It will take some considerable time for the dust to settle after the wide-ranging review into Labor's 2019 election loss - an event that has left the party shell-shocked. But whether the review goes far enough and whether the right lessons will be learned remain pertinent questions.
The political environment has changed and continues to change, and like an army fighting in a rapidly-shifting battle zone, it has to adapt, both strategically and tactically. The old adage about generals always fighting the last war is apposite today in the political sphere.
The challenges facing 21st century Labor are not just organisational and structural; they are also cultural and, to a degree that remains largely unaddressed, existential.
A mildly reformist party such as the ALP, which positions itself left-of-centre, always faces a demonstrably more difficult task than its main conservative rival, whose over-arching aim - and certainly so in the Australian context - is to keep Labor out. In other words, to do whatever it takes to avert the spectre, however exaggerated it might be, of organised labour getting its hands on the levers of capital.
Historically, the non-Labor parties came into being, albeit reluctantly, merely to counter the rise of the Labor Party in the first decade of the 20th century. Much of course has changed since then, but the fundamental dynamic remains essentially the same.
The ALP faces a relevance problem. But this is not unique to the party. Indeed, social democratic parties worldwide are, and have been for some considerable time, in decline.
According to the UK-based think tank, OpenDemocracy (correct), despite a modest increase in the mid-1990s, social democratic parties in Europe have consistently lost votes over the past 50 years. The European average for the 1990s was below the 1980s average (31.1 per cent), and well below the 1950s average (33.2 per cent), and in 2000-09 period, it fell to an average 26.6 per cent. The trend has continued.
In seeking to explain this, OpenDemocracy argues that in the UK and continental Europe, social democratic parties have consolidated the 'neoliberal consensus,' since the 1980s (as in Australia) promoting free markets and turning a blind eye to growing income inequality.
There was once a time, not that long ago, when the party ran effective state campaigns, presided over by a state secretary who knew the patch. A national campaign was a more abstract event, essentially tying the ends together. The increased centralisation of the campaign, and inexplicably without a functioning campaign committee, removed the local messages, the tailored approaches. It was one size fits all.
As a result, under social democratic rule, little has been done to improve the lives of the millions of unemployed and poor people.
"In reality, the gap between rich and poor has significantly increased while social democrats have been in government. And the middle classes, who can no longer rely on effective and cheap public services, are also increasingly struggling," the OpenDemocracy survey notes.
The review of the Labor loss in Australia laments a lack of narrative - that is, a compelling story about why one should vote for Labor. This is true to some extent, but to focus too much on narrative is to run the risk of reducing politics to a mere marketing exercise.
Are there lessons from the past that might be useful for the ALP?
In the very recent past, 1993 looked the unloseable election for the Coalition under John Hewson, but the sheer complexity of a detailed program known as Fightback! proved his stumbling block. A politically experienced Paul Keating used the confusion generated to pluck victory out of Hewson's grasp. Never again would a party go to the polls with such detail, claimed the hard heads.
In 1996, Paul Keating had his Big Picture - admirable in its scope and aims, but he could not sell it, especially to those left behind after Labor's radical restructuring of the economy in the 1980s. John Howard, in contrast, presented a small target, and won the election in a canter.
Was Bill Shorten unfairly blamed for the loss in 2019? He had fought disciplined campaigns in 2016 and again this year, but he never broke through despite six years as leader in which he saw off two prime ministers. His reputation as a shadowy backroom operator, evident in the Rudd and Gillard coups, was skilfully promoted by the government via a vindictive Royal Commission and in Clive Palmer's lavish advertising, and never effectively countered. Heading into polling day, Shorten had a net negative favourability rating of minus 20 while Morrison's was minus 4.
Only Andrew Fisher (twice), James Scullin, Gough Whitlam, Bob Hawke and Kevin Rudd have led Labor to victory from opposition. Shorten was not about to join this elite band. Even John Curtin lost two elections before winning government through the defection in parliament of two independents.
Tactically, Labor was badly wedged in Queensland, notably over the Adani issue. The abysmal performance in that state, and the dismal showing in Western Australia, revealed glaring weaknesses in the campaign as a whole.
There was once a time, not that long ago, when the party ran effective state campaigns, presided over by a state secretary who knew the patch. A national campaign was a more abstract event, essentially tying the ends together.
The increased centralisation of the campaign, and inexplicably without a functioning campaign committee, removed the local messages, the tailored approaches. It was one size fits all.
This was not just a campaigning oversight but rather points to organisational and structural problems Labor must address.
Centralisation in the party apparatus, beginning with the 1991 national conference, saw power in the hands of fewer people and reflected less diversity just as the electorate was becoming more diverse.
The once-powerful local fiefdoms run by skilled political operators with detailed local knowledge - derided by later leader Mark Latham as "roosters" - although not dismantled were largely sidelined.
If the ALP needs to regain its mojo, it might be useful to take a lesson from a simpler age, when then prime minister Ben Chifley, told a party conference in 1949 that he tried to think of the Labor movement "not as putting an extra sixpence into somebody's pocket, or making somebody Prime Minister or Premier, but as a movement bringing something better to the people, better standards of living, greater happiness to the mass of the people."
He continued: "We have a great objective - the light on the hill - which we aim to reach by working the betterment of mankind not only here but anywhere we may give a helping hand. If it were not for that, the Labor movement would not be worth fighting for."
Those words, seven decades later, remain relevant.
- Dr Norman Abjorensen is a political historian. His updated account of prime ministerial departures, The Manner of Their Going: Prime Ministerial Exits in Australia, was released in October.