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Labor should try Blair's way

By Alex Sanchez - posted Tuesday, 14 March 2006

Sometimes you have to ask yourself the hard question. And for federal Labor the question that hurts but needs answering is this: is federal Labor's house now built on sand? No amount of mutual back slapping, polling false dawns or even state-level success can hide the fact that the federal Labor show is in deep trouble.

It is hard to imagine a lower watermark. A seemingly genetic inability to come to grips with John Howard's Australia, a failure to craft (or start to craft) a deft modern Labor agenda and now a party riddled with intractable internal conflicts and bile, federal Labor is truly struggling.

Attractive as it might seem, it would be easy to argue that this predicament is solely due to leadership. But there is clearly something more to it than that. Opposition has burnt Labor's strength in governance. It is now a paler, more limited institution than ever. It is, to put it bluntly, in the groove of opposition.


How so? The big turn for Labor occurred between 1996 and 1998. Instead of plugging away at the long-term project of modernising Labor, the party took false comfort from its 1998 results. Labor convinced itself all was OK, just when the world and the nation began to turn. Rather than applying itself to a modern Labor project, the ALP meekly agreed with itself. It was all too easy, and like all things that come easy at first, you pay for it later.

Close to ten years later, it's not surprising that Labor hasn't adapted - how can it, when it hasn't got the plan, personnel or tools to do so? Whatever you may think of him, contrast this with Tony Blair's Labour. He started a journey to a modern labour party. We laughed it off. We told Blair smugly that we couldn't learn from him, although Blair was always prepared to learn from us. To this day, we see nothing in the way forward from Blair's Labour. In fact, we go out of our way in chastising him for joining the coalition of the willing. It is an adolescent view, it shows - and now the joke is on us.

To see how far the ALP has regressed, think about this for one moment: if you were to replace the first Hawke ministry with the current Labor shadow ministry, do you believe we would have seen the dollar floated, tariffs reduced, interest rates deregulated, foreign banks admitted, the top marginal rate cut (and aligned to the company rate), the abolition of the two-airline agreement, welfare assets testing and the introduction of the Higher Education Contribution Scheme?

Despite all the bluster, clever lines and finely-crafted statements, the answer is probably "No". Machine parties don't do policy well.

So if the world view is behind the times, then what about ourselves? Again, no joy here. It is a truth that the factions and machine men are crippling the party. No point in hiding it or ignoring it. Proper governance implores us to get it, fix it and move on from it.

These days, the factions don't understand or apply themselves to governance. If you were to ask a machine or factional player in today's Labor Party what he or she would like to do with government or perhaps even power itself, you would be surprised by the answer. Unlike Blair or Howard, the machine men have no "to do" list for the nation.


And why should they? Being a factional player carries rewards, irrespective of whether you are in government or not. You get staff, an office with expenses and a travel allocation that allows you to do what you like. Why do you need government if you have nothing you wish to govern for?

Coincidentally, it is almost 12 months since the release of the Latham diaries, where the former leader prophetically proclaimed that federal Labor was irreparably broken and a spent force. If the events of the last week do anything, they have resulted in the start of the modern Labor project. What a shame it has taken ten years to get started.

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First published in the Australian Financial Review on March 13, 2006.

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About the Author

Alex Sanchez is a former adviser to Mark Latham, Leader of the Opposition. He was an unsuccessful candidate for preselection in the federal seat of Fowler in south-west Sydney. He is married to a working wife and has two children. He can be emailed at

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