Labor and Coalition: Parties in reverse

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The Labor Party and the Coalition both market themselves in certain tried and tested ways to the public. Stephen Luntz observes some odd, perhaps unexpected, developments in the major parties.

Once you take away the awkward duo of Turnbull and Abbott, the Coalition struggle to offer any other electable alternative prime ministers. (Image courtesy afr.com)

THE MORE I THINK about Australian politics, the more it strikes me that the Labor Party and the Liberal Party have swapped places. Each has the strengths and weaknesses that might be expected in the other.

I'm not referring to their methods for tackling carbon emissions, or even Rudd's efforts to outflank Abbott on refugees. I'm referring to the observation that Labor – supposedly the party of collective action – is individually strong but collectively weak, while the Liberals and Nationals are the reverse.

In the current mess it's hard to accept that the Labor Party is actually strong at anything. But imagine that, for one second, that Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard somehow stood close enough to be taken out by the same wayward bus. Presumably, quite a few of those who have announced their departure from politics would suddenly change their mind – in a Colin Barnett-like way – in the period of national mourning. A crisis national would result. One can imagine Stephen Smith, Bob Carr, Greg Combet, Bill Shorten and Simon Crean all putting their hands up to lead the Labor Party and become prime minister. Some of these names might shock many Australians. I don't think, however, any of them would be laughed off.

Tanya Pilbersek is a wiser choice than any of them. She would probably be dismissed for being too left even? That's even if we pretend misogyny is not an issue in her case. Meanwhile figures such as Wayne Swan, Penny Wong, Anthony Albanese, John Faulkner and Andrew Leigh will probably never be considered to lead the Australian Labor Party. Despite this, all add considerable skills to the parliamentary team.

Now let's apply the same test to the other side. If you remove Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull from the equation, Joe Hockey is the obvious choice. If the same bus struck him as well? Who else is there? Scott Morrison?  Maybe. Julie Bishop? Christopher Pyne? Tony Smith? Seriously? Who else is there?

The only name that doesn't strike me as utterly ridiculous is Greg Hunt. This situation isn't because their ranks are thinned by having seats taken up by the National Party. If Warren Truss was a Liberal he still wouldn't be a contender. Barnaby Joyce might appear to be effective in opposition but he certainly isn't in government.

WA Premier Colin Barnett had all but quit politics when he became leader of the WA Liberal Party.

Look further down the line. Abbott mocked Labor's “C team”. There are only a few members of the new Rudd ministry that don't deserve their place. On the other hand, the shadow ministerial ranks include Kevin Andrews, Bronwyn Bishop, Brett Mason, Bob Baldwin and Bruce Bilson. There are a few people I've barely heard of as well. I will make allowances for that on the basis they recently entered parliament.

Assessing their individual talent is at least partly subjective. I'll freely admit that the fact that I find the Liberals' positions more abhorrent than the Labor Party's makes it hard for me to be objective. Nevertheless, I don't think that is the whole story.

Labor – quite simply – has more MPs who show signs of being able to handle a portfolio. It isn't a product of government lending authority either. I conducted a similar mental exercise during the Howard Government. I reached largely the same conclusion. The Liberals like to talk up the talent of their most recent arrivals, hailing Josh Frydenberg, Kelly O'Dwyer and Wyatt Roy as future leaders. This may be the case, but we heard the same things about Alex Hawke and Andrew Laming. Neither are working out so well. I will reserve my judgment at this stage.

I don't think this is purely a federal discussion though. Clearly, by sheer weight of numbers, the LNP in Queensland and NSW Coalition have more depth than their opponents. In any state or territory where the numbers are vaguely equal Labor always looks comparatively better once you get past the first few names.

The aforementioned example of Barnett is instructive. He had one foot out the door and yet he was returned to the leadership when the WA Liberals had no other options. Similarly, Campbell Newman was made LNP leader from outside parliament because – even against a desperately tired Labor government – there was nobody in parliament with the talent to win.

I suspect the pattern would be even more stark if one could compare the typical party apparatchik or adviser. Although this is harder to prove.

Their obvious lack of depth doesn't seem to be doing the Coalition much harm. The current polls may give Labor hope, but the odds are in favour of an Abbott victory. The conservatives are in power in Australia's four largest states, mostly with thumping majorities. There are quite a few explanations for this. Perhaps the Australian public is just fundamentally more in tune with Abbott's values than those of Rudd or Gillard? Maybe caucus depth counts for little and it is all about the talents of the leader?

There has been no Coalition equivalent of the explosive Latham Diaries in recent times.

All these theories deserve consideration. Another explanation may be the greater unity and discipline in the Coalition. Leaving aside the occasional internal sniping about their parental leave scheme and some pressure on industrial relations Abbott has led an unusually disciplined opposition. The people who can't articulate a message – or stick to one – have largely kept their heads down. There has been no deliberate undermining. Labor could hardly be more different.

The decline of Labor's culture of loyalty and collective action goes much deeper than Kevin Rudd. This despite the fact many like to blame him.

The reason there has not been an equivalent of The Latham Diaries on the conservative side is partly due to that fact that so few have the capacity to write. The urge to dump on colleagues also doesn't appear to be as strong.

For a long time, I have thought the Labor's future was brighter than the Coalition's. My work brings me into contact with many future political leaders. There is no doubt, at least in Victoria, that Labor's depth of young talent leaves the Liberals in the shade. I have always figured this would eventually matter at the polls.

The question is, if the Labor Party culture remains so toxic: Will all the talent in the world save them?

The question for Australia's medium and long term political future becomes which is easier to change — a dysfunctional culture or a shortage of talent?

If both remain the same, will the benefits of collective action continue to work out for those who don't espouse them?

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Australia License
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