Wednesday, May 17, 2006

About Objectives

The subject of the ALP leadership just doesn't seem to go away. Despite the Bomber's supposedly very good Budget Reply speech (can anyone truly tell me what a "pact with middle Australia" is) the fact that everyone's current "not in Parliament but next leader" Bill Shorten obtained such extensive coverage in Canberra has tongues wagging again. (But, of course, we have seen Bob Carr and Peter Beattie in this cart before, and they at least have the credit of having been elected to something.)

It appears to me that the ALP's crisis is not one of leadership, but one of purpose. We have had the unedifying site of the so-called roosters (usually named as Crean, Conroy, Smith and Albanese) trying to organise the leadership, for a purpose that in the Crean leadership looked like it was about warming the seat for one of them, or at the very least dividing the meagre spolis of Opposition. We then had the Latham whirlwind and then the Latham post election Cabinet that saw front bench positions allocated to "fractions" of five, and the single most bizarre allocation of portfolios in history. Following the (and I mean this) truly unfortunate health issues Latham faced, the Bomber gets reselected and does ... nothing.

Meanwhile the roosters seem to have checked out. The only faction big enough to deserve the name remains the NSW right, but they don't really have a unified representation in the FPLP. And they certainly have no candidate.

The ALP of today has learnt many lessons from the NSW right. They think that the only thing that matters is power, and what you get to do when you have it. Unfortunately, Federal power isn't as self propelling as NSW power.

In the "olden days" - before the late eighties - the purpose of political parties was clear. It was to get "the program" implemented. Certainly people have trimmed what that might be in the post Whitlam era, and certainly been prepared to talk about the affordability of the program, but the program mattered.

Without "the program" there is nothing to do once elected. And power becomes meaningless - except for its power of patronage - if there is no promise of what you will do with it.

There are three primary reasons given against running a party on a program in the modern era. These are; the Whitlam factor, the Howard small target success, and the issue of Government co-option.

The first is greatly over-rated. It is incedibly easy to develop the program against a backdrop of fiscal responsibility. In fact, it is easier than the modern alternative of spending promises dropping from the tree like a collection of Costello budgets.

The second is a complete misreading of how Howard won in 1996. He was already operating the wedge then. He managed to isolate the Keating "big picture" from the concerns of the majority of Australians. In fact, he managed to make Keating look like what he stood for was the "big picture" stuff - rather than the real on the ground substantive things Keating had delivered. A small target will not win against Howard or Costello.

The third is the stupidest. If you define the objective as the success of the program - does it really matter which Government introduces it. In many ways the ALP Menzies faced was more successful than the ALP of Beazley - Menzies could not stray too far from the middle.

Finally, if you define the objective as being only about winning then you start believing that "disunity is death". But if you become like the modern ALP united behind a non-existant platform all that happens is that the primary vote shrinks - and the potential partisans depart to other parties or single issue causes. The Greens shouldn't be a party - they should be the thinking Left of the ALP. Many of the Democrats should be the economic Right of the ALP. Voters can be attracted by ideas and the sense that the party they vote for can be seen to be genuinely balancing issues - not merely trying to read the polls.

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