Federal Labor is in the middle of a period of introspection and self-doubt. That is not a problem, necessarily, as political parties should always reflect on their strengths and weaknesses. But Labor more than most parties often conducts its internal debates in full public view. Three election losses in a row intensify introspection. The prospect of a fourth hurts all those associated with the party. Failure seeps into its bones.
Introspection becomes problematic when it threatens the stability and self-confidence of the party. That is occurring now, undermining the faith of its supporters and voters. Leading figures who suffered heavy swings against them personally in 2019 have led the charge. Inevitably it has put pressure on the leader, Anthony Albanese, raising questions about whether he is the right man for the job.
Joel Fitzgibbon, the long-serving Hunter Valley MP who has now resigned from the frontbench, has self-interestedly accused the party of neglecting the interests of mining communities in regional areas and pandering to inner-city concerns about climate change.
Former treasurer Chris Bowen, in his recent Jack Ferguson Memorial Lecture, focused on the dangers of neglecting the suburbs in favour of the inner cities. Ferguson was deputy premier in the successful government of Neville Wran and Bowen proposes the Wran model as one for federal Labor to emulate. The media has leaped onto his sensible but otherwise unremarkable thoughts about casualisation, the decline of manufacturing and the need for physical and social infrastructure to keep up with rapid population and housing growth in the suburbs as a criticism of where federal Labor is going.
Labor has no problem winning state elections anyway, so the admirable Wran is not the most useful model for federal Labor. Five of the eight state and territory governments are formed by Labor, and three of them have just been re-elected. Maybe Labor needs greater reflection on the differences between federal and state politics, rather than often misleading dissection of the alleged differences between rural, regional, suburban and inner-city electorates.
Above all, Labor must hold its nerve. Its chances of success at the next federal election lie not just with its own performance, but that of the government. Part of its charter must be to keep the pressure on the Morrison government, which continues to offer the opposition many avenues to criticize its errors of omission as well as commission.
Labor also needs reflection which is not Sydney- or NSW-centric, and gets the internal debate out into Queensland and Western Australia, asking Annastacia Palaszczuk and Mark McGowan for their insights. Labor is the majority party elsewhere in Australia, and must improve its game in the two states where it is weakest. It should never forget, election losses notwithstanding, that success is not far away, and it regularly wins close to 50 per cent of the two-party-preferred vote. Remain confident in the strengths of the party and what it offers.
Most of all Labor must concentrate on improving its performance across the board. There is a message in that for everyone connected with the party, a message confirmed by experts like Chris Wallace who, in her recent book How to Win an Election, offers a multidimensional diagnosis for any party, but particularly federal Labor, of how to improve performance.
Labor has at its disposal a perfectly adequate and open-minded post-election review of its 2019 election loss. The inquiry, chaired by former federal minister Dr Craig Emerson and former South Australian premier Jay Weatherill, was bold enough to summarise its conclusions in 500 words and eight key findings. Both the conclusions and the more detailed findings have multiple dimensions. Addressing them should be the bedrock of the party's reflections, and personal ruminations should not detract from this evidence base.
The heart of the 500-word conclusion is that Labor lost because of three things: weak strategy, a cluttered policy agenda and an unpopular leader. Leadership, policy and strategy combined.
Albanese has weaknesses, but he is not irredeemably unpopular. I remain unconvinced by the argument that to win elections from opposition federal Labor needs a charismatic rather than a merely solid leader. The sample is too small. Gough Whitlam, Bob Hawke and Kevin Rudd, the three winners who might be seen in that light, each benefitted greatly from the weaknesses of the government of the day. The post-Menzies Liberals had run out of steam. Malcolm Fraser was still tainted by the dismissal. John Howard was past his use-by date.
Decluttering the policy agenda is now the job of the whole leadership team, not just Albanese. Crafting a successful campaign strategy appropriate to the strengths and weaknesses of Scott Morrison, Michael McCormack and Josh Frydenberg is now the task of the whole parliamentary party and its professional advisers.
Beyond leadership, policies and strategies, including composing a simple and compelling narrative, the eight key findings include one (finding 4) that does bear on Fitzgibbon, Bowen and others in the party who want to try their hand at constructive public reflections.
"Labor's campaign lacked a culture and structure that encouraged dialogue and challenge, which led to dismissal of warnings from within the party about the campaign's direction," it reads.
Applying this admonition to the party as a whole will require deep cultural change, the most difficult reform of all to implement. Labor's established hierarchies and factions often deter, rather than encourage, respectful dialogue and challenge.
Thoughtful reflections should always be welcomed within any open-minded and democratic party. When those challenging reflections are offered in public, however, they can too easily degenerate into unedifying squabbles which detract from the job of winning the next election.
- John Warhurst is Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University.