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Federal

Sep 7, 2010

Lessons from the last days of the Labor government

Before we focus on the new government, we should recall some of the lessons of recent months which may have been forgotten in the obsession with a hung parliament and a new government.

This will be, almost certainly, the last Crikey edition before a new government is formed — the independents keep saying it will be this afternoon, which on their previous performance means it could be this afternoon, this evening, or tomorrow morning, but in any event we should know soon enough.

I remain of the view that Tony Abbott will become our 28th prime minister this week, but I’ve been known to be wrong, quite a lot. I reckon I’m on safer ground in predicting that if it’s not Abbott, it’ll be Julia Gillard who gets the gig. At least until Bill Shorten dispatches her and goes to Yarralumla to create a constitutional conundrum with his mother-in-law.

Then again it might be 75-all and back to the polls, an outcome that would delight the mainstream media, which will reap millions of dollars in windfall revenue from the political parties.

In which case, before we start discussing the new government, it may be useful to revise some of the lessons we have learnt in recent months but which may have been forgotten in the obsession with a hung parliament and a new government.

1. Labor is broken, culturally and philosophically. There are benefits for Labor losing this, and the reaction against the likes of Arbib, Bitar, Shorten and key factional leaders is only one of them. Process and purpose have become fundamentally confused within the party and in the absence of an aggressive reforming goal of the kind that drove the Hawke and Keating governments, Labor is adrift and needs to find its bearings. A start would be to regroup around a central purpose of economic reform in the interests of working Australians — which includes the key economic reform challenges of decarbonisation, infrastructure and housing supply and skills. It also needs to get over John Howard, who has left Labor with a grand case of PTSD. The response to the now deep-seated Labor fear of being outflanked on the Right is policy boldness, not craven capitulation, which in any event will simply yield more seats to the Greens.

2. The Australian polity is profoundly influenced by transnational corporations. In effect, the Rudd government was removed by a cabal of foreign mining companies and a foreign media company, News Limited, acting in concert with one side of politics, through an aggressive use of the mainstream media. It may rankle, but it’s the truth, and those who support a purer form of democracy, and those on the progressive side of politics, need to accept that they face enemies so powerful that even the benefits of incumbency may be insufficient to resist them, especially when they’re deployed as badly as Labor deployed them. The Greens are already demonstrating that they understand exactly where they stand with The Australian, and treat its minion accordingly. Labor should start doing the same. Truckling to the enemy won’t yield any benefits.

3. Abbott has proved an outstanding political leader and may yet prove a highly-skilled prime minister. Deftly deploying a capacity to populate a self-serving narrative with the actions of his opponents and relentlessly negative, Abbott has brought a dominant first-term government down, even if he ends up falling just short of getting the top job. You might hate him, but you can’t help but admire his raw political skill. The only question remains about his temperament and lack of economic substance, but given his strong performance since taking over the leadership who’s to say he won’t surprise again as prime minister?

4. The Greens have the chance to become a major party and reshape Australian politics. A double dissolution may wreck their six-year lock on the balance of power in the Senate from July 1. They may fall into the Democrats’ trap of tearing themselves apart over policy compromises. But the 2010 election was a crucial test to determine whether the Greens could convert community support into votes and seats, and they passed it with flying colours. Their destiny is therefore now in their hands.

5. What’s the point of the Nationals if three renegades can secure more for regional Australia in two weeks than the Nats have in the last two decades?

6. The mainstream media as a whole performed poorly in the election campaign and many journalists bitterly resent this being pointed out. We keep hearing about ‘social media elections’ and they never really arrive. Certainly the major political parties did little different to 2007 in the media space. But it was very much a social media election in terms of coverage, with the performance of mainstream journalists under constant scrutiny from the get-go. Many hated their poor performance being so quickly and publicly discussed on Twitter and (in what is now the safe, traditional new media space), on blogs. Apart from the normal News Limited bias, one media company stands out for its performance, the Nine Network, which genuinely and substantially degraded the quality of public debate with its Mark Latham stunt.

Media organisations are now talking about abandoning a traditional (and costly) component of election campaigns, the leaders’ media entourages, having worked out that they are essentially there as props for each day’s stage-managed media event. If the money saved from abandoning the bus is spent on giving hard-pressed journalists the time and support to properly analyse policy (and they can do it if editors and media execs back them), that will represent a substantial step forward in public debate. Don’t believe ’til you see it, though.

The media’s discomfort has continued into the post-election interregnum, with clear impatience from even senior commentators that the traditional two-party system and its attendant politics-as-race-calling coverage had, even temporarily, to give way to a more fluid environment. With such a finely-balanced parliament, however, we’ll all have to get used to this sort of uncertainty until the next election, whenever it is. And the only winner from that will be the mainstream media, which will reap further tens of millions of dollars from taxpayers courtesy of election advertising campaigns, even if the parties are broke.

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30 comments

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30 thoughts on “Lessons from the last days of the Labor government

  1. Michael

    Good lord Bernard.
    I never thought I would ever congratulate you on an article well written but here you go.
    That was an excellent piece. Precise, honest, unbiased and to the point.
    Well done my boy.

  2. Kevin Herbert

    Nice work Bernard.

    Para 6 is particularly succinct……new media rox.

    Although para 2 overstates the Oz’s impact.

  3. David

    Bernard, you have obviously impressed the unhinged one Abbott in your job interview. When do you join his press contingent?

  4. Dawn Baker

    I feel the same sadness re the loss of the Labor Party’s central defining self and hope they can reclaim it. I feel equally pessimistic about Abbott being the next PM.

  5. sean

    Agree with all of this, except the strange eulogy to Abbott. Apparently if you hold your breath, smile and recite endless sound bites at stage managed press events for 5 weeks to a passive and mindless media it means you are ‘brilliant’. Calling a performing monkey a potentially great prime minister is really too long a bow for me and not consistent with everything else Bernard says about the contemporarty australian political scene. Must be one of those ABC style attempts at balance.

  6. Hugh (Charlie) McColl

    Thankyou Bernard for ‘truckling’, I’m a first timer today.
    You ask at Pt6 what’s the point of the Nationals if these three independents can outscore their 20 year record in two weeks? Well, what is the Nats 20 year record? Just yesterday, in Crikey, you outlined the record of the Howard government and just one little Nationals’ place in it:
    “….. Regional Partnerships was a mid-sized program, worth $400 million dollars over several years, which saw textbook examples of political interference as National Party ministers used the program as their own personal porkbarrel.”
    Bernard, that looks to me like Exhibit A. Bob Katter has seen the light in it too. Is he Exhibit B? Has Abbott found a replacement for his deputy, Julie Bishop?

  7. mark

    I just dont buy your argument that because Abbott ran a very successful negative campaign and wrecked an incumbent government that he is a credible leader of our country. That is about a shallow an analysis as I have come across.

    Apart from which I dont want to live in a country that is run on that sort of negative agenda, nor I suspect do many others.

  8. klewso

    Let’s face it with “Murdoch” running his PR campaign, from their virtual monopoly, and “Uncle Nick” swinging on the leash, Abbott only had to show up, to win “Best on Show”!
    But what happens if there’s another election, and the same result?
    Do “we” go to “the Queen”, and get a “Murdoch certified administrator” appointed to run the country, “officially”, this time?

  9. mark

    Oh and if any one is in any doubt that The Australian was running to a set agenda just have a look at today’s front page……

  10. denise allen

    well the Mad Hatter has gone with the Mad Monk so Bernard you well maybe right…God I hope not…but we will know at 3pm..

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