Labor should govern less and do more

Radical reform in short bursts is better than trying to govern forever.

Radical reform in short bursts is better than trying to govern forever.

BASED upon Hemingway's travels through France and Spain, the largely American cast of The Sun Also Rises are emblematic of the disillusioned Lost Generation, those irreversibly damaged physically and mentally by the horrors of World War I. Paradoxically, Hemingway portrayed this generation as remarkably resilient.

Labor circa 2012 strikes me as Australian politics' Lost Generation.

Metaphorically speaking, the party's indulgences (February's leadership showdown), penchant for self-exile (the Napoleonic Rudd), public displays of existential angst (hard man Anthony Albanese shedding tears) and frequent aimlessness are eerily similar. Yet even her fiercest critics acknowledge that Julia Gillard "won't lie down and die".

Just as the Great War scarred much of humanity, so too Labor's Lost Generation was psychologically maimed by its long period in opposition (1996-2007). As John Howard proceeded to win election after election, Labor strategists lost their nerve and their heads.

In 2003 Simon Crean became the first Labor leader to be denied the chance to fight an election. His successor, Mark Latham, lasted just over a year before resigning. Kim Beazley was dispatched by his colleagues in favour of the Rudd/Gillard dream team during late 2006. This was despite the fact that Beazley Labor's primary vote hovered around 40 per cent for most of 2006.

Crucially, following the 2001 "Tampa" election, Labor accepted the conservative meme that the electorate was irredeemably Tory.

According to this apocryphal tale, McMansion-dwelling "battlers" salivated over Howard's breakfast talkback radio appearances and woke in cold sweats fretting over asylum seekers.

Enter stage right, Kevin 07, the loveable nerd who won our electoral hearts.

Yet Labor's most debilitating psychological ailment, developed early in the life of the Rudd administration, was the belief that only a long-term government along the lines of Howard's (or the Hawke-Keating 13-year stint) could be regarded as a political success. Thus maintaining a commanding position in the polls with an eye to the next election trumped selling policies or establishing effective governing processes.

Rudd is gone but Labor's polling obsession remains. Last week's Newspoll (the ALP's primary vote stood at a three-month high) and Monday's Age/Nielsen poll (Labor's lowest-ever result) saw Labor MPs ride an emotional rollercoaster. Groundhog Day-like, senior ministers declared their support for Gillard following the subsequent leadership speculation.

Even countenancing changing leaders arguably demonstrates that Labor cannot govern itself and therefore cannot govern the nation. Nihilistic chatter about the leadership must end. More importantly, Labor MPs ought to face the inconvenient truth that a third term in office might be undesirable. Perhaps two terms is sufficient.

It's not popular to mount this case in Labor circles but a social democratic party needs to be psychologically prepared to spend much of its time out of office, bringing about radical reform in short bursts rather than seeking to govern in perpetuity. As Labor speechwriter Dennis Glover has written: "The more effort you expend trying to stay in power, the less effort you expend trying to change the world."

Arguably, the best Labor administrations have implemented sweeping reforms within a relatively short time. Andrew Fisher's 1910-13 term established the Commonwealth Bank of Australia, extended compulsory arbitration, introduced a maternity allowance and created an Australian navy. Ben Chifley's 1945-49 administrations developed a bold program of postwar reconstruction hallmarked by a vastly expanded welfare state.

In less than three years Gough Whitlam's "crash or crash through" government buried White Australia, established a universal national health scheme known as Medibank, pursued Aboriginal land rights and abolished university fees. Most of the crucial Hawke-Keating economic reforms came early in that era. Even Keating's "fag end" prime ministership brought compulsory superannuation and Native Title legislation.

Had Labor lost power in 2010 after just three short years, the Rudd-Gillard government would still have been able to boast of having saved Australia from recession during the global financial crisis, pumped billions of dollars into our schools, established the national broadband network, cremated WorkChoices, and apologised to the stolen generations.

Yet Gillard's beleaguered minority government remains frightened of an electorate that it suspects of being obsessed with material self-interest and disproportionately worried about asylum seekers.

And instead of spending its time changing the world shaping debate and opinions Labor is all too often paralysed by a fear of losing office.

There are some signs that Gillard understands the "govern less, do more" caper. Yet even now significant reforms most significantly implementing the Gonski report's recommendations are talked of as third-term issues. Gillard's carbon pricing scheme has become her Lord Voldemort the policy that must not be named.

This talented if flawed generation of Labor men and women could suffer the same tragic fate as Hemingway's Jake and Lady Brett: sadly lamenting what could have been.

Nick Dyrenfurth is a lecturer at the National Centre for Australian Studies at Monash University and is the author or editor of several books on Labor politics.

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