Here’s a question: what program will Labor run to the next election on? If the answer it that it’s too early to tell, they’ll reveal their hand closer to the time, don’t want to make themselves a target etc. etc. etc then here’s another: what program did they run on at the last one? If the answer is as elusive as the name of the current Nationals leader, then it should be noted that this is not usual.
It has become fashionable these days to say that it’s smart tactics for an opposition to be a small target. But this is the usual political trick of making a tactical virtue out of a strategic necessity. It may have been partly true on the right, which historically has been programmatically weak, tending to come to power more against the preceding Labor government than in its own right. It was something forgotten by Abbott who, basking in his own image reflected on 2GB and the editorials of The Australian thought he had a mandate – until he tried to implement it in his first Budget and promptly sunk like a stone.
But it has been usual on the Labor side to come to power with something of a program. All the polls indicate that the next election will see Labor return to government for only the fourth time since the Second World War but there has never been less grounds to do so. When it happened the last time in 2007, critics of Rudd claimed that with his vaunted economic conservatism he was being a “mini Howard”. But the issues he did differ with Howard on, troops out of Iraq, signing Kyoto, abolishing Workchoices and the apology to the Stolen Generation, look positively Whitlamesque compared to what Labor will be differentiating itself on next time.
To dispel the idea that Labor’s lack of program is tactical, it is only needed to look back to when it should it have come out, the leadership contest after the 2013 loss but which instead saw left and right flail at each other over nothing. As Albanese’s recent call that Labor should become even less distinct by working more with the Coalition and move to the centre, that has hardly changed.
In reality there has been only one real issue in Labor these days, an internal formal tussle over party democracy, and the recent election of uninspiring factional hack Wayne Swan to the party presidency shows where that has gone. The fact that his modernising opponent, Mark Butler, is now reported to be looking to the party leadership to over-ride the membership so he can have a seat to run in at the next election, illustrates what a farce “democratisation” was anyway.
There have been brave attempts to find some justification for Labor’s current leadership instability. The Australian has suddenly discovered that Shorten’s performance has been poor, noticeably his recent denial that his party had a problem over citizenship, as though Shorten was the only one doing that. The Daily Telegraph’s breathless awe with which it usually writes about the NSW Right does not conceal the impression that in reality it doesn’t know what it is doing right now, not only by responding to Shorten’s shift to the left by preferring, er, someone from the left like Albanese, but that it still apparently listens to Graeme Richardson.
In reality, the current leadership instability is likely come less from either Shorten’s recent performance or his policies, but rather what is happening on the Coalition side. Since 2013, Labor has hid behind first a disastrous Abbott government and then an insecure Turnbull one. But with the blow to the right and its “retail” pretensions from the SSM vote and the downfall shortly after of what was supposedly the leading retail politician, Barnaby Joyce, Turnbull looks relatively more secure – shifting the spotlight on a hollow leadership of an exhausted party that had actually been there all along.