Michelle Grattan: Labor left to fix Rudd's mistakes


Leading Opposition will not be easy, especially following the past three years of indiscipline and infighting.

Labor is now searching for a new leader to take on Prime Minister-elect Tony Abbott (second from right). Photo / AP
Labor is now searching for a new leader to take on Prime Minister-elect Tony Abbott (second from right). Photo / AP

History will treat the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd Labor Government harshly, not for what it did or didn't do, but for how it conducted itself. It came in with a convincing mandate in 2007 and, through bad leadership and appalling infighting, it squandered its opportunities.

Credit is due - but part of it must go to China and the mining boom - for managing to keep the country out of recession during the global financial crisis. And there are legacy policies, including the disability insurance scheme and the schools funding reforms.

Carbon pricing was a good thing too - but now, one way or another, that is set to be dismantled.

How much more could Labor have done (and entrenched) if Kevin Rudd had been a disciplined leader initially? If his Cabinet colleagues had pulled him into line when he was not? If the party power brokers had stayed their hand in June 2010 - or Julia Gillard had declined their offer of the leadership?

If Rudd had not been disloyal in the 2010 campaign and regularly through the following three years? If Gillard had been tougher with the Greens, and with Craig Thomson, so Labor was less compromised? If the party had decided to return to Rudd earlier?

Admittedly, the last point is problematic. There is no doubt that Rudd contained the swing against Labor. But, given his personal popularity declined during the campaign, if voters had seen him for longer they might have gone off him to a greater extent.

The story of Kevin Rudd is one of the strangest of modern politics. He's the classic "street angel, house devil". The smiling vote winner of 2007 who by 2010 had so alienated colleagues that they were willing to go to the extreme of ambushing him and tossing him out.

A man never willing to give up, whatever damage he caused the party, who then persuaded his colleagues to re-embrace him to protect them in a dire situation for which he had to bear a good deal of the blame.

Labor has to get a leader able to command authority within the party as well as having appeal to the public.

Not necessarily easy. There are at the moment two options: Bill Shorten or Anthony Albanese.

Shorten has indicated he will seek the leadership if he doesn't face a contest. In a head to head, which would be decided on a 50-50 basis by caucus and the ALP rank and file under the new rules Rudd introduced, Shorten probably would not have the numbers against Albanese, especially in the party at large.

A few months ago, Shorten, from the right, was the default choice for Opposition leader. But his last-minute switch to support Rudd (after being one of those behind the Gillard coup) has cost him dearly. Shorten has the advantage, in terms of the community albeit not the party, of being a consensus figure. He has contacts in business and is a skilled negotiator. He also has a good policy head. He was the one who, from a very junior position, got rolling the first moves for the disability insurance scheme.

Albanese, from the left, has been one of the political performers in the Labor Government. He's carried a hefty work load as Leader of the House, as well as big ministerial responsibilities and, in the last days, the deputy prime ministership.

Albanese is at his best as an attacker. One Labor source says his image would not appeal sufficiently to the "aspirational" voters Labor needs to recapture. Those who favour him believe, as one put it, "that he would do to Abbott what Abbott did to us".

Being Opposition leader is in some ways the hardest job in politics, especially in the early days of a new government. But the period ahead will present all sorts of opportunities, not least in the Senate. Labor and the Greens might have lost their balance of power, but a plethora of micro parties and independents will have sway.

Age electoral expert Tim Colebatch writes that from July, "as the numbers stand, eight minor party senators from separate groups, some of them virtually unknown entities with no track record and no known policies, will be given the power to decide whether or not each government bill should be passed".

Michelle Grattan has been a member of the Canberra parliamentary press gallery for more than 40 years and is a former editor of the Canberra Times.


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