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Sep 2, 2013

Labor's launch illustrates its dilemma of 'vision'

Kevin Rudd's modest but realistic campaign launch reveals the problems of a party that has had its "big picture" nullified by its opponents.


One of the underappreciated things about Paul Keating was that, even as the shadows lengthened on his prime ministership and the Coalition took up and held a solid lead over Labor ahead of the 1996 election, he never quit reforming. Even an economy struggling to shake off the damage of the early ’90s recession didn’t deter him; if anything, it spurred him on. It wasn’t enough to establish enterprise bargaining after the 1993 election, recognise native title and work to establish APEC free trade goals. There was superannuation to expand and the National Competition Policy to force through a recalcitrant Council of Australian Governments. And that was before you got to issues like the republic. Reform, reform, reform — for Keating each term in government was precious, a limited time period to drive an agenda that was a seamless whole that stretched from our level of national savings to Australian identity to our relationship with indigenous Australians to our economic and security future in Asia.

As a vision, of course, it fatigued voters, who turfed him out in 1996 in favour of a man who promised a national pause in which Australians could be relaxed and comfortable and never, ever have to worry about issues like a GST. Good policy, it turned out, wasn’t always good politics.

How much Keating approved yesterday as he watched Prime Minister Kevin Rudd “launch” Labor’s election campaign yesterday, less than a week out from an election in which the party appears headed for defeat, isn’t too clear. Keating got his nod, along with Hawke, also present, Whitlam and — in a welcome grace note — Julia Gillard as the architects of key Australian reforms (super, Medicare, tertiary education, DisabilityCare) from Rudd. But Rudd’s launch speech was strictly back-to-basics, focusing on more training, on support for small business via tax write-offs, on guarantees to job seekers.

And then there was the protectionist tone of Rudd’s proud extension of “Australian Industry Participation Plans” to require more operators of large projects to demonstrate how they’re seeking to involve local firms in their supply chains — or put more simply, additional paperwork for big projects. It’s protectionism for wimps, without even the ATM-like dispensation of cash that characterises Labor’s car manufacturing policy, like Rudd embracing economic nationalism but not actually proposing to do anything to restrict foreign investment beyond a few vague aspirations.

Rudd, of course, had already tried the “vision” thing over the last fortnight, and it made him look foolish: northern Australia, high-speed rail, moving naval bases around for the hell of it. If Keating’s “vision” was a coherent set of strategies that he had woven together over more than a decade in politics before even becoming a senior minister, Rudd’s “vision” was the butcher’s paper from an all-nighter with advisers the day before. The focus yesterday on jobs, on training, on small business tax arrangements, was thus a welcome return to reality, however Small Picture, a return to the turf that Labor is strongest, or least weak, on: creating and protecting jobs for Australians, giving Australians an opportunity through education and training. There was even a long-term threat to take over technical training from the states.

This isn’t, or isn’t merely, to make the tired, nostalgia-laden comparison with previous generations of politicians. Part of Rudd’s dilemma, and it would have been Julia Gillard’s dilemma too, is that it’s hard to use a substantial reform program as the basis for an election campaign when your opponent has signed up to it. There’s bipartisanship on DisabilityCare and even a levy to pay for it; and while the Liberals patently don’t believe in the basic principles of the Gonski education funding reforms and would prefer simply to throw taxpayers’ money at private schools, they’ve locked themselves into deals with key states that will prove very difficult to escape. Between that, Opposition Leader Tony Abbott’s refusal to countenance IR reform beyond re-establishing Australia’s Stasi in the construction industry and shadow treasurer Joe Hockey signing up to Labor’s fiscal policy, the Labor vision of protecting jobs, overhauling school funding and establishing DisabilityCare becomes problematic for filling five weeks of an election campaign.

