02 December, 2011

Three suggestions for the ALP’s membership drive

As part of the ALP National Conference, Julia Gillard has announced a target of 8,000 new members.  Here are some suggestions if they want to reach that target:

Try being the Labor Party.
The main reason that so many have abandoned Labor in favour of the Greens is that they see in the Greens what they used to see in Labor.  While it’s right and proper to pitch to the centre, you have to realise that you are the centre and that for every wavering Liberal voter you pick up, you’re going to lose two to the Greens.  Be the party you say you are.

Stop accepting the Liberals’ narrative.

You have allowed the Liberals to turn the idea of a budget surplus into a national fetish and done nothing to capitalise on the fact that the Hawke-Keating government practically invented budget surpluses as something that could reasonably be expected in a good year.

Of course a budget surplus is an honourable aim but there’s a time and place for such things.  Delivering a small, technical surplus just so that you can say you did does not impress anyone and only plays into the opposition’s hands.   The situation is summed up in a tweet by the brilliant Shock Jock Coach:

It’s like you’re trying to impress the Liberal Party’s girlfriend.  “Oh, you like a budget surplus, huh? Sure, I can do that!  Wanna see it?”  She’s only going to laugh at you and vote Liberal anyway.  Let it go.  You know who else said good leadership was about taking unpopular but necessary decisions?  John Howard!  But you probably won’t throw that back at the Liberals either.

Decide once and for all whether you want a leader or just a front-person.

The documentary Labor in Power recalls the time Kim Beazley – not the most intimidating man even in his most passionate moments – stood over Bob Hawke during a cabinet meeting impasse and said, “Bob, you’re our leader, now bloody well lead!” 

“Old jellyback,” as he was later dubbed by Paul Keating was so concerned with popularity and consensus that he couldn’t pick a side when he needed to.  Keating – who is seen by generation-X through through the same rose-coloured glasses as many baby-boomers view Whitlam through – had far less qualms about setting the agenda, but what the Keating fan club forgets is that the only election he won was the one where he was opposing John Hewson’s Fightback policy.  Three years later, when John Howard offered absolutely nothing other than that he wasn’t Paul Keating, the Liberals won in a landslide.  It didn’t help that your own advertising admitted that Keating’s hubris was toxic with the “You don’t have to like him, but you’ve got to respect him,” line. 

Beazley took none of his own advice as leader in opposition, adopting policies that offered so little difference to Howard’s that it was hardly worth changing the stationery for.  Latham had all the mongrel of Keating but little of the substance. 

In Kevin Rudd you had someone with the vision to lead, the substance to back it up and could pull it all off without insulting people.  So naturally, you ditched him for being…, well, a leader.  Rudd’s so-called micro-management and lack of consultation was replaced by Julia Gillard who immediately started talking about what “I” have done, what “I” have decided and what “I” will do, and the result was a hung parliament and wishy-washy approximations of Labor policy.  Under the current leadership, the apology to the stolen generations would surely have been watered down to an expression of regret, ratifying Kyoto would have become in-principle support and the masterstroke of guaranteeing the banks at the beginning of the global financial crisis (which resulted in Australia becoming a safe haven for cash from all over the world) probably wouldn’t have been thought of.

The ALP, like the country as a whole, wants a combination of leadership and consultation and can’t quite come to terms with the fact that these two qualities are not always compatible.  There is a crisis in leadership in the ALP, but it’s less to do with any particular leader and more to do with the powerbrokers not being able to make their bloody minds up.

Address these fundamental issues, and you might stand a chance at winning people over, or back.


  1. Not sure I agree with the rhetoric of describing Kevin 07 as a leader. His election campaign was all "me too" and did so because the ALP did not want to appear different in any material way to the coalition (apart from fresh faces).

    As for the first term that ended in a bloody coup, he may have held a vision but it seemed to be at a great expense of staffers and colleagues who were worked ragged and in the end support dived.

    Leadership in politics has to be longer than a part-term.

  2. Ratifying Kyoto, doing something about climate change, apologising to the stolen generations, and abolishing work choices were all copies of Liberal policies?

    Show me one voter (apart from the staffers themselves) who change their vote according to how easy staffers have it. It's a tough job. I was pleased to see a national leader treating the job with the importance it deserves.

    I'm not going to justify Rudd's reversal on the ETS but Rudd only blinked, it was the party that choked. Then Gillard them in the dullest campaign in living memory, promising only that she wasn't Kevin Rudd, the election ended in a draw because no-one could tell the major parties apart and all the policiy initiave comes from the cross benches.

    Whenever a team starts to go badly, the first thing they do is sack the coach, but the most brilliant coach on earth can't save things if the team is rotten.