Labor's electoral trouble is more than Rudd-deep
Kevin Rudd at the National Conference of the Australian Labor Party in 2007. It is almost five year's since Mr Rudd was elected Australian Prime Minister. Photo: Getty Images
When Kevin Rudd took office - five years ago this week - the sun shone and birds sang with promise. The subsequent journey has been one of disappointment and despair. When, last week, Labor released its latest new plan to deal with asylum-seekers it slipped another gear. The party has finally relinquished any lingering moral claim that it may once have had to leadership. The circle has been squared.
Gough Whitlam built the glorious alliance that enabled Labor to regain office. He recognised winning and holding the old working class would not be enough to build an electoral triumph. Whitlam reached out to new groups; the aspirationals and the intellectuals. His government fell apart, but Bob Hawke re-forged the alliance and elevated the role of policy. The party was trying to do the right thing for the country. Not any more. Today the key question seems to be, ''What will change the vote of the person in Penrith?'' Because every policy, it seems, is devoted entirely to that end.
Before he became PM, I wrote an unauthorised biography of Rudd. He had refused to co-operate - perhaps suspecting I would not be writing the hagiography he desired. It was apparent, even then, many in Labor held significant reservations about the leader. His thrusting ego and superior manner alienated many, but that was not the most devastating critique volunteered by his colleagues. ''The truth is,'' one said, ''he's actually not very clever, certainly not nearly as smart as he thinks he is. He's also completely lacking in emotional intelligence. This compounds the problem.''
At that time, this was heresy. I could never use it. The politician was telling me simply by way of background, to help me understand the man I was dealing with. Yet how could a person with such personal inadequacies not merely lead the party to victory but be seen as a real saviour by so many ordinary Australians? I was driven to write again. My next book was an attempt to examine exactly why Labor won office in 2007. Was Rudd's role, in essence, irrelevant? Had people just had enough of John Howard? Would Kim Beazley have won anyway, simply because of the longevity of Howard's government, the Work Choices reform, climate change, etc? That answer seemed plausible, but it could not explain either Rudd's mysterious, enormous popularity, or why those who knew him best despised their leader.
My personal trilogy seemed completed with Rudd's downfall. So the answer had been revealed. A bad leader had led the party astray. Under Julia Gillard this would all, supposedly, change. Most particularly it appeared as if the party had seized the policy reins back from the leader. Labor's failures were explained away as being driven by the dysfunctional personality of the leader. The decision to buy 12 new submarines provided a classic example. No strategic analysis; nothing about the budgetary implications. It was a Rudd thought bubble, nothing more, and that was the way we were being governed - from submarines to the national broadband network. But if leadership explained the problem, surely things would now be right?
Despite all her initial talk about ''consensus'', Gillard has proved equally inept at translating good policy into practice. Just look and gasp at the ever-changing, incoherent and incompetent policy measures to ''deal'' with asylum-seekers. It is difficult not to assume the deliberate cruelty that's now being introduced into this issue is intentional. The party thinks it will ''play well'' in the marginal seats of western Sydney. And this insight gives us the key to decipher the government's flailing policy mix. It's not interested in principled outcomes. Instead, policy formulation is driven by a simple need: keeping the voters happy. It's not the frailty of poor leadership that explains the decline; it's organisational pathology.
The party machine has taken over the key role in decision-making. Examples abound. NSW provides example after example of individuals who have used Parliament and the unions like vending machines. That's why the assault on Gillard's character won't be brushed away. Years ago, perhaps, but she was living with someone who apparently saw nothing wrong in transforming union contributions into his own ''slush fund''. She supported - for way too long - another MP who offers dodgy explanations about how his credit cards paid for prostitutes. Instead of desiring government to implement policy, the party appears desperate to win simply for the baubles and lucre that will follow.
Labor has changed. The coalition that Whitlam built, between the workers and other groups, is disintegrating around us. Look at the recent ACT election. The outer suburbs of north and south Canberra, the places young people naturally gravitate to, both voted Liberal. There's no way of proving the link, however I believe this reflects massive disillusionment with Labor, most apparent at the federal level. And, tragically, by 20 past six on the next election night we'll find (despite all the talk of the narrowing polls) that Sydney's western suburbs have swung overwhelmingly to the Coalition.
The strategy of dividing the electorate into discrete sectors (youth, elderly, workers, etc) and pandering to their particular concerns before uniting them under the Labor banner has failed. The party has encouraged everyone to think of themselves first, instead of binding the different groups that make up society in a common cause. The pretence has been that only Labor can find the golden thread leading to the land of individual advancement.
That narrative has fallen apart. Voters have become so obsessed with hoarding their own, individual nuggets of gold that there is no room for society. Instead of binding the different groups in a common cause so that everyone can thrive, personal desire has corrupted the early ideals to become the new driving force behind the party. Wealth, rather than opportunity.
It appeared with Rudd out of the way, the chaos and mayhem of his government would pass. However, as another anniversary passes and nothing changes, it has become clear that the sickness resides at a deeper level.
Nicholas Stuart is a Canberra writer.