You can’t change history when you’re the opposition

When Kevin Rudd was deposed in June 2010, two questions were at the forefront of people’s minds, how did it happen and why? Now two years later, people are still wondering.

They’re wondering why time has done little to settle the ruminations about Labor’s leadership? Why despite Rudd’s failed bid to retake the leadership in February, an otherwise innocuous comment by his wife could again spark predictions of Julia Gillard’s demise? And why a party that once revered even its failed leaders, seems ever more ready to reject them?

The answers lie in a crucial part of the Labor Party’s character, born of its past and haunting it in the present.

At an ALP conference commemorating the Whitlam government in 1992, Paul Keating praised his predecessor’s understanding of how Labor succeeds or fails to retain power.

“Gough understood that the ALP was like a bicycle. It only stands up when you pedal. If you stop pedalling, it falls over. If you run out of ideas and you run out of push and you run out of drive, it just sort of lays to one side.”

Keating’s comments were ironic, perhaps deliberately so, for it was the Whitlam government that had in 1975 demonstrated what he spoke of. That when Labor’s agenda is frustrated, its electoral momentum stymied and its leader unable to navigate out of trouble, the party finds itself stalled. Locked into a trajectory threatening to return it to opposition.

History has taught the ALP that no matter how hard it may try, the desire to implement policy and exert influence can’t be fulfilled while in opposition.

The fear of returning to the opposition benches, of being impotent, is one deeply felt in Labor, by a party that has spent much of its history on those benches. It’s a fear that helps explain why the party has become more pragmatic about disposing of leaders, in both state and federal government, when the bicycle looks set to topple.

It wasn’t always the case that Labor turned so easily on leaders who faltered. There was a time when even a leader who proved a liability, would retain their position. Consider Whitlam, who in the prelude to the dismissal, was guiding Labor almost certainly back to opposition.

After the dismissal, of the government that had brought the party back to power after two decades in opposition, Labor’s fears over how long they would spend relegated this time immediately arose. Caucus attacked Whitlam, releasing years of pent up anger.

Advisors, supported by polling, were emphatic that Whitlam’s record in government was an obstacle to retrieving power. He was a liability, who could only succeed in the future if the electorate developed collective amnesia about the past.

Despite this, he led the party to two subsequent elections, losing both of them. Yet he has become a revered figure in Labor culture – earning a degree of veneration neither Rudd nor Gillard are ever likely to enjoy.

The difference between then and now owes in part to the way Labor has traditionally dealt with failure. A coping mechanism, where the party had by Whitlam’s era become adept at downplaying, justifying and even glorifying failure. What Whitlam termed with derision as a “philosophy of failure.”

Failure was to be justified and even embraced if it meant staying true to the party’s values and beliefs. An attempt at justification that prompted Whitlam’s infamous repudiation, that “the impotent are pure.”

When Keating deposed Hawke in 1991, it exemplified a departure from this philosophy. The calls of those in the party that echoed the old philosophy gave way to political reality and to that long held fear of impotence in opposition.

Had Keating not won the unwinnable election against Hewson, it’s conceivable that the departure from the old ways would have been written off as a failed experiment. Instead, Keating’s success demonstrated that a pragmatic decision on leadership when the bike begins to wobble can help the party regain its balance.

And so the trend has continued, with Rudd deposed and Gillard on tenterhooks. With Labor rejecting ideological purity in favour of a back flip on asylum seekers, attempted deals with the coalition and an increasingly tense alliance with the Greens.

The question now is will this trend continue? Will Labor cast Julia Gillard aside and continue to do whatever deals it takes to avoid a return to opposition? Or do attempts this week by Sam Dastyari and Paul Howes to reassert Labor at the expense of the Greens indicate a return to the old philosophy?

Where no matter the polls and the politics, Labor will go to the next election with Julia Gillard as leader and perhaps even policies it believes in, even if it still promises certain defeat.

This article appeared on The Punch (News Limited) – 13 July 2012