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Labor needs to change direction as well as leader

By Leon Bertrand - posted Tuesday, 6 September 2011


Wheels are now in motion within the federal Labor Party to end the disastrous Prime Ministership of Julia Gillard. Whilst Labor must dump the most unpopular Prime Minister since the history of Newspoll, it also needs to change its direction in order to clean up the mess she will have left.

It's hard to believe that it has come to this. Only about two years ago the federal government enjoyed a handsome lead in the polls and the Opposition was in disarray. At the time few doubted that Labor would win the 2010 election quite handsomely, but that election instead resulted in a hung parliament. If an election were held now, Labor would be lucky to hold on to 30 seats.

Some Labor types and those on the political left more generally may be tempted to self-indulgently blame the media, Tony Abbott or the fact that Gillard is a woman. But in truth this is a government which has managed so often to combine bad policy with political failures. Fuelwatch, Grocerychoice, the abolition of offshore processing, home insulation, building school halls, the RSPT, the carbon tax, set top boxes – the list is as long as Lennox Lewis' arm.

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Any sober analysis can only conclude that the vast majority of Labor's political wounds have been self-inflicted. What inspired the government to soften the laws concerning unauthorised boat arrivals in 2008 is anyone's guess, but it appears that a naïve belief that boat arrivals would not significantly increase as a result was an underlying factor. That belief has since been proven wrong, with sometimes deadly consequences. Even the government no longer denies that pull factors are at work, an implied admission that it unleashed those pull factors in 2008.

Likewise, the carbon tax represents another huge political misjudgement. A more astute politician in Gillard's shoes would never have introduced such a policy after promising not to without at least giving the Australian people a chance to vote on it. If John Howard had tried to introduce the GST before the 1998 election, there's no doubt he would have gone down in history as the one term Prime Minister who broke his GST promise.

Little wonder then that the punters see Gillard as dishonest and untrustworthy. The Grandmother who confronted Gillard at Fairfield Shopping Centre in Queensland is far from the only voter to feel lied to on the carbon tax.

Even Gillard's explanations for her broken promise have been unpersuasive. The fact that Labor has found itself in minority government is no excuse for breaking such a clear and fundamental pledge. And Gillard's denials at times that she broke her promise or that the carbon tax is a tax have been humiliating mistakes.

Gillard is obviously an intelligent person. She did extremely well in student politics and then legal practice, even becoming a partner at Slater and Gordon at a relatively young age. But her political judgment has often been dreadful.

The carbon tax was always likely to be a toxic policy for Labor, as I predicted it would be. Gillard and her advisors clearly didn't appreciate how the politics had moved on the issue of climate change since 2007. Since 2007 the drought has been broken, the economy has slowed down, the rest of the world has not committed to emissions cuts, climate change scepticism has grown and people have realised that action involves increases to their power and grocery bills.

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However, Labor has been a little unlucky with the Craig Thomson scandal and the recent High Court decision which terminated the Malaysian solution. The High Court interpreted section 198A of the Migration Act in a judicially activist manner, contrary to s198A's literal meaning, the intention of Parliament at the time and the rulings of the Chief Justice when he was a Federal Court judge.

In ordinary circumstances the courts would be blamed for this outcome, but the public has lost faith in the government and so is viewing the result as yet another example of federal Labor's incompetence. So in a way the government is paying for its past mistakes through the High Court debacle.

Ultimately, the Malaysian Solution should have been given a chance to be judged on its own merits. Justice Heydon's dissenting judgment is a reasoned exposition against the majority's interpretation of s198A(3) and on the dangers of having activist judges curtail the power of the executive.

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About the Author

Leon Bertrand is a Brisbane blogger and lawyer.

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