Labor must finally break its addiction

Unless Labor can wean itself off the drug of opinion polls, the leader it chooses in coming days won't last long enough to have a chance of election victory in six years.

The odds are that the next leader of the Labor Party, in order to be the next Labor prime minister, will have to be opposition leader for at least the next six years.

The size of the Coalition’s victory and the fact that Labor managed its lowest primary vote in 100 years more or less ensures that Tony Abbott has secured at least two terms of Coalition government.

Given the fate of opposition leaders in Australia on both sides of politics over the past 30 years or more, the chances of a Labor opposition leader lasting six years or more is unlikely.

One of Tony Abbott’s great achievements was that he managed to unite the Coalition behind his leadership despite the fact that he was considered unelectable by many of his colleagues when he won the Liberal party leadership by one vote from Malcolm Turnbull.

He was mightily helped of course by the fact that the Labor government, first when Rudd was prime minister and then when Julia Gillard replaced Rudd, was perhaps the most politically inept and the most riven by bitter personal rivalry – and not just between Rudd and Gillard – in Australia’s post-war history.

Abbott’s achievement is not inconsiderable, but there can be no denying the fact that to a large extent, both his longevity as opposition leader and his substantial victory on Saturday can in large part be attributed to what essentially was Labor’s slow and relentless political suicide over the past six years.

Because of all this, because Tony Abbott needed to do little more than remain disciplined, make himself as small a target as possible and frankly, adopt many of Labor’s policies – on education, on health, on the NDIS and even on fiscal policy – it is impossible to guess at what sort of prime minister Abbott will make.

He is not the Tony Abbott he was when he was John Howard’s chief head-kicker and he has shed − or at least put aside − the social conservatism that once defined him and that made him such a hate figure on the progressive left.

We will soon find out. Generally speaking, it is the unforeseen – and unforeseeable – challenges that confront governments and how such governments meet those challenges, which determines their success or failure.

For the Labor Party, despite some significant policy achievements and the way it steered the country through the GFC – and remember, the Turnbull-led opposition supported much of the Rudd fiscal stimulus package – difficult and turbulent times lie ahead.

It is not just the legacy of six years of dysfunctional government and party disunity that have to be overcome. Labor has essentially been a party in turmoil, badly led and searching for a direction since the defeat of the Keating government in 1996.

It went through a succession of leaders – Beazley twice, Mark Latham, Simon Crean and then Kevin Rudd, not because of any great debates about the future direction of the party – there were no such debates – but because of an obsession with finding a leader who could produce good opinion poll outcomes.

Indeed, with Mark Latham and with Kevin Rudd, there were many in the party who were concerned that both Latham and Rudd were big risks but these senior Labor people went with Latham and Rudd anyway because Labor was desperate for a 'popular' leader who would win an election for the party .

This focus on leadership was Labor’s greatest failing in opposition and of course it spilt over into its years in government. Kevin Rudd, who surely will be most remembered for the cult of personality which he was able to impose on the Labor Party, was the ultimate result of this Labor leadership obsession.

Even assuming that Kevin Rudd’s time is up, that he will go quietly at some time in the near future by leaving the parliament – and that is a big assumption – the past decade and more of leadership instability won’t be easily overcome. The past can’t be so easily forgotten.

This means that unless the Labor Party can wean itself off the drug of opinion polls, the leader it chooses in the coming days will not be the leader who takes the party to an election victory six years from now at the earliest.

It will not be enough for Labor MPs to mouth clichés about disunity meaning death − which of course is true. The culture of the party needs to change. Labor needs a period of introspection in which it examines how it ended up being a party totally focused on finding the ‘right leader’ and it became the party that sacrifices leaders – including prime ministers − at the drop of an opinion poll.

The Labor Party needs to examine what it means to be a social democratic party in a globalised world when economic growth, which was the engine on which the welfare state was built, is unlikely to be at pre-GFC levels in the foreseeable future.

And if climate change is really the greatest challenge of our times, does the ETS that Rudd cobbled together to replace the carbon tax in a few days after he replaced Julia Gillard meet that challenge? It will take time for Labor to convince Australians that it is serious about tackling climate change and, more importantly, that there is no alternative to doing so.

Let’s assume that, finally, Kevin Rudd’s dominance over the Labor Party is over, that soon, along with Julia Gillard, he too will be gone and the rivalry between them that killed his Labor government will be over.

Most of those who were soldiers on either side in this rivalry, who spent so much of their time and political energy promoting leadership instability and leadership challenges, who became addicted to fomenting leadership speculation in the media, remain in parliament.

Indeed, some of them are spoken of as serious leadership contenders. Perhaps that’s unavoidable given the talent available but it does not engender great confidence in the possibility of a focus on policy and the hard work of rebuilding the party.

Addictions, including an addiction to the search for a ‘great’ leader, are not that easy to overcome.