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Labor won't learn by playing blame game

By Scott Prasser - posted Monday, 7 October 2013


After many election defeats, the Labor story is the same: the policies and cause were right, it was just "negative" tactics of the conservatives, a biased media and party disunity that blinded the electorate to party successes!

Labor's leadership aspirants have blamed the 2013 loss on these factors, stressing most of all the party's internal destabilisation. Now former prime minister Julia Gillard, speaking out in The Guardian and in interviews with Anne Summers, has joined the chorus with the added line that the "underside of sexism" contributed to her particular failure.

Given that former Labor leader Bob Hawke described the election defeat as a "devastating result for Labor" needing close review, we expected better than this.

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Before it slips into the popular consciousness, we should review the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd government's policy legacies.

And let's get past the superficial analyses such as Jacqueline Kent's Take Your Best Shot: The Prime Ministership of Julia Gillard, which highlights the "staggering 600" bills passed in parliament under Gillard as an indicator of success. Mere quantity is a poor measure of a government's policy legacy. How many bills were rushed? How many served the national interest or were financially sustainable?

Gillard's own assessment - that her only error was labelling the carbon tax a tax and not a trading scheme - shows a lack of critical self-analysis as bad as Kevin Rudd on election night.

According to her, the Rudd-Gillard years were like a rose between two thorns: Labor's vision for a better nation shone a light on the dark days that went before, when the "anti-worker" Howard government, "every day in office", played "divisive politics" with its broken "business model" for schools policy. Even darker days are to come, Gillard claims, when an Abbott government will be "broadcasting for its own callow political purposes a continuous diatribe about Labor ... incompetence".

Setting aside the absence of grace in failing to credit any government other than her own with having the nation's interest at heart, a question mark sits heavily over whether Gillard's nominated "legacy policies" - fair work, education reform, disability care, health and aged care, and embracing the Asian Century - will stand up under scrutiny.

The test of good policies is that they need to provide credible solutions, be effective in tackling the problem and have substance (not just rhetoric or relabelling or the aspirational). Good policies also need a sound process to identify the evidence and build support based on transparent consultation. Effort must be directed to problems that meet public concerns, not ideological ones, to tackle the causes, not just their manifestations. Polices must be doable and cost effective, as far as targets and implementation. Without delivery they are nothing. Policies should take a long-term view, not be driven by immediate political concerns. Finally, good policies should cater for the public interest, not sectional interest groups.

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The Rudd-Gillard policy legacy fails most of these tests.

The fair work legislation does not seem to have struck the right balance between employer and employee protections to serve the national interest objective of workplace flexibility and productivity. It can hardly be ranked with labour reforms of the Hawke-Keating years.

The post-Gonski education "reforms", comprised mainly of increased funding for schools at the expense of vocational and higher education, failed on several counts. They were not a credible solution and ignored the evidence about what affects education achievement. Nor were they readily implementable, given the different arrangements struck with each state and school authority, and continuing resistance by some jurisdictions. Negotiations were driven by Gillard's election agenda.

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This article was first published in The Australian.



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About the Author

Scott Prasser is Professor of Public Policy and was Executive Director of the Public Policy Institute at the Australian Catholic University. Scott has worked previously in senior policy and research roles in federal and state governments and in several universities in Victoria, NSW and Queensland. Recently, Scott co-edited with Associate Professor Nicholas Aroney and J.R. Nethercote the book Restraining Elective Dictatorship: The Upper House Solution? He has just written with Helen Tracey a report entitled Beyond Gonski: Reviewing the Evidence on Quality Schooling.

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