Crises happen, and life goes on

Labor may just be able to get on with governing before it's too late.

Labor may just be able to get on with governing before it's too late.

THE Prime Minister's new-found vigour was exemplified by her "settle in" comment at her victory news conference, which was followed by a sterling performance in question time. "Settle down" might be in order, too. The frisson surrounding the Labor leadership ballot was unprecedented, even though in many ways the events were not.

Journalists and spectators not only crammed the corridors of Parliament House, but their heavy use of technology sent Telstra 3G into a meltdown. The Labor Party is renowned for its discipline, so we all wondered who let the dogs out and to what enduring effect.

Leadership contests are a fact of life for political parties. Great parties can have great crises, and life goes on. Political parties have these, just as do most relationships. It is how you manage the upheaval that determines your success and longevity.

Not all parties manage it. Just because you get a comprehensive result in a leadership ballot does not mean you will succeed in uniting a fractured party room or caucus.

Similarly, sitting in the same room as, and working with, people who have attacked you is not easy either. But those MPs particularly former leaders who can put aside their hurt and bitterness and put their party front and centre are those who succeed.

When I left the Democrat leadership in 2002, like many Australians I was stunned when the members of my party room immediately took to the airwaves to publicise their narrative and display flagrant disunity. It was a time that called for quite reflection.

Until the past week, I thought the Democrats' behaviour and internal combustion extraordinary. Labor MPs, indeed ministers, sniping about the former prime minister's leadership style, using words such as "fraud" and "demeaning", defied any sense of Labor unity or discipline and, more importantly, further lowered the esteem in which politicians are held.

Yet the government has not been entirely dysfunctional when it comes to policymaking and implementation. The means testing of the private health insurance rebate (a Democrat initiative once opposed by Labor), changes to superannuation, the proposed disability insurance scheme and paid parental leave (once a Democrat private member's bill) are goals for Julia Gillard (there are policy failings too), but they are being "obscured", to use the Prime Minister's terminology.

Not unlike a previous royal marriage, this prime ministership always had an extra person in it. Monday's ballot surely must solve that. In many ways, it was democracy at work: fisticuffs weren't had nor were chairs thrown. Nobody spilt blood, despite verbiage about bloodletting.

The immediate display of harmony by opposing MPs (witness the joint media appearances after the ballot), the Gillard/Albanese tag-team in the suspension debate and even Senator Mark Arbib's resignation were all part of the "uniting" and "healing" process. This suggests they might just be able to get on with the business of governing before it's too late.

A crisis in a political party has implications for us all. When a party tears itself apart, there are consequences for the nation. As I watched this saga unfold, my heart was heavy. I can only reflect on how, 10 years ago, the demise of my party meant so much to the body politic.

Natasha Stott Despoja is a former leader of the Australian Democrats and senator for South Australia from 1995 to 2008.

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