Thus Labor’s relentless focus on costings: the Coalition’s refusal to reveal its costings except to hand-picked press gallery journalists provides some substance to the Labor charge that its numbers don’t add up and it will be forced to slash and burn the budget. That’s entirely possible, but it’s not currently reflected in the broader unity ticket now between Hockey and Treasurer Chris Bowen, that there’ll be no return to surplus in the next parliamentary term. The Liberals’ fiscal strategy is less about slashing and burning than about hoping the economy picks up and lifts revenue sufficient that they can get back to surplus more quickly.

(Of course, if that happens, interest rates will return to more normal levels fairly quickly, but that’s a political problem for down the track.)

Yesterday’s launch was thus one of a party visibly wondering where to go next not merely in a losing election campaign but in the longer term. Mere managerialism can’t suffice for Labor, especially given a biased media that will relentlessly attack it  on every possible front. It has to offer voters more — but more of what?


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37 thoughts on “Labor’s launch illustrates its dilemma of ‘vision’

  1. Gavin Moodie

    It is a pity that Labor doesn’t adopt good vocational education polices until a week before an election it seems likely to lose.

  2. Warren Joffe

    BK “As a vision, of course, it fatigued voters, who turfed him out in 1996 in favour of a man who promised a national pause in which Australians could be relaxed and comfortable and never, ever have to worry about issues like a GST. Good policy [you referred to “reform” and more “reform” BK], it turned out, wasn’t always good politics.”

    Will Part 2 of your “Australian Elections: the Longer View” substitute Howard for Keating as the subject of your remarks?

    He was a reformer, especially if you add his support for Hawke and Keating up to and including Keating’s last IR reforms. What a pity that Work Choices was so bungled….

  3. Warren Joffe

    A friend of a friend of a friend has added to the circulation of a letter to The Age which the author and friends are obviously pleased with – nice show of learning, maybe a bit much for Age letters editors?? Anyway, it could be up your street Bernard and you may wish to comment. It says that Brian Costar has missed the mark in attributing all the ALP’s lack of vision and regenerated philosophy to poll gazing and search for a vote winning messiah. It points to Michel’s “iron law of oligarchy” and applies the idea to the trade union leaders’ ownership of the ALP past and present. (WikiP tells me Michels wrote about 1911 and was a “fascist” and “socialist” amongst other things). And indeed, wouldn’t you as a well-heeled investor-partner in the contemporary ALP LLP make the appointment of the right managing director your first priority? What do you think BK?

  4. Observation

    I have come down to a very simple summary of how this election is developing. You see Kevin uses grown up words. Stringing sentences together to explain complex issues and focusing on a long term vision. How you need to remain flexible as the world economy is moving and shifting at a pace never seen before. Like a college lecturer boring the hell out of us in the class room where all this boring stuff makes us turn off.

    On the other hand Tony is very simplistic with his statements. More like talking to the preschoolers rather than college students. “Stop the boats”, “Make a better economy”, “Sorry about that, it was just a Dad moment”, There are not just goodies and baddies”. Oh the words of such wisdom has warmed the cockles of the Australian swinging voter.

    Maybe in this last week the Australian attention span will increase a bit so we stop and actually absorb some policy differences and, heaven forbid, become a little more critical on what is on offer.

  5. Dogs breakfast

    Re Mr Jofffe’s comments – Howard basically brought in the GST in 11 years of government. His worshippers like to make the claim, but the record isn’t reflective of it.

    They tinkered with superannuation laws, made a hash of those with serious demographic time bombs left for someone else to defuse, loaded up middle and upper class welfare, didn’t have the strength to actually implement their own policies on education funding, so that the wealthiest private schools still got over the odds.

    Then they went berserk with unsustainable IR laws, which were annulled as soon as they were voted out.

    Hardly makes for a profound record of reform. One genuine reform left standing, to Keatings many.

    But let’s not sully up a campaign with reality. This one has been terrible, and it’s easy to see why Rudd was so disliked, and dysfunctional, as the PM. He fair dinkum can’t keep on message. Lack of focus and an inability to explain their genuine successes are Rudd’s problems, nobody else.

