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The ALP Is Losing And They Know It

It wasn’t quite a death rattle on Friday night but the Nielsen poll showing the coalition leading the ALP by 52% to 48% came close.

The ALP is losing this election and they know it. The “let Julia be Julia” cry that gathered pace last night and this morning provides an insight into a campaign that is stumbling badly.

As Gillard appeared on the television news last night, wrapped in a Western Bulldogs scarf and other regalia, someone said to me: “I’ve been loyal to the Dogs for 50 years but I can’t say the same thing about the ALP now. I’m so angry with them I want to punish them.”

In one section of the Labor base, letting Julia be Julia won’t result in a renewed commitment to tackling climate change and introducing an ETS or a carbon tax.

Letting Julia be Julia still seems more likely to produce language on asylum seekers designed to pander to voters who will never believe that she will be as tough as the Liberals will.

True, there is now a concerted attempt by the Gillard campaign to return the focus to economic issues in the remaining three weeks of the election. It may yet work. But therein lies the key to the sickness that now afflicts the ALP.

This is a government that has a very good story to tell about its handling of the global financial crisis. By any measure, Australia’s economy has been well handled, employment has been maintained and economic growth has been sustained.

But Rudd, and now Gillard, lost control of the political debate. They have been unable to stem the loss of political blood that has flowed from criticism of the Building the Education Revolution program or the insulation scheme.

Where today are the people who should be out there in the media marketplace delivering the economic message that could save the Gillard prime ministership?

Where’s Lindsay Tanner, the government’s only truly credible economic spokesman?

Where’s Greg Combet, a star political performer in anybody’s language?

What’s happened to Anthony Albanese, the government’s tough and feisty Leader of the House?

Have these people withdrawn their labour? Are they the latest victims of the right-wing coup that has seized control of the Labor Party? Have they been isolated by the political spivs of the NSW Right faction who now control the campaign?

Consider what the ALP has instead in this campaign. There was the stumbling incoherence of the Treasurer, Wayne Swan, on Insiders yesterday, unable to divert Barrie Cassidy’s focus on Kevin Rudd and the ongoing saga of the leaks.

It’s simply not good enough for a party trying to avoid being ignominiously tossed out of government after less than three years in office.

On my admittedly small and limited travels on the campaign in some of Melbourne’s marginal seats over the past two weeks, one thing stands out. Anyone who expresses support for the ALP does so in heavily qualified or negative terms.

There is appreciation that the worst elements of Work Choices have been legislated away. And there is an understanding that the worldwide effects of the financial crisis have been held at bay. But these are essentially negative things, one undoing a coalition policy, one an achievement that prevented something awful happening.

They are not positive achievements in the true sense of the word.

Yesterday, Senator Bob Brown delivered the Australian Greens’ policy speech to the party faithful in Canberra. Many saw the speech as an eloquent statement from a politician of passion and commitment, a man arguing for positions he has long held.

Ironically, Brown delivered a more cogent defence of the government’s economic management than Labor has been able to do.

But Brown delivered a speech that was essentially a grab-bag of policies, as appealing and as populist as any speech he might criticise from the “old parties”.

In the blink of an eye, Brown could talk about policies on recycling, junk food advertising, Afghanistan, a republic, Tibet and high-speed rail. There was precious little detail but much that appealed to people, not just Greens supporters, who are looking for some vision and principle.

Of putting a price on carbon emissions, Brown’s slogan was “tax the polluters or tax the people”. People who ought to be a natural constituency of the Labor Party cheered him to the rafters.

At one stage, Brown compared the major parties to a stuck film he had experienced in a cinema the night before. The old parties are “frozen in time” and “out of focus”, Brown told his audience. “They’re the coal parties, we’re the people’s party.” The old parties, Brown said, want to fund more rail and ports infrastructure to allow big mining companies to carry coal for export. “Let them fund it themselves.”

It was stirring stuff but also simplistic and economically reckless.

But at least it was a cry from a party that knows what it stands for.

It could not have been more different from the message Gillard’s Labor Party is sending.

As it had all week, the issue of Kevin Rudd dominated the weekend.

Speaking in Perth, Gillard went on the offensive over trades training and apprenticeships. It was meat and potatoes Labor policy. She drew a picture of Tony Abbott slashing hospital and education funding. A television commercial ran showing the Abbott hand pulling the plug on GP Super Clinics, computers in schools and other Labor initiatives.

But the assembled media wanted to talk about Rudd. Newsprint and airwaves alike focussed on his gall bladder operation. Questions were asked about whether Gillard had spoken to Rudd. Which ministers had visited him in hospital?

What is the voting public making of all this? Is there now a crystallised sense of unease about this government? Is there a sense that something just isn’t right? Are they wondering what all the dissension is about?

At its core, the new, revamped Gillard that emerged this morning in the Sydney electorate of Lindsay, brought together a set of disparate concerns.

If this is the real Julia, what have we been seeing for the past month? Isn’t that why she replaced Rudd in the first place – because we no longer knew who he was or what he stood for?

Ian Kortlang, a long-time Liberal apparatchik and campaign strategist, gave one of the most interesting interpretations of the current situation in his appearance on Channel 10’s Meet The Press yesterday.

He compared the Gillard takeover with Andrew Peacock’s toppling of John Howard in May 1989. Within a week, the clinically executed coup had unravelled as the vanquished Howard remained in the public eye and the coup plotters boasted of their efforts on Four Corners. Peacock never recovered, Kortlang said. He was defeated in the election nine months later.

Gillard’s Labor Party confronts a similar problem today. It’s a problem riddled with contradictions.

The people who proposed the electorally disastrous positions that led to Rudd’s polling slump, such as dumping the ETS, are the same people who moved against him when it all went pear-shaped.

In Gillard, they apparently had a new leader who had also endorsed their positions. A policy change that might stop the Labor base from fracturing and hold on to swinging voters was never going to come from Gillard.

“I’m a fighter,” she repeatedly told the media on the weekend. Really tough fighters never have to tell you that.

The Newspoll published today offers some hope. A two-party-preferred split of 50-50 suggests the election can be won by either side with a consistent, trouble-free campaign over the next three weeks.

But a primary vote languishing on 37% does not bode well for a party that should be cruising to victory against a ramshackle coalition that no-one really believes has re-made itself sufficiently to be returned to government.

This article first appeared on The Drum.

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Malcolm Farnsworth
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