FORMER cabinet minister Lindsay Tanner has warned that Labor could be entering a time of ''unprecedented bleakness'', in a swingeing critique describing the party as ''an electoral machine largely devoid of wider purpose''.
Mr Tanner slates the Gillard government's agenda as being driven by political circumstances and improvisation, and says the party needs a ''complete root-and-branch rethink about why we exist'', in his new book Politics with Purpose released today.
Tanner savages Labor
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Finance minister until he quit at the 2010 election, Mr Tanner says Labor governments ''still do good things, but at the behest of random external forces, not any kind of inner calling''.
While it is possible to make a case that the agenda of the federal government is driven by great Labor purposes, ''closer examination reveals a harsher truth'', he writes, in criticisms that undermine the Gillard government's claims to be pursuing Labor values.
''The traditional Labor things that the government has done have mostly been in response to external political circumstances, like the substantial increase in pensions.
''The unedifying gyrations on climate change and asylum seekers over the past 15 years hardly suggest a clear purpose. The national broadband network was an improvised response to an unexpected situation.''
He cites the proposal for a national disability insurance scheme - frequently highlighted by Julia Gillard - as showing how modern Labor functions. Although this was an archetypically Labor mission, there was little impetus for change from within the wider labour movement.
''We effectively outsourced this particular policy development to the Productivity Commission. Past equivalents used to be nurtured within the party, the trade union movement, and sympathetic non-government organisations.''
Mr Tanner stressed yesterday his commentary was about the Labor Party not the federal government. While there was overlap, it was much broader than the current government. He would not comment on individuals or the Labor leadership.
Around the world social democratic parties like the ALP are slowly unravelling, he writes.
Historically, Labor has been ''a fluid amalgam of ideals and interests'' but both have been ''swamped by careerism''.
''Too many leading figures in the party are now so unfamiliar with the idea of the public interest that they don't even bother to ask themselves where it lies.''
The political capital on which Labor's longer-term competitiveness depends ''is slowly melting away. Labor is like a business chasing market share through unsustainable discounting.
''We are slowly transforming from a party of political initiative to a default party, which seeks power on the basis of managerial competence and arbitrating the competing claims of economic and social interest groups.''
Mr Tanner cites three factors that have made modern Labor what it is: the growth of affluence; the rise of the Greens, to the left of Labor; and the emergence of a distinct class of political professionals, who heavily influence the Labor Party. The latter group ''is extremely adept at the mechanics of politics, but largely uninterested in its purpose''. While none of the remaining Labor governments should be written off the total picture ''is very grim'', with the political capital that decades of Labor people created being eaten up without enough being done to replenish it.
''Some leading Labor figures seem unable to visualise a world in which the party is completely marginalised and lacks the wherewithal for sustained recovery.''
Labor needs to ask what its purpose is and what it is seeking to achieve. ''When our answers to these questions no longer contain the empty shibboleths of a bygone world and vacuous appeals to defeat the conservatives, we'll know we are on the way back'', he says.
''We are all under the sway of politics without purpose. And politics without purpose is pointless.''