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Honesty or denial?: Karl Bitar at the National Press Club

By Chris Lewis - posted Friday, 12 November 2010


The recent National Press club address by Karl Bitar (ALP National Secretary) is interesting because it provides reasons for Labor's recent 2010 federal election victory (and near loss).

Some aspects of Bitar's speech were fair enough. For instance, Bitar noted how Labor struggled to sell its economic achievements given that Australia experienced less employment loss in comparison to other nations responding to the global financial crisis.

Similarly, Bitar acknowledged the problems caused by major campaign announcements such as a citizens assembly to discuss measures to address climate change, and the Parramatta to Epping railway line, which voters judged to be without substance.

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Bitar also highlighted how Labor had to overcome many broken promises that tested public support, such as Fuel Watch and an emissions trading scheme (ETS).

And there was the damage caused by dumping Rudd, leaks to the media during the campaign, and the disruption that was Mark Latham.

Yet, much of what Bitar offered was nonsense (almost comical), and hardly worthy of fair dinkum analysis on behalf of Labor.

There was Bitar's cheap political jibe at the supposed intellectual superiority of Gillard over Abbott. Bitar refers to Gillard being smart and Abbott having no idea about economics; Gillard moving Australia forward and Abbott moving it backwards; and the Coalition doing well to hide Abbott's problematic personality traits in the face of supposed concern by voters.

But just which was the silly party? Given the importance of debate to any effective democracy, there was Bitar seeking to explain Labor's lack of debate under Rudd as being a product of not wanting to give the media any excuse to portray Labor as divided after 11-12 years in opposition. It is indeed laughable for any party to hold a National Conference and not debate one issue, but Labor did.

Whether one agrees with the Coalition's ETS policy stance or not, at least the Coalition debated the issue, changed leader, won the public debate, and almost forced Labor to back down.

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Some of Bitar's other points also defy belief. He claimed that Labor promised too much in 2007, and now implies that Labor faced the same difficulties as other great progressives like Obama, Clinton, and Blair, when in fact the 2007 campaign was full of public relations statements masquerading as policy and centered on an economic strategy of portraying Rudd as no different from Howard.

After 12 years of the Howard government which had undertaken much policy reform, a half-decent party should have had many opportunities to implement policy change in line with its party traditions and expectations which should have already been discussed and constantly debated.

You've got to wonder about Bitar's political credentials when he argues that it is hard for political parties to communicate with people as most are not interested in politics and concerned with everyday challenges. Except in exceptional circumstances, hasn't it always been thus?

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About the Author

Chris Lewis has an interest in all economic, social and environmental issues, but believes that the struggle for the ‘right’ policy mix remains an elusive goal in such a complex and competitive world.

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