Letter from … Sydney

First published in Progress magazine

Changing leader was enough to save key bits of furniture. The much-predicted domino effect in western Sydney never happened. But neither did the great seat pick-up in Queensland.

Paradoxically, Kevin Rudd’s second stint as prime minister has secured the substantial achievements of Julia Gillard, both his successor and predecessor. The Liberals do not have a majority in the senate and will now struggle to get through key policies, and will find it harder still to undo Gillard’s reforms, including the Gonski ‘better schools’ plan and DisabilityCare Australia. They have even had to accept significant parts of these changes into their party platform.

The election result does, however, leave the Australian Labor party with several big challenges. The biggest – not dissimilar from what happened when Ken Livingstone lost the London mayoralty – will be the Abbott expectation game. In the same way Labour played up the prospects of Boris Johnson’s buffoonery and warned of embarrassments waiting to happen, Labor claims Tony Abbott is a disaster waiting to happen. This is an expectation game that the new occupant of the Lodge can hardly fail to win.

The second is who Labor picks as its leader. It should have a members’ ballot for the first time in the party’s 130-year history if two or more candidates emerge from the parliamentary party. This should be embraced as an opportunity to build the party, secure the legacy, put the Rudd-Gillard personality factions behind it, and set out a vision for the future.

There are a number of questions ALP members will be considering as they make their choice: which candidate will attract more voters; who can both present a vision for Australia’s future and offer practical improvements for working people; and who can unite the party and take the fight to the Liberals without simply parroting party lines and preaching to the gallery?

Third, the party has to engage in a serious listening exercise. The Labor government improved the lives of many people for the better. But others are feeling the squeeze in living standards in an unprecedented way.

The danger is that re-elected Labor MPs in Canberra look backwards – at Australia as it was in 2007 and the government’s many achievements in office, whether it be the new schools, MediCare centres or the DisabilityCare scheme – rather than focusing on the future. What is needed now is a fresh look at Australia’s strengths and weaknesses and Australians’ hopes and fears.

The opportunity for Australia’s oldest political party rests with its next generation. New additions to the parliamentary party will offer fresh insights. But it is also to the party’s youth wing that it should look. It was the president of Young Labor who successfully organised the campaign in the hyper-marginal seat of Greenway and retained it for Labor. It was his membership that flooded the marginal seats with doorknockers and phone-canvassers. These are the very people who have been listening to the voters Labor needs to win back. The ALP cannot wait until these young members begin winning seats for themselves but should start listening to them now in order to take the steps necessary to get Abbott out in one term.


Richard Angell is deputy director of Progress and on secondment to New South Wales Labor party


Photo: David Hass

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