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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 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..

  11. klewso

    I thought it was supposed to be “funny” – “The chaser’s war on the Chaser’s War”?!
    Was that a “Mark Latham stunt” – or his “interpretation of a Media Munchkin – based on his years observing the majority of the Canberra press gallery, at work” – and, after all, didn’t the rest of that “caste” play their part in the send-up/”parody”, of “the joke”, too?

  12. Mark Heydon

    @Hugh (Charlie) McColl:
    $400 million in pork barrelling does not equal development in regional Australia.

  13. klewso

    Did I read somewhere that one of Murdoch’s “payrollie’s” was urging the Independents to side with “their party”, on the basis that their seats were “regional traditional conservative” (or some similar reasoning) – so didn’t their constituents get a chance to vote for “their party”, by way of “a Coalition candidate” – “Gillespie, Coates, Morrison = thanks but no thanks”?

  14. Hugh (Charlie) McColl

    Mark Heydon, fortunately (for the sake of honour) no one has mentioned ‘development’. It seems that the dollar number comes first. Watch the news tonight. There’ll be “$10 billion” bandied about. Development will turn up ‘going forward’.

  15. Eugene Wong

    Looking forward to Bernard’s “hope nobody bet any real money on the strength of my forecast” article tomorrow…

  16. Michael Rogers

    Abbott and the uglies didn’t take enough consideration of Oakeshott’s and Windsor’s common decency and obvious belief that the “fair go” was more than empty rhetoric.

    Oakeshott particularly seemed swayed by the inherit mean spiritedness on Indigenous issues of the Tories and their pandering to bigotry and ignorance.

    Will be interested to see what it will be like with Parliament once again having a big say in the running of the country, instead of just the biggest bullies in the Party room.

  17. David Hand

    Bernard, I congratulate you on the bravery of making a call so close to the decision. Taking a cheap shot at your forecasting skills is tempting but inappropriate.

    It does however make me wonder how this “culturally and philosophically broken” Party is going to change while it has its hands on the treasury benches. I hear your pining for a shift to the left but it doesn’t look like it will be this year.

  18. Dawn Baker

    This ‘culturally and philosophically broken party’ will now reform with clarity that it has to attend to its left roots and that it can’t go from ‘the greatest moral challenge of our time’ to ….well, nothing. And they won’t we knifing an elected PM for a long time to come – the two major sticking spots for the legions who could vote a straight Labor ticket.

  19. Tom McLoughlin

    Bernard you are a lovable, pompous Goose.

    “but I’ve been known to be wrong, quite a lot.”

    No doubt it would have been grim being Crikey in an Abbott prime ministerial world, and you would have had to write alot more *rse covering pieces like the above to protect the mother ship.

    Who knows this little bit of think piece insurance might still be of value over the next tortuous 10 months of the Fielding “ALP not on track” Fielding.

    But what worries me is Abbott’s vanity over perhaps 1 million wrongful deaths in Iraq. How he can think as Howard’s protege he is prime ministerial material escapes me after that moral turpitude. I heard some academic goose on Saturday extra say Howard was never marked down for the failure to find WMD in Iraq – but that was confirmed in 2005 and Howard lost his own seat at the next outing.

    In a city where 300-500K marched against that war. And most won’t forget either. It was life changing experience that peace march. And Abbott is Howard’s warmongering sincerity and folly reincarnated. Sincerely wrong.

  20. Sean

    Bernard, why not start giving footy and racing tips next on Crikey? Complete with detailed analysis. Then we’ll choose the other team.

  21. Bruce

    Bernard, I hope you feel like a goose now for being wrong about the PM!

    I hope the rising power of the Greens and baning political donations from corporations will fix the rising power of corporations and restore some measure of democracy. It is also high time the foreign ownership and media laws prised the Australian corner of NewsCorps empire out of Murdoch’s meddling hands.

    And Abbott will never be fit to be PM. He tried to swindle the electorate with a $7-11 billion lie about the cost of his election promises. He treats us like a bunch of mugs. Only a fool would vote for that charlatan now.

  22. Moira Smith

    “I’m on safer ground in predicting that if it’s not Abbott, it’ll be Julia Gillard who gets the gig” … ie ‘I don’t know who’s ahead, it’s either Oxford or Cambridge’. (Only really old people will get this reference which actually happened, I think, before I was born.)

  23. Moira Smith

    Labor is broken, as you say. The Coalition is unthinkable (for me). Maybe the current situation … with independents and Greens in the mix … offers something better? I hope so.

  24. Moira Smith

    “The Greens …. may fall into the Democrats’ trap of tearing themselves apart over policy compromises. ”

    No. The Greens don’t do that sort of thing. That’s why they have never had power, but that is where their power lies. Integrity.


    Abbott’s “performance” was just that, and even with the considerable wind from the Oz at his back he still couldn’t get over the line. Even more ironic is that “Mr People Skills” got the crazy Independent while the other two resisted the cajoling and bribes to side with what many thought their ‘natural’ home. Katter’s wishlist of agrarian socialism and protectionism was so antithetical to Liberal Party convictions that even the night before Katter was still hissing and spitting like a camel at Nick Minchen on national television! His last minute stunt of calling it for the Coalition before 3pm was the most bizarre thing I’ve ever witnessed in national politics; a confused and utterly confusing ramble of not very convincing contradictory statements that seemed to say “I’m not telling you what’s really under my hat”. BobKatt’s the Don Quixote of Australian politics, madly tilting at the windmills of his mind.

    And so it came down to Windsor and Oakshott to call Abbott’s bluff. A party which had nearly torn itself apart over climate change, installed Abbott by one vote, run the most dishonestly negative campaign (thanks Mr Murdoch), and tried to play silly buggers with its budget costings. Both blokes seem pretty decent to me, genuinely concerned for both their own electorates long term interests and those of the nation. Finally, Abbott’s snake oil was not going to lubricate his way to the Lodge; they really had his number(s), and they did not add up in more ways than one. They didn’t add up on the national accounts, on broadband, on ‘stopping the boats’ and most importantly, they didn’t add up on integrity. If Windsor and Oakshott ever wanted to claim they had any, signing up to the Abbott/Hockey/Robb dishonesty, would have been their undoing in the eyes of the thinking public. They knew it too.

    Bernard, you said immediately after the election that the nation had ‘moved to the left’, and the combined Labor/Green vote was a pretty convincing number to that effect. For Windsor and Oakshott, not to have backed the national mood, particularly in view of the upcoming Senate, would have been very odd, to say the least.

  26. Barbara Boyle

    Amen, Bernard, and in thankyou for a lucid summing upParticularly points 1 & 2.
    Did we actually see at least 2 of the Country Independents arguing from a point of public good?
    Surely this is both a huge challenge for us all and a huge advance in the way Government operates.
    My question for the day:
    Can Julia, with Tony Windsor provisionally on her team, counter the combined drag of Abib, Shorten,et al, not to mention Abbot , Abetz etc?.

  27. davidk

    Great article Bernard I agree with all of it. I’m afraid I got to it a bit late as something was distracting my attention yesterday. As much as I dislike Abbott I am compelled to admit begrudgingly that he has grown considerably in my estimation over these past four weeks. His front bench has not. I’m now waiting for Julia to say ” Game over!”

  28. Kevin Herbert

    DAVIDK: I predict it will take 6 months OR LESS for Gillard to fall over.

    And let’s not forget that 6 months ago, I was the first person on Crikey to predict that Rudd would be dumped…although I said straight after the election, not before….

  29. davidk

    Congratulations Kevin, I wonder how long Abbott will last.

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