Sunday, 15 September 2013

'What's the point of the Labor Party?' Gillard asks

A few days after the election a week ago Craig Emerson, a staunch backer of Julia Gillard during her time in government, started talking to journalists about Kevin Rudd, telling them that Rudd had to go. Not just give up the Labor leadership as he had already said he would - during his election-night concession speech - but resign from Parliament and kick off a by-election. Quit the field. This was more of the poisonous stuff that had for so long - since June 2010 - destabilised the Gillard government and ensured that important messages about its track record - the Gonski reforms, the NDIS, the NBN - were drowned out in the national conversation by petty squabbles about who should lead. Gillard obviously saw this stuff and has now done something to rule a line under the discord because she submitted a long article to the Guardian "for the record" to talk about what she thinks Labor stands for and how it can ensure that such things dominate the public discussion in future.

Using her fine mind, Gillard tries to explain that a party without purpose, especially a progressive party, is doomed. It's an imaginative attempt to address important issues and it stems from comments made on the tally night by Labor pollies sitting in the TV studios. Labor should not "talk about itself" anymore. But of course then along came Emerson doing just that. So Gillard uses one word in her article above all others: purpose. What, she asks, is the point of the Labor Party? Surely, she answers, the point is not just to win elections.

And it's not, except in the minds of the Labor Right machine who propelled Gillard herself into power and then turned on her when the polls pointed to a crushing defeat. So Gillard, ever serious and as always thoughtful, goes back to basics.
Ultimately organisations tell you what they are all about and what they value, by what they reward. A great sales company rewards sales with performance bonuses. A great manufacturing business rewards those who generate fault-free products for it. A company with an overriding concern for safety constantly renews it protocols and issues rewards when no one gets hurt at work. This is all commonplace and common sense.
She also suggests some internal behaviour changes that could help the community to understand not only the benefit of policy decisions, but also which individuals in the party have most claim to lead. To reward the contributions of MPs what would you need?
Imagine candidates’ policy papers, not leaks. Candidates’ debates, not poisonous backgrounding. The identification of the top new ideas – not just who is top of the opinion polls.
As for the contest now between Bill Shorten and Anthony Albanese, it is not only one between two worthy candidates. It is an opportunity to start this demonstration of purpose.  
Caucus and party members should use this contest to show that Labor has moved on from its leadership being determined on the basis of opinion polls, or the number of positive media profiles, or the amount of time spent schmoozing media owners and editors, or the frippery of selfies and content-less social media. Rather, choosing a leader will now be done on the basis of the clearly articulated manifestos of the candidates, the quality of their engagement with caucus and party processes and their contributions to the collective efforts of the parliamentary party. 
Exciting stuff, and surely welcome by everyone who calls him- or herself a progressive. Gillard's sharp mind is in evidence here, in its ability to focus on a problem and translate it into substance that can be applied to the corpus of individuals and the existing organisational structure. It's why Gillard was such a great manager, why she could pass so much important legislation through Parliament despite holding the slimmest of margins. And above this her soul-searching - there really is no other adequate word - makes her look at what was not visible in the public sphere, but that should have been. She is thinking of all the people she worked with and their individual contributions.
In a world where the views of your colleagues about your merits matter so much to your chance of promotion, it is not at all surprising a great deal of effort goes into media work no one but political insiders ever see. 
At the same time, countless hours of work can go on behind closed doors on policy development. These efforts are generally never seen by the public and can even be close to invisible to colleagues. 
Real efforts need to be made to change this method of functioning, to show purpose to the public and to ensure the best contributors to the collective work of the opposition are clearly identified to their colleagues. 
Perhaps policy contests could be held in the open rather than behind closed doors. Rather than having the shadow ministry debate difficult policy questions, parliamentary party policy seminars should discuss them, open to the media and live on 24-hour television. Policy contests could then be taken out of the back rooms into the light. To the extent policy contests have leaked out from back rooms, they are inevitably reported through the prism of division. By being open from the start, the debate can be put in the prism of purpose. A norm would be set that ideas matter and those with the best ideas are the most valued. 
Currently, working hard in your office on a new policy, being a key contributor to shadow ministry discussions, coming up with an innovative way of attracting new people to join the ALP – none of these valuable contributions is as visible to your Labor colleagues as performances on Sky television.
I apologise for including so much of what has already been published, here, but I think that Gillard is entitled to one shot given the potential for even more destabilising conduct such as Emerson's. A lot of people will read Gillard's critique and themselves criticise her for participating in conduct that might be viewed as damaging to the party. But compared to what she could have done, this article is refreshing and positive, showing how serious Gillard is and how much she values the Labor Party.

In a real sense what Gillard is asking us, the public, to do is to look behind the screen of media activity and because we can't do so unaided she's proposed a few changes the party could implement to help us. The focus should be both on policy and on who has made the biggest contribution to developing it; teamwork stands alongside individual insight and individual ideas as something to value. While others can simply take a quick, 140-character stab at Gillard for talking at length about the Labor Party I choose, instead, to view her contribution as something special, something that could positively animate public discussion of politics - after all, we all have a constitutional right to talk publicly about our representatives and our leaders - and twist the balance in favour of the community, and not just for the benefit of media barons and their lieutenants.

An astonishing performance from one of the great political players in Australia's history.

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