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The real lesson from NSW: stop trying to govern forever

By Dennis Glover - posted Wednesday, 30 March 2011

What can one say about the New South Wales Labor loss that hasn't already been said a thousand times? We know why they lost, which can be explained by innumerable variations on the theme of 'bad politics'. That doesn't, however, really tell us much. Is there a more interesting, big-picture lesson from Kristina Keneally's shellacking?

At first I thought it might be the obvious point that it's hard to renew in office. God knows the New South Wales ALP tried, changing its leaders, its ministers, its policies, its philosophy and its rhetoric seemingly daily. But actually I'm convinced that's wrong. It's not just hard to renew in office, it's impossible, and it's time we were honest and recognised it. So the question perhaps should be: is it really worth trying to cling on to power forever?

This may at first seem crazy. After all, parties must contest every election with the intention of winning it, no matter how long they've been in office, or how hopeless the cause (as we've just seen), otherwise we'd have a one-party state. I'm not arguing, though, that elections shouldn't be hard-fought; I'm arguing that incoming governments should stop setting out with the aim of becoming The Natural Party of Government.


Viewed from its end-point of election-night defeat, every government is a failure. The fact of eventual loss casts a pall over all that preceded. There's a tempting simile here – life and death. But it doesn't quite work, because we don't denounce everyone ever born 'a failure' just because they die. Then again, we don't judge them a success just because they clung on at the nursing home longer than all their friends. Glorious lives can be short ones, but only as long as they are well lived. Think of great artists, like Kurt Cobain or River Phoenix, both dead in their twenties, or George Orwell and Albert Camus, both dead at 46. In fact, there's a sense in which greatness can only be achieved by living life dangerously. Take Camus – risk-free living may have meant no high-speed car crash; but it also would have meant no membership of the Resistance, no The Plague, and no Nobel Prize. Perhaps it's time to think about governments in the same way.

Could it be that the very aim of trying to rule forever means that you're unlikely to ever achieve much? This is paradoxical, because it seems logical that the longer you stay in power, the more you can use the state to change things. But the opposite is true: the more effort you expend trying to stay in power, the less effort you expend tyring to change the world; the more your goal is to last 24 years, the more your focus narrows to the 24-hour news cycle. You can govern for a long time from the centre; but you can't change much from it. That's why the so-called 'radical centre' philosophy of government has been such a massive disappointment.

Take Tony Blair – he promised much, but by the end Labour's truest believers wanted to run him and his successor out of town. His was a government that glittered for a while but in the end its greatest achievement was, well… staying in government long enough to invoke the 'it's time' factor.

Even comparatively famous long-term administrations achieved their greatest results within the first one or two parliamentary terms. The major economic reforms of the Hawke and Thatcher governments, for instance, happened while those governments were young and fresh. Their last years in office were agonizing for all concerned. And that illustrates another thing: governing is hard, draining and sometimes literally a killer, as in the cases of John Curtin and (soon after losing power) Ben Chifley. Often governments collapse because their members are simply physically exhausted. Think of Paul Keating's annoyance that he didn't get to the Lodge three years earlier, before office became such a 'crushing burden'. Insanely chasing the 24-hour news cycle reduces even the youngest minister or political adviser to a greying, bone-tired, shambling wreck.

Look around at the long-running state governments of recent times; it's difficult to recall any truly significant reforms after their first terms, other than steady improvements in schools and hospitals – worthy but hardly historic. Their massive media units led them into the marshes; the logic of power led them into an iron cage.

In fact, history shows it's the short-term governments that are most revered by their parties and even their nations. Churchill governed for five years and won the most important war of modern times. The Attlee Government managed to transform Britain into a democratic-socialist state in just 6 years. Chifley created post-war Australia in just four years. The Whitlam Government may have lasted just two years and 11 months, but Medibank still stands. Even if it had lost power in 2010, after just three short years, the Rudd-Gillard government would have been able to boast saving Australia from recession during the Global Financial Crisis, pumping billions of dollars into our schools, and apologising to the stolen generations. Fear of going to the people over carbon pricing because Sussex Street had some new polling may have cost it its place in history.


My point is this: ultimately the New South Wales election on Saturday proves the utter, utter futility of the type of news-cycle driven, govern-forever approach to power that has characterised the Labor Party in recent years. It is a style of politics that started at the state level (yes, in Sydney) and is in danger of infecting the federal party too. Left and Right have been equally a fault. It doesn't work. Perhaps now's the time to try the opposite: approaching government as an instrument for lightning change not glacial reform; blitzkrieg, not siege warfare; creating Medibank, not good headlines.

There are signs Julia Gillard is cottoning-on. She should ignore Newspoll, take heed of Saturday night, and press-on with vigour and courage. History's verdict awaits.

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About the Author

Dennis Glover is a Labor speechwriter and fellow of the new progressive think tank Per Capita.

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