DENNIS ARGALL. Lessons and thoughts for Labor’s future

May 21, 2019

There is a lot of emotion in the wake of disaster for Labor in the federal elections on 18 May 2019. There will be forensic examinations and recriminations. There is good prospect of a Labor Government after the next elections… if…

Labor must go steadily and clearly and must look like a government in brief exile.  

In retrospect the massive plate of reforms on offer from Labor was too big. Not just because it was a big target for Morrison to slander requiring a reverberation of detailed responses, but also because people just don’t cope with a lot of change and new ideas at once. That should have been a lesson from Whitlam, whose fall derived to a significant degree from his creation of visions, plans, programs creating whirlwinds and vortices. There should have been a lesson there from Hawke, who in success nearly always had just three points or three objectives and often enough did not get to the third.

It did not help that Keating, making points of importance about China and the state of China policy and perception in Australia, did not remember that his own electoral failure was in good part contributed to by his love of ad hominem excess. Which obliged Shorten to rebut what Keating said, placing Shorten in a potential difficult situation when in government. It was not Keating’s election.

There was a problem for the supporters in the campaign, at least in NSW, in that an online team in the NSW Labor office was allowed for a time (as throughout the state election in March) to write frequently, impolitely and less than coherently with money demands. Apparatchiks are to be invisible and unheard; and should be polite. Mercifully the leaders took over the message and wrote intelligently and informatively.

There will be much mulled over within Labor. A leader needs to be appointed without rancour and a shadow ministry needs to be a sensible and orderly force. As experience of being in government retreats, potential for disorder grows. It will be important for the new caucus to be orderly and disciplined. Review and refocus will take time. The team must not be baited and tempted by the 24 hour news cycle. Let the Morrison ‘team’ be embroiled in that.

Morrison shares some qualities with Trump, but he does not possess a tyrannical capacity to sack people right and left. Carry this thought into the problems governing in minority, with cross bench people some of whom could eat Morrison for breakfast when Morrison has more to do than bluster. First also, there is a coalition agreement to renegotiate.

I hope that the nation may realise that they did something less than best. A disciplined Labor caucus will surely have more sense than to suggest that Morrison supporters have been a ‘basket of deplorables’, but it will be generally important to leave it to people to review and rue. In 75 years I have come to realise that I have rarely met anyone who thought his or her opinion was wrong. People won’t be badgered not least because they won (Bob Brown may now understand this).

In its sea of policy papers, the Labor party lost identity with community at large, despite opposite intentions. Ours is a many-ways-divided nation. Finding a coherent package of policies going forward is difficult, but there will need to something better than rubbery mumble on the hard stuff.

We can review the calamitous issues in this very recent election, but that has to be put behind; the next war will be different.

As a particular point, there was absent from this election any show of statesmanship and leadership on international issues. Despite dogmas to the contrary, it seems to me that major elections that elect important governments in Australia have had international vision and inspiring leadership woven into them. That was at the core of our period as a positive multicultural society, admired in many places including China. Who would regards us now as an exemplary civil society?

Try to run a better parliament. The adversarial rowdiness is at the core of public disdain and of course is contributory to adversarial rowdiness and violence in society. With Morrison willing to spout irrelevance and distortion, it’s not easy, but standards are essential to be seen as a decent alternative.

There is real possibility, given the velocity of everything these days, that Labor could form government after the next elections. But Labor must go steadily and clearly and must look like a government in brief exile.

Dennis Argall’s career covered domestic departments and foreign service, overseas postings including Washington and as ambassador to China. After the disastrous (for Labor) 1977 elections, Dennis returned from Washington to head the office of the new deputy leader of the Labor Party, Lionel Bowen, who later became Deputy Prime Minister to Hawke.

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