No new leader will fix a broken Labor brand

Even if Labor reinstated Kevin Rudd and won in September, it would not solve its massive underlying problems developed during four terms in opposition to Howard governments.


Kevin Rudd might save the Labor furniture. He might even be in with a chance of pulling off a highly unlikely Labor win. But he won't address Labor's fundamental problems. Indeed, in staving off a shattering defeat, Rudd might give further excuses to a hollowed-out party to avoid facing its flaws.

It's just over two weeks since Labor wise-head John Faulkner declared to caucus his shame about the deal thrashed out between Gary Gray, George Wright and Brian Loughnane for political parties to, inter alia, receive a 40 per cent rise in public funding. That moment was swamped by the subsequent imbroglio that enveloped both sides over the deal over the ensuing days, but it remains a powerful image: the Labor elder with a long commitment to accountability and parliamentary ethics ashamed of his own party, and prepared for it to be known publicly.

Faulkner is also the author, along with his now-colleague Bob Carr, and Steve Bracks, of Labor’s 2010 election review, which sits gathering dust on Labor shelves along with its recommendations in such areas as increasing grassroots participation and making party membership more meaningful.

Labor's structure is broken. Its links with the trade union movement remain intact, and such links can be both positive and negative: in recent years, the union movement has provided Doug Cameron and Ed Husic to the parliamentary ranks, as well as Craig Thomson. But as a mass membership party it is dead, with its remaining, ageing members going through participational processes that have more in common with the 1950s than the digital era.

And Labor's core values are broken. Partly this is historical: once you have delivered universal healthcare, delivered compulsory super, once you've broken the economy out of the constrictive 20th century protectionist model and globalised it, once you've delivered a massive generational rise in the standard of living of Australians, what does the party of the working man do, beyond defend that structure, or try to extend it (DisabilityCare), or use market mechanisms to address economic challenges like climate change?

(Labor isn't the only outfit with this challenge: witness the incapacity of Australia's business peak bodies to cope with the results of a successful process of economic reform - having been handed one of the world's strongest economies, with massive investment flows, a strong currency, low inflation and interest rates, a safe-haven reputation and low unemployment, business continues to parrot the same lines it was using in the 1980s, demanding lower wages and conditions, more business welfare, lower taxes and less regulation.)

But Labor's values problem isn't merely historical. When Labor set out to target foreign workers via the 457 visa issue, it set itself against one of its traditional support bases, ethnic communities. When Labor shifted single parents onto Newstart, and insisted there wasn't enough money in the budget - because it wasn't taxing enough - to lift Newstart when even business groups and hard-Right economists think it's too low, it undermined its claim to represent fairness and the prime minister's claimed interest in gender equality.

Most of all, Labor's capacity to communicate with voters is broken. It has produced a generation of politicians who struggle to explain complex policy or the need for reform to voters; when your best cut-through communicators are backbenchers like Doug Cameron or have retired, like Lindsay Tanner, you're in trouble. Julia Gillard has shown she can effectively articulate her view of Australia's economic challenges and her response to them, but she struggles to cut through with voters and lacks strong back-up.

Labor is an example of learned helplessness; having shied away from embracing and explaining complex policy in the long years of opposition, it found it could not re-acquire the habit when it was back in office. Having preferred to feign party unity rather than encouraging robust policy debate, it found it no longer could debate.

Instead, it has substituted media management and centralised control of messaging for communication, or simply, as Kevin Rudd did with the CPRS, abandoned complex policy when it became politically problematic - as one Rudd supporter recently noted to Crikey, many of Labor's current problems began under Rudd, not Gillard. This has left it vulnerable both to a hostile media and an opposition leader who, unlike his predecessors, understood the virtue of fastening onto the cut-through message of "no" and sticking to it.

And Labor still hasn't got over John Howard. Howard continues to haunt Labor from his political grave, even though Labor drove him out of office and humiliated him by taking his seat. Its caution and skittishness once back in power, its helplessness on asylum seekers, its conviction that it must offer a kind Howard-lite version of government, are all the product of a party that lost four elections on the trot to the man.

Rotating a new or old leader in won't fix these problems, not even if an Abbott government proves a disaster and Labor merely has to look competent to be competitive. A new leader will merely be a new face on a party with a flawed structure, ideological framework and communications capacity. Gillard is right about not wasting breath on leadership speculation. Labor has more fundamental issues to consider.

This story first appeared on on June 13. Republished with permission.

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