  6. Salamander

    Labor’s problem is Murdoch – his employees and his potential employees. Which is just about every MSM journo in the country given the current ecomomics of newspapers. Period.

  7. Gavin Moodie

    If only Labor’s problems were all down to Murdoch or even the mainstream media.

    I think Howard’s gun buy back was good policy implemented well and at some cost to the Coalition’s electoral support. Indeed, the Coalition was probably better placed to implement this policy than any other.

    An Abbott government would prolly be better placed to get Indigenous Australians recognised in the Constitution and may be better on closing the gap than Labor.

  8. Salamander

    I meant Labor’s electoral problems – what else is there at the moment!

  9. Observation

    Murdoch has made it difficult but it cant be made accountable for everything. The Labor party has never been able to get any of its messages to cut into the public domain for the last three years. There is just no individual among them that can deliver a line with punch.

    Its all a blurred drone. There is no skill in message delivery. An orator who when they speak you hang on to every word because it is believable and does not sound like a well rehearsed statement.

    The Libs have well rehearsed statements but it is some how delivered with more conviction with each time they say it.

  10. Salamander

    I don’t believe that.
    “There is just no individual among them that can deliver a line with punch.” With due respect, that’s just rubbish.
    Firstly, you assume “punch” is an intrinsic quality, independent of how the media presents it. Not true – ask any PR flack.
    Secondly, you must assume the LNP is good at it, hence their superiority. That lot must be among the least articulate in political memory. Not counting Howard of course!

  11. Gavin Moodie

    I’m not convinced that Labor’s electoral problem is due to its presentation of its policies – despite what Keane argues almost weekly – nor to its reporting by the media. Labor has been remarkably successful at communicating its strong and distinctive policies which it has stuck with despite difficulties. Thus, it gained acceptance of its national disability insurance scheme despite formidable difficulties in funding it and gained acceptance of Gonski despite private schools’ self interest and the Coalition’s unprincipled opposition and then opportunism.

    I suggest Labor’s problems originate from having weak policies or adhering to them weakly.

  12. Warren Joffe

    @ Dog’s Breakfast

    As Gavin Moodie has noted there is the gun buy-back for another big one. And just because he stuffed things up compared with what he and his colleagues would have hoped for education and IR that isn’t a reason for distinguishing him sharply from Keating as a would-be reformer, though, I grant BK and you that he never had Keating’s reckless sense of urgency. Even Work Choices was only reckless in over-using the Senate majority he only began to even suspect he might achieve after the election campaign began.

  13. zut alors

    Rudd should pose one simple question to Abbott/Hockey ie: how do you plan to improve a AAA credit rated economy?

    The economy can only head one way from this point.

  14. Warren Joffe

    @ zut alors

    Are you being super-sophisticated and recognising, as not many people do, that the ratings agencies have sacked all those incompetents who were responsible for the mis-ratings of derivatives like packaged sub-prime mortgages?

    Or are you just being a bit too cute? I mean how much does a AAA rating, or any other, tell you about an economy, and, if anything much, from which agencies (after all one of the big three has downgraded US Treasuries to AA but only one of them has)?

  15. Salamander

    Na, Gavin you’ve got to be way off beam. I’m surprised you so easily dismiss the probable propagandising effect of persistent destructive commentary and negative presentation by the msm – both headlines and Jonesville-style airwaves.

    NDIS and even Gonski are motherhood policies. Nobody can credibly argue with them so the naysayers didn’t even try. So they don’t count one way or the other – and good on Labor for getting them up in spite of general apathy. Lip service can sometimes be a useful thing.

    What counts are how the contentious policies are framed by the msm – like NBN that threatens News’ business model apparently. That one is a no-brainer for any media-savvy punter, and you can see how the media feels conflicted. Nothing to do with ratings for the 5-sec grab. All to do with whose interests are threatened. That’s what determines how it’s presented, and that’s what determines how those pivotal marginal punters perceive it.

    Admit it would be nice to have some hard data on all this. Almost enough to drag one back onto the research track!

