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Turning their backs on the Abbott avalanche

22 April 2013 792 views No Comment

UNLESS there is an electoral miracle, the Gillard government will lose badly on September 14.

The election will be potentially devastating for Labor, especially in states like NSW and Queensland where it will lose some of its most talented members and possibly several senior ministers including Deputy Prime Minister and Treasurer Wayne Swan.

In the aftermath Labor will need to use common sense and a strategic approach to rebuild the party. Indeed it needs to start thinking about that now, otherwise a coalition government led by Tony Abbott will be in office for a generation.

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The challenge for Labor is to put aside factional considerations and petty jealousies and find a way to effectively use the talent that it has in its ranks. The reality is that much of that potential talent is not in the federal parliament.

Recently there was public speculation that Labor strategists were already preparing for defeat by planning to put ousted federal MPs into state seats to revive the ALP’s parlous political fortunes.

This would follow the precedent of former federal MP John Brumby who became Victoria’s treasurer and premier.

In Queensland, the speculation centred on two federal Labor MPs – Yvette D’Ath and Shayne Neumann – the members for Petrie and Blair.

Although they have both denied state ambitions, this speculation may encourage similar plans in NSW and Victoria.

The problem for Labor is that it is all very well for their strategists to have a focus on introducing new and different talent to the states but this would leave a defeated federal Labor Party fighting for relevance, if not near extinction.

It seems that there are two possible future leaders for federal Labor – Bill Shorten and Greg Combet. Shorten represents a Victorian seat and Combet a seat in NSW. Assuming they form a leadership team, Queensland would be bereft of senior representation. And the crucial fact is that, federally, Labor cannot win without Queensland.

While Kevin Rudd may retain his seat and possibly be the only Queenslander in the next federal parliament, the jury is still out about whether politically his time has come and gone.

In my opinion, the ALP strategy should embrace a twofold approach. There should be a leadership team which takes the ALP through the highly likely two terms that Abbott will get as prime minister, and then hand over to a future possible Labor prime minister in Shorten or Combet.

The ALP desperately needs experienced winners who can rebuild Labor at a federal level. Reliable operators who have the proven political skills to win back community support but who were not part of the disastrous decision-making process of the Gillard government and who would thus not be tainted by the odium of a defeated federal government.

Labor should learn from its own history. In the past, the ALP has successfully parachuted capable state leaders into federal politics who have helped reshape and build the party. For example, former Queensland Premiers T.J. Ryan and E.G (“Red Ted”) Theodore both entered federal politics by virtue of seats in Sydney to assist the party in its time of need. For quite different reasons (Ryan died of influenza in 1921 and Theodore was crippled politically by the Mungana Mines scandal and forced to resign as treasurer in 1930) neither was able to take over the federal leadership.

Nevertheless this crucial piece of Labor Party history is well worth remembering today.

Queensland now boasts only three living Labor premiers – Wayne Goss, Peter Beattie and Anna Bligh. Only Beattie retired undefeated and had the ability to be elected four times as premier.

In contrast, Goss has had mixed health and little political interest, and the negative memories of the Bligh government are too vivid for her to be a political asset for federal Labor.

Beattie currently spends considerable time overseas. But he could be part of a forceful team to lead Labor’s federal revival, especially if partnered with the other undefeated premiers Bob Carr and Victoria’s Steve Bracks. If Beattie and Bracks could be persuaded to enter federal politics they could form the backbone of a Labor revival in partnership with Carr, Shorten and Combet.

Carr, Beattie and Bracks were the most effective modern Labor communicators since Bob Hawke and Paul Keating.

The advantage for Shorten and Combet in this strategy is that Carr, Beattie and Bracks are all ageing so they could be part of Labor’s rebuilding but are unlikely to stand in the way of their ambitions to be prime minister.

Too often in the national debate the importance of the states is ignored in terms of the contribution they make to which party wins the federal election.

The annihilation of the ALP in Queensland and NSW has left a dominating LNP government in Queensland and a coalition government in NSW that will throw resources and human capital behind the likely Abbott landslide.

These states are a political vacuum for Labor and while some may argue it might be better to recruit Beattie to take on Campbell Newman in Queensland that would be a wasted opportunity for Labor.

At the moment, federal Labor is in a state of denial but that will evaporate on election night as seat after seat falls to the Abbott-led coalition.

Then finally the hard-heads of the party will need to make some tough decisions or face another long period in the wilderness similar to the Howard years.

Labor needs a strategy for an effective political fightback.

This year’s election is all but already lost and only the delusional or the blindly loyal can’t see a crushing defeat coming like an avalanche.

Ross Fitzgerald is Emeritus Professor of History and Politics at Griffith University.

‘The Daily Telegraph’, April 22, 2013 p 25