Once upon a time, a revisionist English historian, anxious to emphasise political continuity in Stuart England, was accused of explaining why the English Civil War didn’t break out in 1640.
A similar claim could be levelled at Karl Bitar yesterday after his explanation of why Labor won a triumphant victory on 21 August — an explanation that amazed Labor MPs.
The way Bitar told it to the National Press Club, 21 August rates among Labor’s greatest triumphs. The tyranny of expectations about a Labor win, a failure to properly scrutinise Tony Abbott, the leaks and Mark Latham all combined to create a formidable re-election hurdle that they just managed to scramble over.
The only campaign problems Bitar would cop to were ones about communication. The citizens’ assembly, the “real Julia”, the Epping to Parramatta rail link were all sound policy, according to Bitar — but they were just communicated badly.
Remarkable stuff from a man, apparently, in total denial.
There’s no doubt both the Rudd Government and this Government suffer from a disastrous inability to effectively communicate. We’ve seen it time and again. But when you’re making dud decisions, it doesn’t matter how well you communicate. The Rudd Government — which according to Bitar achieved more in one term than John Howard’s Governments ever did, but which nonetheless had to be disposed of before it could even face re-election — managed to stuff up the communication of its decision to dump the CPRS — Lenore Taylor broke it — but the problem was the decision itself, which finally confirmed voters’ suspicions that this was a government that wouldn’t stand up for what it believed in, even on a core issue like climate change, even when it was elected to establish an ETS in 2007.
Bitar complained of unrealistic expectations of the Rudd first term. “People’s expectations were well beyond what any Government could possibly meet,” he said. Possibly. But people were not being unrealistic when they expected that, having gone to the 2007 election saying Labor would bring in an ETS, Labor would proceed to implement that commitment.
The decision to dump the CPRS smashed whatever remaining connection there was between Kevin Rudd and voters. It was a decision that could never be justified no matter how well-communicated it was, because it fundamentally betrayed voters’ trust, and they don’t forgive that.
The citizens’ assembly was another wretched decision. No communication strategy could convince voters it wasn’t a fig-leaf for continued inaction on a carbon price by a government too scared to stand up for itself.
As for “real Julia”, the fact that it was communicated at all was the problem. As one Labor MP said to me, “why didn’t they just do it, instead of talking about what they were doing with the media? It might have worked if they hadn’t advertised it.”
None of this apparently has sunk through to Bitar. Or, if it has, he’s sticking to the central office script. Labor MPs have every reason to be deeply worried — and a number of them are.
That said, Julia Gillard made a most interesting speech yesterday in Adelaide.
It primarily got coverage because of her attack — again — on the speed of the media cycle and its demand for instant results. And while her remarks might be slightly — or very — self-serving, she has a point about the benefits of being methodical, even if it’s hard to see them when, for example, Labor is being pounded on bank regulation by Joe Hockey.
But for once Gillard actually did what a leader is suppose to do.
Australians are really asking me three related questions:
What drives me, personally, in politics –- why do I do it, what gets me out of bed every day?
What’s the Government’s vision for Australia –- what do we want Australia to look like in five years, ten years?
And what’s the Government actually doing? What are the goals which make that vision real?
That’s exactly the formula that a leader, and especially a Prime Minister, needs to keep hammering — the connection of their personal vision, with where the Government wants to take the country, with how it’s going to do it.
Gillard proceeded to flesh it out, talking about “hard work, education, respect” as her personal vision, a government objective of “a strong economy – and opportunity for all” and “prosperity … sustainability … and fairness. Govern for all Australians. And stay strong in the world” as her government’s goals.
It’s not the most compelling vision statement ever by a long shot — especially not a simple government objective of “a strong economy” and “prosperity” — when they should be the means to a broader, more traditional Labor vision.
Nonetheless, it’s a signal Gillard and her team have worked out that they need to start explaining to voters exactly what they want to do in power. It’s a critical step, one that must be taken over and over over again until voters have the same sense of where Julia Gillard wants to take Australia as they had about John Howard, Paul Keating and Bob Hawke.
And then she’s got to deliver on it.