeed, it may have exacerbated their problems.
The post-election “line” is that the leaks are what hurt Labor. The line is the problem, not the solution. Even in near-defeat, the spin continues. They keep going back to the seminal texts of Whatever It Takes, The West Wing and The Thick Of It (no one has told them that at least one of those is a parody). But they mistake a line for actual communication. A line is non-communication, political white noise aimed at media management, not at communicating with voters, much less taking note of what they might say in response.
A hallmark of both the Rudd Government and the State Governments that have so damaged the Labor brand (and in effect deprived Federal Labor of power) has been reliance on a grab-bag of media management tricks rather than understanding the basics of telling voters what you are doing, why you are doing it and why it is of benefit to the community.
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Of the three major parties, Labor emerges from the election in by far the worst shape. There’s a tendency after elections for the mainstream media to overstate the impact on unsuccessful parties. Remember that 2004 was supposed to be a two-term win for the Coalition. The big parties always survive and stagger on after even the worst defeats — the public funding system ensures it. But the Greens are triumphant, having achieved a breakthrough victory in both Houses. The Liberals are, as Tony Abbott put it, back in business.
The Liberals have a long-term structural problem in reconciling the views of moderates and conservatives, but it is so long-term that basically they have learnt to live with it. The bigger problem for the Liberals is that Tony Abbott is more out of whack with core Liberal philosophy than any previous leader, but that doesn’t need to be resolved right now and in any event is easily fixed.
But Labor is in trouble. Its problems aren’t so much, as was suggested by some commentators, that it is being squeezed by the Coalition appeal to blue-collar conservatives on one side and the Greens’ appeal to inner-city types on the other — although that’s not helpful — but the party’s culture. As Guy Rundle has elsewhere pointed out, the growing absence of a core philosophy and its replacement by an assemblage of carefully-targeted micro-policies is not sustainable over the long term.
At best, you can win the battles but eventually you lose the war, particularly against an opponent like Tony Abbott who is more remorselessly negative and permitted by the mainstream media to get away with minimal actual policies on critical issues. Labor’s campaign foci of aiming money at Family Tax Benefit A recipients, appealing to the irrationality of outer-suburban voters and in effect campaigning against Rudd-era Labor was a collection of tactics masquerading as a strategy. And in the end it couldn’t even win the battles, let alone the war.
Worse, the deadening effect of this approach was to silence Julia Gillard, until late June one of Federal Labor’s most formidable communicators, and replace her with a mannequin usually capable only of repeating the day’s talking points. Forget the Ruddbut, the campaign trail was stalked by the Gillardroid. But if voters had wanted a mind-numbingly boring female politician with a glue-like adherence to talking points instead of a political philosophy, they would have made Penny Wong Prime Minister.
Only rarely did “real Julia” break out, and it had nothing to do with the fake “Real Julia” launched with all the dexterity of New Coke in the third week of the campaign. The Gillard on display when she fired up after the leak, or toward the end when fatigue made her less amenable to staying on message, was the real Julia, the one that voters liked, and Labor strategists’ failure to capitalise on that popularity must, along with their decision to dump the CPRS, remain one of the most mysteriously inept decisions in a year full of them from Labor.
Regardless of whether it goes into opposition or clings on to minority government, Labor must start fixing its culture, and start applying a reality check to the advice offered by the likes of Arbib, Bitar, Shorten and the other powerbrokers who have guided Labor into such a dire electoral position. It must also, somehow, bring in at the highest level some experienced strategists and media people who understand that effective political communication doesn’t consist of asking what Malcolm Tucker would do.