  16. Observation

    Salamanda, I see your point of view. I agree the Libs are not articulate however the simple fact is they appear to be increasing their support by saying as little as possible while showing the properties of Teflon. Then to add insult to injury they highlight the way Labor waffle and “does this guy ever shut up”, which I believe was planned.

    My view is they are cruising through this election with any attacks from labor not making a scratch. I assume the public have stopped listening. Maybe they are at saturation point, maybe they just dont care enough to look into the detail, maybe its just being lazy or maybe they expected more from the Rudd rejuvenation and think this is the best its going to get.

    I know the Murdoch press influences their readership but I would like to think that the swinging voter is able to look past that drivel and look at the facts and detail. But the indications are they are not finding the time to listen to what labor has to say. Personally I think if they were, the pendulum would be swinging the other way.

  17. CML

    The rAbbott will be one of two things – either an unmitigated disaster, or a ‘do nothing’ fraud, as PM. For reasons that I will explain later, I think it will be the former. To take one example: just wait until all these LNP voters find out they are NOT getting the NBN without paying a $5000 connection fee. Great for the wealthy, but what about the rest of us, and the struggling small business people?
    I cannot believe that people will vote against their own best interests on this and a whole host of other issues, especially education and IR. That is where I also disagree with Gavin Moodie. What other factors are influencing this absurd reaction but the Murdoch media? As I mentioned last week, it is not as though the typical swinging voter religiously reads the Murdoch (and other) newspapers from cover to cover every day. But the former have reserved some of their most outrageous commentary for the FRONT pages of their newspapers. These are seen by just about everyone in newagencies, supermarkets, etc., even if they never buy a Murdoch rubbish newspaper. The subliminal affect of this action is manipulation of the masses by stealth. The punters don’t even know it is happening to them. And the other forms of media are just as bad – even the ABC seems to have given up any semblance of balance.
    Rudd and the Labor Party never stood a chance. This sort of behaviour takes us back to Germany in the 1930s. Having a fac+st government in power in this country in the 21st century is unbelievable!! To those who support the LNP, I hope you are happy with the outcome that you will put in place next Saturday. It could well take a generation to undo the damage this LNP government will inflict on our nation.

  18. Gavin Moodie

    I suggest that Labor performed very poorly on the mining tax, carbon tax and leadership changes. I can see why others might consider Labor disorganised on key issues. An Abbott government may be just as disorganised, but the Coalition has been very disciplined under his leadership.

  19. CML

    Yes Gavin, the LNP and the rAbbott have been very disciplined with their extreme negativity on ALL issues presented by the Labor Party (some of which they have now adopted!). And with their blatant lies! Everyone should read Joseph Stiglitz in the SMH today – just to get a feeling for how loose with the truth the rAbbott has been. I’ll back the Professor of Economics from Columbia University, and Nobel Laureate recipient (economics), any day against that rabble in the Coalition. Does Joe Hockey even know how the spell economics? It would help if he could ‘add-up’ as well!!

  20. CML

    I have been moderated. I would just like everyone to read the article by Joseph Stiglitz in the SMH today – that proves what ly+ng hounds the Coalition are. Be sure to read who Stiglitz is at the bottom of the article!!

  21. Salamander

    Until shown evidence to the contrary, I am sticking with the Murdoch effect. There is a lot of research in cognitive psychology on the power of “priming” in perception, in which the subject is subtly set up to perceive a stimulus in a deliberately pre-constructed way. I expect this effect or similar is being applied in the dark arts of PR. It’s a bit like subliminal advertising, in which a suggestion is made on the periphery of consciousness, but gets registered sufficiently to have an influence on subsequent behaviour.

    The speculations of your last paragraph attribute rational motivations that in my view are unwarranted : “I know the Murdoch press influences their readership but I would like to think that the swinging voter is able to look past that drivel and look at the facts and detail. But the indications are they are not finding the time to listen to what labor has to say.”

