Post-election Prime Ministers are supposed to command great authority — having secured victory for their party, having delivered in the most basic political way possible to their MPs, they can command unquestioning loyalty from their troops.

Julia Gillard, however, arrives as Prime Minister in her own right a diminished figure, one humbled by a disastrous campaign that nearly cost Labor office. The ferocious, highly-effective political performer who chewed up Parliamentary opponents, negotiated deals on contentious legislation in the Senate and wowed conservative commentators with her education ideas has been replaced with a faded Prime Ministerial copy, reduced to pleading that the “real Julia” was taking over her campaign.

But the implacable logic of her position is that she must now use what’s left of her authority to challenge her colleagues not just to adjust to the politics of the knife-edge, where one slip could end in complete disaster, but to address the problems that emerged in Labor’s first term.

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As the campaign quickly demonstrated, not all of Labor’s problems can be labelled K Rudd PM. Indeed, judging by the comments of the independents, it appears only Rudd’s major reform legacy, the NBN, was what saved the Gillard Government from historical footnote material.

While Gillard last week correctly lampooned (and she gives great lampoon — Gillard should lampoon more) the suggestion that the use of focus groups was confined to Labor, the problem for her party is that in fully embracing political professionalism it has made the tools of the trade the point of being in power. No doubt, as Gillard said, the Liberals spent a lot of money on focus groups to come up with their slogan. But the point was Tony Abbott could utter the slogan with some sort of plausibility, because voters know that the Liberals’ core values, at least in their Howard-era incarnation, encompass a punitive approach to asylum seekers, an association with budget surpluses and a reputation for competence, however ill-deserved.

What are Labor’s core values? What are the instincts that animate Labor, beyond broad statements like fairness? What immediately springs to mind when you ask that question?

Undoubtedly people have been lamenting the lack of core values in political parties since primitive MPs first crawled out of the primeval electoral slime, but modern Labor’s problem is that it has supplanted values with techniques, including the dreaded focus group, marginal seat campaigning and micro-policies to buy votes from carefully-targeted demographics. The policy rationale appears to come later, like the education rebate handouts to Family Tax Benefit A recipients before and during the campaign that were justified because of the transformative power of education and the fact that families were having trouble making ends meet.

The problem is voters sense the disconnect, and instinctively find more credible politicians who are selling policies that appear to emerge with their core values, rather than having been shoehorned into them.

This is one of the reasons why politicians love trying to fulfill election commitments, because the rationale of keeping faith with voters looks like an authentic narrative to help drive policy-making and implementation, even if you don’t have any innate sense of why you made the commitments in the first place.

All this is also a problem for the Liberal Party, but Labor is the major party most advanced down the path of professionalisation, and accordingly must deal with its attendant problems.

Gillard will therefore benefit from the overhaul of her government’s agenda that has been undertaken by the independents and the Greens. Suddenly she has a range of, in some cases quite exciting, political reforms to put in place and a range of major policy issues, including a tax review (!) and establishing the case for a carbon price. Much of this agenda isn’t her own, but she’s signed onto it, and can sell it as part of a “New Politics” agenda that, if cannily deployed, might reap electoral benefits from voters who sat through the last election with ill-disguised hostility to the politics-as-usual on display from the major parties.

That sullen mood of discontent in the electorate could yet be tapped by a smart leader — although it will be rather akin to playing with fire.

But that should be happening in parallel with a serious internal attempt to define clearly what Labor wants to achieve in power and acquire the skills — evidently lost in recent years — of selling policies because they reflect your core values, rather than because they rated well with 50 focus group members from Bankstown.

In 2007, Kevin Rudd was handed an opportunity to use his unquestioned authority, enormous popularity and the level of popular engagement generated by his campaign to craft an enduring and effective progressive political agenda. He was unable to use two years of ridiculously high popularity to manufacture a real identity as Prime Minister and when his political persona came under pressure, it fell apart rapidly.

Now Gillard has been handed another chance, albeit with far more conditions, to do the same. While delivering the program agreed with the independents and the Greens, she has to force Labor to sort itself out. If she can’t, Labor is unlikely win the next election and there’ll be no point if it did.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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