Labor must not:
IF Labor loses the federal election, there are four things the party must NOT do, if it wants to win in 2010:
1. DROP KEVIN
Rolling the leader after an election loss is as traditional as sacking the coach of the footy team that gets the wooden spoon. Even if it doesn't happen immediately, it will eventually. It was only because Kim Beazley was a good bloke and came close in 1998 that the Labor Party allowed him to continue as leader, and lose again in 2001. Simon Crean wasn't even given the chance to fight an election. Sadly, most people in the ALP now believe that not only should Mark Latham not have been allowed to captain the side, he shouldn't even have been on the teamsheet.
Rudd has to be given credit. In the midst of the greatest economic boom in a century and with record low inflation, interest rates and unemployment, Kevin Rudd has succeeded in making everyone feel miserable. Thanks to him the electorate was willing to contemplate voting against a government that has presided over the best financial conditions in living memory. He campaigned against John Howard without really campaigning against him. Labor's entire political strategy for the 2007 campaign can be summed up as "Vote for the change you have when you're not really having a change".
Political genius comes close to describing the magnitude of Rudd's achievement. The solutions he proposed to help "working families" - basically to call various government inquiries - wouldn't have made much of a difference but they did change the terms of the political debate. It was the same with Rudd's "plans" for Australia. There wasn't much detail in those "plans" but the electorate didn't seem to care.
2. Let the ACTU write Labor's next industrial relations policy.
Australians believe in "a fair go" but this doesn't mean they're willing to trust the administration of the country to trade unions. The campaign against WorkChoices orchestrated by the ACTU got publicity, but it didn't present any policy alternatives. The reality is that the number of employers who manipulated the new laws to "exploit" their employees was miniscule. Most employees like being given the choice to negotiate their own terms and conditions with their employers. A better educated, higher-skilled workforce doesn't need the protection of unions.
Only 20 per cent of Australian employees belong to a trade union. Labor needs to demonstrate that its industrial relations policy will not return Australia to the bad old days of the past. The ALP never effectively repudiated the line from Greg Combet: "I recall we used to run the country and it would not be a bad thing if we did again."
3. Promise an education "revolution" and not deliver.
Who did Kevin Rudd think he was kidding? It's hardly revolutionary to promise every student a computer - it should have been done years ago. Revolutions don't happen overnight. A real education "revolution" would be to ensure that every child who finished primary school was able to read and write. No education minister - federal or state - has ever made that guarantee. While Kevin Rudd is shopping for ideas here are a few more: double the size of the Coalition's promised rebate to parents for educational expenses and make it subject to a means test; force state governments to allow private, profit-making companies to run government schools and pay the companies a bonus if they improve students' results; and measure teacher performance and pay the best teachers more.
4. Assume beating Peter Costello will be easy.
Sooner or later Peter Costello will replace John Howard as prime minister. The ALP has convinced itself that Costello is unpopular as treasurer - but this doesn't necessarily mean he would be an unpopular prime minister. Some of the issues that Costello has already spoken about, for example the republic, will be used to redefine the image of the Liberal Party and attract the support of a younger generation of voters.
Tax, and the fact that Australians pay too much of it, will continue to be a major policy issue. If Costello as PM instigates further major tax cuts he'll have built for himself a powerful political platform. Costello as leader would probably make wholesale changes to the make-up of Cabinet. Many of the government ministers that Labor and the left love to hate would be gone.
Something else to remember is that Costello is the Coalition's most effective parliamentarian. The contest for the Canberra press gallery will be between Costello the debater and Rudd the diplomat. It is a contest that, at least on paper, Costello would be favoured to win.
Published in the Sunday Age, Sunday, November 18, 2007