Since the end of the Second World War Labor has only won government from opposition three times. It has won 10 election victories for the Coalition's 19. It's a record revealing the emptiness of Paul Keating's arrogant boast about Labor being the "natural party of government". The party's ruled just six years this century and only 27 of the last 75.
And it's difficult, today, to believe Labor will manage to turn that dreadful record around at the next election.
If the party wants to win it needs to understand it must make the case for change. It's not doing that at the moment. Instead of offering reasons to vote Labor, it's banking on the government alienating enough voters to allow it to coast in.
When Gough Whitlam won in 1972 he compared his (December 2) victory to Napoleon's triumph over a similar "ramshackle coalition" at the Battle of Austerlitz on the same day 167 years earlier. He surged to power on the basis of his program, promising to transform the country. Unfortunately his government soon turned out to be even more chaotic than his enemies, and the people enthusiastically turfed it out just three years later.
Bob Hawke came next, bringing Labor back to power in 1983. He had something much better than his own big ideas - consultation and accords. Instead of attempting, single-mindedly, to force reform, his government threw ideology away and backed managerialism. The reward was 13 years in power, until internal squabbling and Keating's hubris saw that government disintegrate, too.
Surely, the party thought, Australians would see the squalid barrenness of Howard's conservative, small-minded government? Almost. In 1998, the election that brought in the GST, Labor won 51 percent of the vote but its support was locked up in the wrong seats; it remained in opposition. Under Kim Beazley, Simon Crean, Mark Latham and Beazley (again), the party waited, and waited, for government to fall into its lap once more.
The party felt bad, but it kept telling itself it was the "rightful" government; that it really should be in office, that the problem wasn't with Labor itself, and that it really did possess the secret sauce of victory. There was always some other exceptional reason to explain away the continuing losses. It was the voters, not the party.
Finally, after a decade, the charismatic, messianic leadership of Kevin Rudd took Labor's posteriors over the aisle to again feel the soft, plush cushions of government.
See the pattern? Each time the party's been able to slide itself into power, it's been because of an inspiring leader. That's not enough by itself, but there's no point in waiting for the (so-called) iron law of electoral democracy to kick in. This insists that parties in power slowly, inevitably, see their popularity seep away. Not true. The reverse has actually happened twice in the last six elections, as Liberal governments improved their position to surge forward (2004 and 2019). The Coalition's been learning from overseas too. They've seen how incumbency delivers those in power access to bulging bags of money, and therefore the opportunity to spend up big on infrastructure in marginal seats. This seems to be just as important a way of keeping ordinary voters in critical electorates happy as major reforms promising to transform the nation.
Not more important, but just as significant. This is, of course, the problem. Everyone votes on "stuff" that affects them, and this all combines to form the national "mood" that coalesces at that moment we stand poised in the ballot booths. That's why you can't go round saying stuff like "dividend imputation's crook", or "negative gearing's bad". Proposing to cut programs like these - even if it might be necessary, in the long-term - creates definitive losers. It sucks the air away from positive initiatives, rips away certainty and makes the idea of change fraught with potential downsides.
That wasn't enough to swing the 2019 election by itself, but coupled with a mediocre leader repeating three-word slogans and not spending enough time attempting to win over senior political reporters, and added to a party machine that wasn't quite as good as it thought it was and including some senior frontbenchers who were lazy, or greedy, or not fully over their briefs (or not being listened to by a leadership that thought it knew better) and what do you have? Not just, I suspect, an explanation for why Labor lost the last election, but why it's going to lose the next one as well.
Biographies do give some idea of who's hot and who's not. Nobody wants to waste time researching someone who's going to bomb out. Perhaps that explains why Karen Middleton achieved an exclusive with her 2017 book on Anthony Albanese - Telling It Straight. Journos don't always get it right, of course (after all, there were a pile of books on Latham before he imploded, and I wrote three books on that brief "certainty" Rudd, although I was always sceptical - his version of the truth and what others in the party were feeling never really seemed to match).
This leads us to the almost impossible situation the opposition is in today.
Normally, this is the killing season, the point at which the party would be, politely or messily, disposing of underperforming leaders. Because of COVID-19, it won't do that now. And it's only a year before the next election, probably not leaving enough time to change next year. That's what Albo will be hoping, anyway.
Maybe he can win, but that's not the question Labor needs to ask.
True leaders - Rudd, Hawke and Whitlam - didn't win by default. They seized the leadership and inspired the nation. They worked Parliament, the press and the people. They worked on the micro level - what can government do for me? - and the big-picture stuff about the future.
And, given an existential issue like global warming, they wouldn't hedge their bets. They'd find new jobs for coal workers and tell it like it is. This is the only issue for the next election, and yet I'm still not sure exactly what Labor's policy is.
- Nicholas Stuart is a Canberra writer and a regular columnist.