Labor's reviews: Diagnosing defeat

11 Jun 2002

David Burchell looks at what Neville Wran’s review of the 2001 election campaign does and doesn’t tell us about why Labor lost.

SOME WEEKS AGO I received a phone call from an old acquaintance who works nowadays at the ABC. He needed to ask me a small favour. We chewed the cud over Labor’s very public discomfiture on the issue of the mandatory detention of asylum-seekers. “Ah, I’ve been disillusioned with Labor so many times,” he sighed with cheerful world-weariness, “that I’ve learnt to expect it.”

Curious, I asked him what he thought would have happened to Labor if they’d gone into last year’s election with a more big-hearted, generous-spirited policy on asylum-seekers. “Oh, they would have been massacred, of course,” he replied, equally cheerily. “Surprising how many people are in denial about that.” I promised the small favour, and we went our separate ways, with the usual salutations.

My friend could no doubt call upon what one might call the Walt Whitman defence. (“Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes.”) Far more disturbing is the current preference for simply eliding this paradox altogether. According to this view Labor would actually have thrived on a kindler, gentler policy on refugees. Virtue would somehow have been its own reward. Or else, as the NSW Labor Council secretary John Roberson put it rather loftily, the innate big-heartedness of the Australian worker would have come to the rescue. Australian workers have always reached out to help others, he told Labor Council organ Workers Online, and with just a little bit of persuasion they would have volunteered to do so again.

Maybe it was claims like these that prompted the NSW ALP to select former state premier Neville Wran to chair its own review of Labor’s 2001 election campaign from the NSW perspective. After all, many years ago it was Neville Wran who gratuitously reminded delegates to a NSW party conference that “the workers” were actually “selfish bastards” who looked to Labor to make their lives easier, not to raise their hearts to a new pitch of generosity. Wran is himself a highly visible advocate of a kinder, gentler policy on refugees. Yet, the NSW party no doubt reasoned, he was not the sort of man to go all watery-eyed over the supposed innate virtues of Australian workers. Especially when these workers were being spoken to, in political terms, not as workers but as jealous possessors of Australian citizenship.

Review fever
Labor is currently in full-blown review mode. There is the federal policy review, coordinated by Jenny Macklin, which has the brief of scrutinising every one of Labor’s policies other than its opposition to the further privatisation of Telstra. There is a federal commission of review, co-chaired by Wran and Bob Hawke, pledged to overhaul the party’s internal mechanisms and processes. And there was Wran’s NSW review, which aimed to investigate the loss in NSW in relation to the election campaign as a whole. At the time, no doubt, all this seemed like a good idea - a kind of collective purgation after a dose of very nasty medicine.

The problem with this clustering of reviews, however, is that it gives a unhealthy impression of navel-gazing. It is entirely understandable that voters should wonder about the importance of ‘the 60/40 rule’ for Labor’s survival as an alternative party of government - even if it does give ample opportunity for sundry (otherwise hibernatory) union leaders to demonstrate by their public demeanour why even 50 per cent may be quite a few percent too many. Nor is it obvious why the question of the pastoral responsibility of duty MPs to ALP branches should engage the imaginations of more than a tiny percentage of an electorate already in a decidedly sour mood.

Likewise, the NSW review was always destined to be a fraught business. On the one hand it provided an extensive opportunity for party members to vent their multifarious spleens after a time of internal convulsion. In a little more than a month the committee travelled the length of the great brown state, from Griffith to Dubbo and from Lismore to Cooma, listening to harangue after harangue from those who believe that the party no longer listens to them, that it’s lost its soul, that it’s become a party of suits, or do-gooders, or school-teachers, or caffe latte drinkers, or student politicians on the make. All of this at a time when the state assistant secretary was putting it around “off the record” that party members were chopping up their membership cards by the thousand.

On the other hand the review was also supposed to arrive at sober and considered views as to why the party lost in NSW, and the manner in which it did. Anyone who has attended such forums will know that combining these two briefs is never going to be easy. The draft report, which was delivered to the NSW ALP conference in May, is perhaps as good a stab at the task as could reasonably have been imagined. And yet the final result is not wholly satisfactory from either perspective.

