Labor's conviction deficit

Labor has circled the wagons but all the weapons are pointing inwards. Until a clear leader of conviction emerges, the party will continue to suffer.

As another leadership challenge drifts ominously towards the Labor castle, the party’s relentless game of thrones has more than ever before highlighted its current, key deficiency – a backbone.

Instead of sifting through what by now can only be called ‘the survivors’ of the hung parliament for a successor, Labor needs to steady the ship. If not for the prime minister, than for the Labor brand.

To do this, Labor’s only recourse is straight talk.

Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard need to stand side by side and admit their errors. They need to apologise to one another, and more importantly to the Australian people, for inflicting on voters the kind of petty, tit-for-tat behaviour most of us haven’t seen since we outgrew the backyard sandpit.

And they need to stop playing the victims of a ‘media circus’.

Neither Rudd, nor Gillard can complain about journalists raking over an issue they deem to be buried, if they both refuse to attend its funeral. The question of leadership has been in political purgatory since Gillard first toppled Rudd in 2010, sustained by a conspicuous lack of public contact between the PM and her fallen predecessor and a preference for interparty communication via Chinese whispers (or should that be Mandarin whispers?).

Both have been victims of their own ambitions. Both have paid, or at least look set to pay, the price for their failure to communicate effectively. And the simple reason is they have been perceived, rightly or wrongly, as not heeding their own words – namely speaking, voting, and legislating with a clear set of convictions.

It’s time for Labor to sack the speechwriters and burn the cue cards. A stage managed Gillard does not work – her true self may not do much better but it will finally lay down a real challenge to the Coalition, who until now have seemed on an election-winning trajectory thanks in large part to a strict regime of heavily controlled media appearances.

Rather than following suit, Labor could find its salvation in the candour and conviction of the prime minister and the man whose job she took. The pair of them must repent, atone and repeat.

Why Labor hasn’t taken a more off-script approach sooner simply beggars belief. Without a scriptwriter or a big book of rhetoric to hide behind Tony Abbott is reduced to, well, the man whose gaffes single-handedly cost the Coalition the election in 2010. No small feat when you consider it was against a party limping along after a bloody internal revolt.

The Gillard/Rudd pairing will always have to endure cynicism, and to a great extent they have made their own bed in that regard. However, for our part as voters – as creators and consumers of news – we have to allow for the possibility of respectful disagreement between senior party leaders.

Funnily enough, the electorate does not vote members into parliament in the hope that they will become lifelong BFFs and spend endless hours in the chambers singing Kum Ba Ya hand-in-hand. Do they have to like each other? No. Do they have to respect each other? Yes.

And here we are back where we began. A palpable lack of respect and a deficit of conviction. Unsurprisingly, it starts at the top, with the party’s two biggest personalities, and trickles down.

The leader of a party is only as valuable as the support he or she enjoys. Support here is not blind faith, nor is it unquestioning obedience. Disagreement is not dissent (a footnote overeager journalists would do well to remember).

Homogeny has never been the ambition of democracy, nor should it be. The fact that impassioned debate has been viewed as a sign of weakness at every turn reflects as much on the electorate’s fetishistic appetite for peril as it does Labor’s complete inability to communicate.

As a nation – as the media elite – we have become obsessed with conducting a post-mortem, ante-mortem, on the ALP fuelled by ever greater helpings of schaudenfreude.

But in surrendering to the cathartic euphoria of doing so, not only do we overlook the fact the Labor Party is not dead, we fail to truly comprehend the moral vacuum that has undone it so ungracefully.

All the party reforms and strategy meetings in the world won’t save Labor if it won’t save itself and admit it has lost its conviction.