Friday, 29 August 2014

The Rise and Fall of Labor

By Peter Dewar

Paul Kelly and Greg Combet suggest modern day political machinery is in need of repair. And lost is the art of government ...

(L to R) Greg Combet, Lenore Taylor
 and Paul Kelly
Lenore Taylor, political editor of Guardian Australia, convened the discussion with these two respected figures. Both of whom have recently released books. The Fights of My Life is a personal account of Combet's activism before and during his time as a Labor government minister. Kelly's Triumph and Demise, which was launched the day before this session by Prime Minister Abbott, chronicles Labor in power and seeks to identify broader forces at play in what Kelly describes as a 'crisis of the political system'. Kelly, part historian, part journalist is The Australian's editor-at-large, a privileged position where he's gets to write anything he wants. His low bass voice adds to the gravitas; he could be mistaken for a statesman.

Deakin Edge, the stunning glass theatre overlooking the Yarra, was filled with an audience hoping that Combet and Kelly might provide answers to some basic political questions, including: Why vote Labor? Can parliamentary behaviour be improved? Where will future political leaders come from?

No panaceas were offered but panellists didn't step away from a conviction the Australian political culture requires change.

It's a brutal business calling for political warriors unafraid to resist populism; that was the consensus. As for the prospects of finding a leader to champion a reform agenda necessary for Australia's continued prosperity? Paul Kelly said this:

"To say they've got to be tough is an understatement. They must have extraordinary resilience, ability, judgement, be able to read the public and pull a team together. That's the first stage - then they need to master the art of government. In 1971, I was a young journalist and Paul Keating was an inexperienced backbencher. He was so raw. And so different from today’s Keating."

In reference to the present, past and future state of the Labor party:

"Hawke and Keating would find things an awful lot more difficult now than the eighties," said Kelly. "The pace of politics is much faster ... they don't have a lot of time to sit down, consider, evaluate consult and compromise. The power of the negative is greater. The power of sectional groups is undoubtedly much greater."

"I'd spend the best part of a day trying to recover some ground," says Combet of dealing with an antagonistic press during his time in Parliament. "I simply did not have the resources to be able to deal with it."

'The thing I am most proud of is the
James Hardie settlement for asbestos
victims,' Greg Combet discusses his book
The Fights of My Life with Lenore Taylor
The removal of Rudd from the Labor leadership and the damage this inflicted on Gillard’s authority in the eyes of the community, the nature of minority government, fraught agreements with the Greens and Tony Abbott's effectiveness in opposition gave the former Labor leadership an awful lot to deal with. As well, Labor felt subjected to a deliberate negative campaign by a section of the media.

Kelly is more damning, sheeting home failure to implement climate policy and a mining tax to gross mishandling: "A shocking fiasco [the mining tax] from start to finish."

"The only rational policy, in relation to the climate, from an economic and environmental point of view is a carbon pricing arrangement," says Combet.

"It's just another thing Labor has to fight for. If I learnt one thing, it's extremely important to have a mandate to reform," He said in reference to the characterisation of carbon pricing policy as a Carbon Tax. "[Not having a mandate] mortally wounded the Gillard government."

Conservatives weren’t spared from criticism either:

According to Combet and Kelly, the Liberal party, may find themselves ensnared by their own policy vulnerability and party room dynamics. Kelly told of chaotic scenes as Abbott was promoted leader of the Liberals ahead of Turnbull. It had the effect of uniting the Coalition in an anti-carbon policy stance. Failure to meet carbon reduction targets will expose a lack of credible climate change policy. And ultimately spell trouble for Abbott.

I felt in good hands during this discussion. Lost during an hour long conversation was the grubbiness found in so much of daily reporting. Combet and Kellys’ critiques were forthright but not personal. The absence of theatrics and point scoring was refreshing.

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