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Learning from Australia's Political Meltdown

In Project Syndicate (Worldwide Distribution), 11 July 2013

CANBERRA – Australian politics should, on the face of it, hold as much interest for the rest of the world as Mongolian throat singing or Bantu funerary rites. But I have found otherwise in my recent travels in North America, Europe, and Asia. Much more than one might expect, there is an eerie fascination in political and media circles with the political agonies being experienced by the current Australian Labor Party (ALP) government.

How is it, policymakers and analysts ask, that a diverse, socially tolerant country with living standards that are the envy of much of the world, become roiled by so much political divisiveness and bitterness? How could a government that steered Australia comfortably through the global financial crisis, and that has presided for the last six years over a period of almost unprecedented prosperity, have been facing extinction in the national election due later this year, as every opinion poll was last month predicting?

How could a party less than three years into its term have dispatched in 2010 a leader, Kevin Rudd, who had brought it to power after 11 years in the political wilderness and still commanded a majority of the public’s support. How could his successor, Julia Gillard, fail so spectacularly to retain that support, to the point where the ALP seemed destined to exile for a generation?

And how, in the latest plot turn in the Grand Guignol theater that Australian politics has become, could the political execution by her panicky colleagues of Gillard – Australia’s first woman Prime Minister – and the resurrection of Kevin Rudd, possibly lead to a revival in the fortunes of the world’s oldest labor party?

Part of the explanation for the ALP’s meltdown is the tension created by certain peculiarities of the Australian political system. A ludicrously short three-year electoral cycle makes it almost impossible to govern in a campaign-free atmosphere. Party rules allow for leaders – including serving prime ministers – to be torn down overnight by their parliamentary colleagues. Our media’s preoccupation with trivia – and collective lack of conscience – is impressive even by British tabloid standards.

But there do seem to be messages in our experience not just domestically, but for other parties in Europe, Canada, and elsewhere that share some of the ALP’s social-democratic and center-left ideological traditions and that are also struggling to win or retain electoral support.

Those like me who have been out of public office for a long time need to be wary about offering gratuitous commentary – or, worse, advice. It is unlikely to be gratefully received by one’s successors, and it suggests a severe case of what I have called “relevance deprivation syndrome.” But there do seem to be some fundamental rules of political survival that have been ignored in Australia in recent years, and spelling them out may help not only the ALP but others to remember them.

The first rule is to have a philosophy – and to stick to it. The hugely successful Labor governments led by Bob Hawke and Paul Keating two decades ago did just that, essentially inventing the “third way” model that later became associated with Tony Blair and Gordon Brown in Britain. Its elements were clear: dry, free-market economics (but in our case with low-paid workers benefiting enormously from “social wage” increases in medical care and retirement income); compassionate social policy; and a liberal internationalist foreign policy.

By contrast, the current ALP government until now has struggled to re-create anything as compelling. It has been torn between old industrial labor preoccupations, the new environmentalism, and capitulating to populist anxiety on issues like asylum-seeking “boat people.”

The second rule is to have a narrative – and to stick to it. Confused and ever-changing messages don’t win votes. The most wounding criticism of the ALP government until now is that no one has really known what it stands for. It has initiated visionary national policies in areas like broadband access, disability support, and education, but it has struggled to maintain a coherent and consistent overall story line.

The third rule is to have a decent governing process – and to stick to it. The Rudd administration successfully navigated the global financial crisis largely because the prime minister, with a small inner group, bypassed traditional Cabinet processes. But, with the crisis over, the bypassing continued – increasingly by the prime minister alone. Genuinely collective decision-making can be a painfully difficult process, but, in government as elsewhere, there is wisdom in crowds.

The fourth rule is that leaders should surround themselves with well-weathered colleagues and advisers who will remind them, as often as necessary, of their mortality. Self-confidence, bordering on hubris, gets most leaders to the top. If that is not occasionally punctured, things are bound to end in tears.

The last rule is that one should never trash the brand. Those who mounted the coup against Rudd three years ago felt it necessary to explain that it was because his government was, beneath the surface, a dysfunctional mess. The public hadn’t actually noticed that at the time, but has been prepared to believe it ever since. The tragedy is that both Rudd and Gillard are superbly capable and have complementary skill sets; working together effectively, they were as good as it gets in Australian politics.

The early signs, in the days that have followed the Rudd re-elevation, is that these messages have been received. The government is making the right sorts of noises, the electorate seems to be listening, and there has been a dramatic turnaround in the opinion polls. But there is a very real question how long the honeymoon will last. It certainly will not be for long if bad old habits reassert themselves.

Adherence to the five rules will not ensure that a governing party stays in office forever. Many other factors, domestic and international, are always in play. Over time, electorates will tire of even the best-run governments, and look for reasons to vote for change.

But following all of these rules should ensure that a party maintains credibility and respect, and that, in defeat, it at least remains competitive for the next election. Observing none of them guarantees catastrophe.

Gareth Evans, a member of the Australian Labor Party governments from 1983 to 1996, is Chancellor of the Australian National University. [This is an updated version of the article first published on the Project Syndicate website on 25 June 2013.]

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2013. www.project-syndicate.org

This article is available online at http://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/the-australian-labor-party-marches-into-oblivion-by-gareth-evans