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The Australian Labor party finds a new dynamic, Social Democracy Observer, 1 December 2011

Social Democracy Observer, 1 December 2011

by David Hetherington, Executive Director, Per Capita

Labor’s policy implementation fulfils its promise of decision and delivery, but struggles to convince the electorate of its values

Twelve months ago, the Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard signed off the parliamentary calendar with a promise that 2011 would be a year of decision and delivery. After a torrid 2010, Labor needed to underscore its governing credentials with some solid policy achievements.

Yet for extended periods, that goal has looked remote indeed. Under siege from the populist media, pursued by an abrasive Opposition Leader in Tony Abbott, and flagging in the polls, Labor has seemed at times a model of indecision and under-delivery. In part this has been self-inflicted, notably through a series of policy reversals on asylum seekers (or ‘boat people’, as they’re colloquially known). Mostly, however, it came about because the government’s policy program is ambitious and was always going to take time to implement.

Now the investment in policy is beginning to pay off. The new National Broadband Network is being switched on across the country. The economy-wide carbon price will take effect next July.

In these last few weeks of the parliamentary year, further achievements have been added. Amidst fierce resistance from the tobacco lobby, the Government has passed the world’s first plain-packaging legislation, removing advertising from cigarette packets. After 18 months of heated debate, the super-profits tax on mining has been passed into law.

Over the same period, the Prime Minister has grown into her role. On her first international trip as PM, she acknowledged she’d rather be back in a local school reviewing education policy. One year on, she has appeared much more comfortable at the recent G20, APEC and East Asia summits. A flying visit to Australia by President Obama provided further reflective glow.

Ms Gillard’s leadership will be tested again at this weekend’s Labor Party conference. She has called on the conference to resolve two issues which have provoked bitter divisions within the Party – the sale of uranium to India (which she supports) and the legalisation of same-sex marriage (which she opposes). She seems likely to win the day on both issues, raising her standing with the public if not with the party.

It’s too early to say that the tide has turned for Labor, more accurate to observe it has stopped ebbing out. Political commentators have remarked on the changed dynamic, and the challenge this presents for the relentlessly negative Mr Abbott.

Despite this, two things may yet overcome Labor. The first would be the spread of the global economic contagion to the remarkably robust Australian economy. The government’s economic policy is built around China’s rapid growth; any reversal there would prove hugely problematic.

The second challenge is existential. Despite its strong policy programme, Labor still struggles to convince the electorate of its values. If the ‘what’ and ‘how’ of the government are clear, the ‘why’ is yet to emerge. Policy achievement can paper over these cracks for a while, but to win back the public, Labor must lay out its progressive case for governing. A worthy goal for 2012?