NZ Herald column: Australia's Labour shows the way

The New Zealand Herald ran a contribution from me last week which amounted to a comparison between the state of politics in NZ and Australia, their respective Labo(u)r Parties in particular.  I was grateful for prime placement in the print edition, but it hasn't gone up online for some reason.  As such, I repost here for my own records as much as anything else:

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If the normal laws of political gravity applied, Australia's latest PM, Malcolm Turnbull, ought to be coasting to re-election on July 2nd, while the long-serving John Key should be staring defeat in the face next year.

As it is, it is Key's National-led Government that looks unassailable while, despite a 20 point lead to the Liberal-National Coalition in the early months of Turnbull's tenure, a recent flurry of polls have the major parties across the Tasman locked at 50-50. It's uncommon to see a honeymoon as thoroughly wasted as Turnbull's outside Las Vegas.

The Coalition may yet survive the election. As I discovered working for Labor's deputy Gareth Evans in 1998, turfing out first-term governments after just one term is a tough ask in Canberra. That year, John Howard’s landslide of two years prior gave him the buffer he needed to hold off a resurgent Labor, even as the ALP won more votes nationally.

This year, Bill Shorten faces a similar uphill climb. Given the distribution of marginal seats, along with the advantages of incumbency, he will need to do better than 50-50 to win. That said, it's a minor miracle he has guided the party to within striking distance – especially when you recall the Rudd/Gillard fissure, a near-extinction event for the party.

On the surface, similarities between the respective political classes of Australia and New Zealand border on spooky. Turnbull and Key are both men of considerable net-worth, much-vaunted communication skills and an appealingly moderate political disposition. Their opponents, Shorten and Andrew Little, former Union bosses, are pragmatists steeped in labour movement politics. Neither enjoy warm popular support: in a Newspoll published earlier this month, the ALP had a two-point edge over the Coalition, but Turnbull trounces Shorten as preferred Prime Minister by 21 percent; on the equivalent measure, Key leads Little in the latest One News Colmar Brunton poll by thirty-two.

If the similarities are interesting, the differences are striking.

Why is Australian Labor within a whisker of toppling the newly-installed Turnbull, whereas their Kiwi counterparts have slumped back to 28 points, with John Key's National cruising along at fifty? How is it possible for any leader in civilian garb, much less one in a typically competitive liberal democracy like New Zealand, to retain such dominance after so long in office?

The Australian experience suggests the answer for Labour in New Zealand is not "change the leader", the knee-jerk response most often preferred. The ALP is within reach, if not exactly favoured, in the coming election despite having a leader with frankly atrocious numbers. Traumatized by the Rudd-Gillard wars, MPs and activists have by and large rallied behind Shorten (albeit a loveless loyalty in many cases), who has in turn worked hard to restore the party to viability.

Compared to Shorten, Phil Goff had it easy in 2008. Helen Clark and Michael Cullen had left Labour in decent shape. And yet, despairingly, Labour's share of the vote has declined in each subsequent election as the party turned inwards, interpreting each defeat as anything but a repudiation; blaming instead the electorate's inability to "see through" the diabolical Key, the spectre of "dirty politics" (known in Australia and elsewhere as "politics"), one million dogmatically left-wing voters who habitually forget to vote, David Cunliffe, the mythic ‘Anyone But Cunliffes’, or, at barrel's bottom, residual fury at the party's embrace of neoliberalism in the Eighties. That voters might have got it right in their intuition that Labour fails to demonstrate readiness for government is never countenanced.

Labour's refusenik posture was never more graphically on display than in the review of Cunliffe's defeat by former UK Labour MP Bryan Gould: the key to Labour's rejuvenation, Gould insisted, is pretending to get along at all costs – perpetuating the self-serving myth that internal bickering, real and imagined, is all the only thing standing between the party and its destiny. Proponents of this position would point to the Rudd/Gillard experience, but they are confusing an ingredient for the whole recipe: not tearing one another apart is a necessary prerequisite to electoral success, but it is not, on its own, sufficient.

Across the Tasman, rejuvenation has sparked Labor’s revival.

Along with the principals themselves, many veterans of the Rudd-Gillard years have made room for new talent on the frontbench, including, critically, Shadow Treasurer Chris Bowen and Shadow Finance Minister Tony Burke who have proven more than a match for Abbott’s, and now Turnbull’s, economic A-Team. Meanwhile, the ALP’s backbench is fizzing: a coterie of up and comers like Andrew Leigh, Tim Watts and Clare O’Neil are busy writing books, floating policy ideas and energising the political left.

In the past few weeks alone, the ALP has rendered dead-on-arrival Turnbull’s tax plans, as well as a proposed rollback of education reforms. Shorten’s calls for a Royal Commission into Australia’s banking and financial services sector has struck a nerve, especially after the leak of the so-called Panama Papers. According to the Australian Financial Review, two-thirds of voters support such an inquiry – and pressure mounts daily on Turnbull to acquiesce.

By contrast, on the same issue, Andrew Little opted to go after Key personally, as well as John Shewan, the expert anointed by the government to review tax haven rules. Such an approach is petty and ineffective. National won’t be worried until Labour shows signs of expanding their appeal beyond those voters who already can’t stand the sight of John Key.

On balance, Malcolm Turnbull is more likely than not to win re-election in July, but the fact Labor is competitive is testament to Shorten’s discipline and focus, as well as a party culture that values professionalism, fostering and rewarding talent. But even if he loses, Shorten will leave the party in better shape than when he took the job. It’s been a while since a Labour leader in New Zealand could plausibly make such a claim.