By Chris Wallace
Political parties are prone to flux. The conservative and liberal forces in Australian politics have formed, re-formed and re-formed again in various party permutations over the course of the last one hundred years in Australia. And while the Australian Labor Party projects itself as a century-old monolith, it suffered three profound fractures during the same period – over conscription in 1916, over economic strategy during the Great Depression in the early 1930s, and over communism in 1955. Each time the fractures healed but not before generating a plethora of prognostications and prescriptions for how one of the world’s original social democratic parties should be fixed.
Troy Bramston’s Looking for the Light on the Hill: Modern Labor’s Challenges is the latest in the decades’ long series of books angsting over the party that even an elephant gun can’t kill. Each cycle of concern has its own particularities but they all share this: a sweaty, desperate fear that this time the party really could be over. Yet to the frustration of Labor’s federal political opponents who themselves have been through more rebadgings over the past century than some soap powders, it never is.
Bramston tips his hat to his handwringing forebears, then distinguishes his book from theirs as the one which shows “how Labor can get its mojo back with new ideas, a new strategy, and a refreshing of the party’s values”. It’s readable and well-intended but suffers serious problems concerning the credibility of Bramston as a party prognosticator, the fact that much of his critique applies equally to the Coalition and finally the narrowness of his search for reasons explaining Labor’s current troubles.
Firstly, the credibility problem – and I’m not referring to the fact that Bramston is either a Bright Young Thing or the Spawn of the Devil depending on whom you talk to in the party. (Either way I give him points for sitting down and writing a book.) Rather it’s that if you purport to tell an organization as significant as the ALP what to do and expect to be taken seriously, you don’t cast it in terms of “how Labor can get its mojo back”. It’s hard to get past page 11 of Looking for the Light on the Hill where Bramston says this without expecting cornflake-weight thinking on the pages following.
The early pages where Bramston positions himself within the Labor firmament only reinforce the impression of marginality. He was Rudd’s speechwriter in Opposition but the leader interactions he catalogues are slight at best. Rudd’s failure to make a family friendly spot on his large prime ministerial staff for Bramston, whose wife had one small baby and another on the way by the 2007 election, underlines the impression he unintentionally conveys that the PM wasn’t exactly hanging on his every word. So, the thought goes through the reader’s head, why should I? (Bramston worked on Tony Burke’s staff instead.)
There is one absolute pearl, though, for which historians must thank Bramston: his revelation that in a brief exchange on election night, Kevin Rudd revealed he already had prime ministerial failure on his mind. “In my diary,” Bramston says, “I wrote that Rudd said to me, ‘Well, I hope I don’t end up like Jim Scullin in 1929.’ Fascinating!
The second problem with Bramston’s book is that a significant chunk of his analysis applies as much to the Liberal and National parties as it does to the ALP, namely that the party organization:
…has lost its close links with the community, and does little to facilitate or encourage activism in the party’s affairs. The party is hollow at its core… Membership is in long-term decline, branches are closing at a rapid rate, and quality candidates for parliament are few and far between.
This is a serious issue but no convincing case is made for it being a bigger problem for Labor than it is for the Coalition parties, so it’s not much use as part of the explanation for Labor’s declining electoral fortunes.
The third problem is the narrowness of Bramston’s search for factors that do separate Labor’s trajectory from that of the Coalition parties and are capable of explaining its malaise in the polls. “Leadership anxiety”, “no animating vision”, “the party stands for little”… Bramston leaves no stock standard cliché of catastrophe unused as he rolls out one generalization after another in relation to recent Labor history.
Here’s a thought teaser for Bramston. How do you think any leader – Labor, Liberal or Calathumpian – would fare when their party’s political capital had been squandered by their failed predecessor, where that predecessor sabotaged an election campaign with leaks, and where the predecessor’s predecessor but one decided to throw some election bombs in for good measure? And how do you think their polling would look after somehow miraculously patching together, and holding together, a minority government subjected to continual post-election internal sabotage by that predecessor, aided and abetted by a hostile media oligopoly? And as for standing for nothing - what about carbon pricing, the mining tax, NBN, paid maternity leave and the best economic policy results in the developed world?
There’ll always be a market in Australia for books by Labor handwringers. One day we’ll get one worthy of the challenge the party really faces.
This first appeared in the Australian Spectator, 17 December 2011