The review’s first task was to explain the party’s bad showing in NSW. Of course, in a sense this ought to have been easy, since the prime reason for Labor’s defeat everywhere last November is not really in dispute. Yet, as my opening anecdote suggests, one should not underestimate the importance of articulating the bleeding obvious, especially in a political party so richly endowed with sophisticated and highly-educated observers skilled in the art of persuading themselves (and sometimes others, too) of almost anything they want to believe.

Bang, bang, bang
And state the bleeding obvious the authors do, with the brutal repetitive thud of an early-morning carpenter. It was Tampa and the debate on border protection which “destroyed the party’s chances of victory”, despite the grim disinformation campaign waged by the government since. The chief electoral role of border protection "was in reuniting One Nation voters with the Coalition", while at the same time driving a sharp wedge between Labor’s blue and white-collar constituents. These issues had a particular resonance in areas such as Western Sydney “where ethnic gang activity held media attention”. Tampa and September 11 together made John Howard look like a national leader of substance. And they helped to swamp Labor’s belatedly policy outpouring, which flowed on through the campaign almost unnoticed. It’s difficult to argue cogently against any of this.

Not surprisingly, the review ladles out the largest share of the blame for bad strategy to the federal rather than state party. Like many others, the authors criticise the strategy of maintaining a “small target” until the campaign itself, as also the unremitting, mind-numbing negativism of Labor’s GST-obsessed campaign approach. They echo recent criticisms by former federal secretary Bob Hogg on the lack of positive appeals to vote Labor, noting that Labor’s big electoral successes have all been occasions when “comprehensive and understandable policies were presented to offer the voters and their children a new hope for a better society”. And they insist that Labor’s credibility suffered from its refusal to fund any new spending out of cuts to existing programs, rather than supposed “waste and mismanagement”.

On the question as to why Labor did so much worse in NSW than in Australia as a whole the authors are less assured. As part of the review they commissioned two contrasting assessments (by John Birch and Shane Easson) of the impact of demographic trends on the party’s progress in NSW. Neither, however, adds much to what is already in the public domain, and the report’s authors in any case have chosen to split the difference between them, careful not to over-emphasise the supposed uniqueness of Sydney, while at the same time stressing the remarkable cycle of affluence and exclusion which has turned the city into one vast real-estate-driven soap opera.

The authors note that Labor failed to curb the suspicion of jittery upwardly-mobile Sydney mortgagees that double-digit interest rates are a necessary aspect of federal Labor rule. And they observe that a sense of robust affluence in NSW dulled anxieties about the GST. But they resist the language of “aspirationalism”, instead offering the well-meant homily that "all voters are aspirational" because all seek a better quality of life for their families.

The tender scalpel
If the report’s authors see themselves as consulting physicians, recommending surgery, there is a tangible gap between their diagnosis and prescription. Indeed, the surgical metaphor may be a little inexact. For the reasons discussed above, the report savours as much of ancient as of modern medicine: it is intended as a balm for Labor’s soul as much as a scalpel to its internal organs.

The authors, unsurprisingly, report that the chief malady afflicting Labor’s membership is that most corrosive of emotional ills, a burning sense of neglect. And they propose the usual raft of measures designed to address that great scalding hurt: more accountability of the parliamentary party to annual conference, the creation of regional assemblies to provide an escape-valve for discontent, the creation of policy forums for members, and the reform (once again) of the structure of local branches.

These reforms, unfortunately, run the risk of satisfying nobody. They may not appease the fabled legions of card-choppers, most of whom (if anecdotal evidence is any guide) are motivated by an aching sense of personal conscience transgressed, rather than by resentment at voting rules. Nobody, after all, who thought it better for Labor to have been massacred last November than to have stained its honour is likely to be excited by the prospect of humdrum new branch structures. At the same time, the changes will make it no easier for the party to appear decisive, positive and unified at the next election. Perhaps we will have to wait for Jenny Macklin’s policy review to pull off that little trick. Perhaps.

David Burchell, associate editor of APO, teaches in Humanities at the University of Western Sydney.(He is an unconscientious member of the ALP.)

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