    Your account that punters are (optimistically, you admit) “looking past drivel” and “not finding time to listen” in my view overestimates the levels of processing of emotive propaganda. I am inclined to prefer the simpler, more primitive account which I think is the paradigm of “the hidden persuaders” – a phenomenon of human gullibility that we liberals downplay at our peril.

  22. Salamander

    Sadly I think you are on the right track. Manipulation of human gullibility, and a general population denial or unawareness of this fact, has become a defining feature of the current means of socio/ political control and of economic exploitation in our Western corporatocracies.

  23. CML

    And Gavin, who would know what the Labor message is? It is either ignored (almost completely), or turned upside down and inside out and distorted to the enth degree, particularly by the Murdoch press. On the other hand, everything the rAbbott does, and says, is absolutely wonderful. The mind boggles!!
    How the hell is anyone supposed to work out what the Labor party is saying, if they don’t read Crikey or similar publications? And we are definitely in the minority!

  24. Gavin Moodie

    I think the better question is: what are Labor’s big policies for its next term? The only Labor proposals I can recall are either weak or modest.

  25. AR

    Who did they have conducting the audience, a 40sometimes addict of Busby Berkely movies?
    The ‘wrapped’ applause, seemingly after each fatuous line, was nauseating enough but I waited in increasing horror for the obvious glitch – Krudd mentioned Abbott more of than Labor and it was inevitable that, after one of the (far too) many denunciations of putative toy policies, as the naughtyboy unMessiah paused, like the automaton he is, the idiots nearest the microphones biurst out with their robotic adulatory applause, utterl unconscious of the.. y’know ..words that had preceded their programmed response.
    If only the alternative were not so dire.
    Cheer up folks, at Krudd might lose his seat, I’d sacrifice a fatted calf for that.

  26. Scott

    I’m constantly amazed that the left’s fear of a certain media barron. There is no way that he can have the influence you guys prescribe to him. Especially since fairfax is pretty much following the same editorial line, albeit in higher prose.
    The reason labor is in the toilet is pretty simple….labor is an unpopular, ill disciplined government.
    But hey, I guess it must be easier to believe that the evil Rupert is the pied piper, playing his hypnotic tune and leading us, the ignorant masses, to the river. Better than doing a little bit of navel gazing on your own side, and seeing the dud policy options, the incompetence and the corrupt union influences.

  27. CML

    AR = P+ss off!

    Gavin, the Labor policies currently in train, are huge society changing ones. NBN, NDIS, Better schools, Denticare, just to name a few. They require lots of money, time and effort to implement over the next few years. Big contrast to the cr+p the Coalition is pedaling.
    Kevin Rudd is the only visionary leader we have, but when he looked beyond the next three years, and put some ideas out there for what might happen in five, ten, twenty years time, no one could handle it. Especially no one in the media!
    The Labor party have responsibly continued to propose small, but vital, changes to various programs such as TAFE, apprentice assistance, changes to the job seeker system and many other things which don’t cost a bucket of money we don’t have. Big difference to the spendthrift rAbbot – six billion dollars for his PPL scheme, which will disproportionately favour rich women, while those who choose to stay at home with their children, will get sweet bug+ar all. Very fair, NOT!! Beats me how one baby is worth $75000 while another one is worth nothing! And don’t run away with the idea that ‘big business’ is going to pay for it. All they will do is add the extra ‘levy’ on to the products that everyone in the community has to buy, including the stay-at-home mums and their partners. It is truly beyond comprehension why the LNP voters do not understand this.

  28. Gavin Moodie

    I agree that some of the policies that Labor introduced over the last 6 years are very important and require more important work to implement properly. However, I suspect that many voters have already ‘banked’ those changes.

    At least ostensibly Abbott is promising to implement Labor’s changes without Labor’s drama. To beat that Labor needs to propose more big ideas beyond the Coalition.

  29. the duke

    as a swinging voter my view is that to run the country, your house needs to be in order. Kudos to Rudd, he has tried his hardest to recoup electorate goodwill however he has no support. Aside from policy, I’ll be voting the ALP out based on instability which HAS leaked into the business community.

