A recurring theme in the narrative of the past five years in Australian politics is that Labor has lost sense of what it stands for as a political party. This is a message that has been driven home repeatedly by journalists, academics and rival politicians, but also by members of the Labor party itself. In the wake of an insipid federal campaign in 2010 that saw the party narrowly avoid defeat, ALP heavyweights Steve Bracks, John Faulkner and Bob Carr were commissioned to produce a review of the election. When sealed sections of the review were leaked in late 2011 amidst disastrous opinion polls and internal bloodletting, the story that emerged was one of a government “lacking a core purpose and being driven by spin.” While the accusation was levelled specifically at the leadership of former Prime-Minister Kevin Rudd, little changed under Julia Gillard in her first year in office.
The relentless hostility of the Opposition, internal destabilisation at the hands of the Rudd camp and a series of communication blunders by the Prime-Minister all contributed to the Gillard government’s inability to effectively articulate its message with voters and the party suffered in the polls as a result. However, you certainly couldn’t accuse the government of being driven by spin a few months later when Rudd challenged Prime-Minister Julia Gillard for the leadership. The visceral response within the party to Rudd’s attempts to win back the leadership was nothing short of spectacular. Senior ministers publically lashed out at Rudd, describing him as a control freak who consistently put his own ego ahead of the party. For a party that has traditionally gone to considerable lengths to maintain internal discipline, this was a rare display of public disunity but perhaps a necessary one.
While rumours of a Rudd return have persisted beyond his defeat in the leadership challenge, the chances of this happening look increasingly slim. More importantly, the carnage earlier in the year appears to have been cathartic for the party and for the Prime-Minister. Gillard came out fighting to accusations of wrongdoings in her earlier life as a lawyer at Slater-Gordon, taking questions from the press for over an hour in what many have described as her strongest performance since taking the top job. In addition to this, the government’s recent policy announcements have placed the party in a better strategic position than it has been in some time.
The National Disability Insurance Scheme, forecast to cost approximately $7.5 billion per year, is a long overdue reform and one that the government would be keen to stress as representative of its overarching aim in providing assistance to those who need it most. The same can be said of the government’s recently announced $4.1 billion public dental care scheme, which will ensure the treatment of millions of children and low-income earners under Medicare. Few would argue that dealing with these issues would provide significant social and economic benefits, although with the carbon tax forecast to generate less revenue following the removal of the floor price, there are question marks as to how the government will fund the schemes as well as achieving its other key aim of keeping the budget in surplus. The flipside is that on current polling, the government may not be around to implement these schemes. As Peter Van Onselen pointed out recently in The Weekend Australian, this effectively wedges the Coalition in government by forcing them to either find the money to fund the schemes themselves or to dismantle them and deal with the protests of lobby groups and affected voters. While the government is showing few signs of conceding defeat, this does afford them an insurance plan of sorts.
Labor’s asylum seeker policy is certainly at odds with its traditional positioning on the political spectrum as the more “compassionate” option compared to the Liberals. While it has attempted to shift the debate in its favour by arguing that its tough stance will deter asylum seekers from attempting to reach Australia by boat, thus preventing further deaths, there is little evidence to suggest that this will prove true. In the weeks since the government re-introduced offshore processing, asylum seekers have continued to make the journey and are likely to continue to do so. However, the Opposition’s argument that they would do a better job of deterring asylum seekers because their heart is actually in it is altogether unconvincing and the issue is unlikely to dominate the political agenda long-term as it has recently.
In the lead-up to the election, it is more or less assured that the government will seek to focus on its strong points of health and education. Most importantly, with the introduction of the carbon tax failing to give the leader of the Opposition Tony Abbott the knockout blow he’s promised to deliver for so long, the government will seek to cast doubt on Abbott’s ability to campaign on anything but fear. While one good poll does not equal long term success, the latest Newspoll shows that Labor has recovered ground and is now equal with the Coalition in its primary vote. This is a result that government sources say could prove to be the end of the leadership speculation that has engulfed the government over the past two years. This is not to say that Labor is anywhere closer to resolving its identity crisis. But the government is showing a rare confidence and articulating itself better than ever.