  30. CML

    Just watched Kevin Rudd PM on ABC TV Q&A. Rudd’s got his mojo back in spades! Pure gold performance!!
    The rAbbott did himself no favours by refusing to join Rudd on the program. There was much applause when Tony Jones made it very clear that Abbott had been invited, but had declined to appear, and some of the audience asking questions were not impressed by his absence.
    The twitter feed became more positive for Rudd as the program progressed. Very interesting!

  31. klewso

    Labor can’t help itself – starting at setting a goose like Swan on such a position, apparently thinking policy would sell itself – and ignoring the history of the edited disposition of the majority of the review media – from where most voters get to see news?
    When are they going to learn that square and round pegs go in square and round holes respectively, and that, when it comes to votes, factions “r” a step away from fractions?

    Forgive the mixed metaphors but I reckon the current Labor crop has failed because of in-breeding and self-gratification/pollination. Rotten, eaten out from within by Right-ants – manipulative, ego-centric, self-obsessed individuals handed power within the party, more interested in their own returns within their country club atmosphere.
    Let’s hope the phoenix can rise from this self-inflicted self-immolation – for those who have gone before, sacrificing so much?

  32. the duke

    I felt a bit sorry for the pastor last night.

    The Pastor obviously believes in all the fanciful bible stories however I thought that Rudd went a bit too far and I can’t help but think that it was a set up.

    However, in the event that the religious community kicks up a massive stink, I’d expect Rudd to do a backflip and continue with the Man/Woman marriage mantra.

  33. Observation

    It seems Labor has the ideas and visionary gumption, while the Libs have the stability. I can only wonder what the Libs would have had to offer at this election if the other option for leader had been in place instead of rAbbott.

  34. the duke

    @ Observation – there is no point in having ideas and vision if you don’t have the ability to implement. The incumbents have proven that they would struggle to manage a brothel.

  35. Hamis Hill

    Alas the invisible Vision of Wall to Wall conservatism, devoid of opposition.
    It’s not a Mirage!

  36. Steve Chamberlain

    Your last para, Bernard, hits the nail square on the head, even if it’s a nail that’s been hammered hard many times before. It’s that “that vision thing” that’s so lacking that has finally caught up with the ALP. Perhaps this time (how many times do they need) it will dawn on the selfish clueless gimps that run the party that self-interest and short-termism and playing leadershit musical chairs won’t wash. It never occurred to them at State level until it was Far Too Late and I suspect the same is true at the Federal. For all her faults I think Gillard had some inkling of what a coherent Labor vision should be about, but she was either a hopeless communicator or the din from the peanut gallery was so loud she couldn’t be heard – probably a bit of both. Rudd is and always was a middle manager and probably an OCD candidate, and given the selfism and myopia of those running the party was always the ALP’s golden boy – I truly hope they reap the harvest they sowed next Saturday. The current ALP has no real policies because it’s lost its vision, and it’s lost its vision because it’s abandoned its principles. It’s become Coalition-lite, it is as ‘fvck you I’m alright Jack’ as the LNP, the only difference is it’s less honest about it.

    Aside from the malign influence of News Corpse, the Australian electoral majority deserve Abbott (and worse yet, Morrison and Abetz and Brandis) for their simultaneous reluctance to think past the first headline in a Murdoch rag, their general political apathy and their wondrous blindness to the havoc that state Coalition governments are wreaking upon the land. Abbott as PM won’t be as bad as some have made out (his presence at international bunfights will least be a giggle, in the Dubya mould), but then Abbott isn’t running the Coalition.

  37. Venise Alstergren

    Perhaps this is the election the Rabbott had to have in order to put a fire cracker up the bum of the ALP?

    The thought of all those old men of the Liberal Party-senza a damn thought in their heads-banging each other on the back in mutually engendered congratulations makes me head for the nearest exit.

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