Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Report Card

I'm not sure why a formal review is necessary after an electoral defeat.

There can be no doubt that it is appropriate to reflect and take stock. 

That said, it makes just as much sense to conduct a review after a win. Often in politics (as in life) there is as much to learn from a victory as from a defeat.

What confuses me is why a review is done in such a public fashion.  It is all and well to think about a loss, to talk to people and to reach an assessment - but once it is called a review and a formal document produced, then the document needs to be released.

It is good and well to say that the public wants to see that lessons have been learnt - but the public needs to see action - a party self-assessing that they did the wrong thing is not going to garner much credit from an electorate.

In any event, the NSW Labor Party has produced a report into their crushing loss earlier this year.  It is called the Wattkins/Chisholm Review. The authors are former NSW Minister and Deputy Premier John Watkins and the Queensland Branch State Secretary Anthony Chisholm.

Whilst the report was handed out to journalists the ALP conference, the report was not, as best I can tell, published on any ALP website. The is despite a large number of journos obtaining a copy of the report, if the number of articles on the report is any guide. 

I don't know whether this a deliberate decision by the ALP - make it available to journos to assist in the visible self-flagellation, but don't release it widely to avoid it being thrown back in their face?

It is particularly interesting in that the Victorian branch has released a similar report on their unexpected election loss earlier this year.  It is easily available on their website

In any event, if you want to read the NSW report, you can download it here.

Various news reports have picked out parts of the report that the writer considered particularly newsworthy.

Herald report noted the blame levelled at the "Party Hierarchy" as well as the "sex, drugs and corruption scandals" that plagued the party.

A separate Herald article picked up on the recommendation for police and probity checks for all candidates, as well as the suggestion that the party had "lost interest in governing". 

The Australian led with this in their first paragraph: "identifying a culture of bullying and abuse within cabinet, and between cabinet and the back bench, that developed into a toxic mix of disloyalty, leaking and disenchantment". The writer also seemed to enjoy the description of the scandals as being "sordidly criminal to the adolescently stupid"

The report covers a number of areas, as listed below:

The section about the fall in the primary vote is easily the most interesting part of the report. 

The part that catches the eye immediately is what the report calls a "loss of policy vision" and details the ways in which the party moved away from "some of its central constituencies"

It particularly speaks of the increased pro-development and pro-privitisation attitude. As a consequence, "Labor supporters who were interested in issues such as law reform, gay and lesbian rights, the environment, and public education at times felt pushed to the fringes. Many found a welcoming home in the arms of the Greens.

The report also picks out something that was less obvious from the outside: a culture of "bullying and abuse within the Cabinet, and between Cabinet and the backbench."  In those circumstances, it is not surprising that little of value got done.

The section about scandal chooses not to list all the scandals that characterised the government, but rather states quite plainly that "embarrassing, tawdry and devastatingly regular reports of scandalous, inappropriate and corrupt behaviour became the norm.

In considering the reason for the "outbreak" of scandal, the report suggests that two possible causes: the complacency that "we would never be beaten" or, simply, "inappropriate candidate selection".

In the event, it was probably a combination of those factors, as well as a culture.  In every organisation, whether it be a place of employment, a club, or a government, there is a culture.  A culture can be difficult to control, but it is always pervasive, and when it is an undesirable culture, scandal is usually all but inevitable.

The breakdown of the local branches is covered at length. The reports of falling numbers of members and branches is hardly surprising given the state of the NSW government. As the John Faulkner was quoted as saying, "ìt ís hard to win a campaign if you can't staff a booth."

It is also interesting that, further on, the report says "The thought that repeatedly changing the NSW Labor Leader could change Party's political fortunes was simplistic and was ultimately rejected by the electorate."

Picture from here
The events in the Federal jurisdiction sit well with this assessment

The report moves on to consider what can be done, in a section that essentially mirrors the observations about the reason for the poor electoral performance

It is fascinating, however, to contrast this report with the report from the Victorian ALP.

A caveat at the outset though - the Victorian branch had served 3 terms, not 4.  This is significant - it is a significantly harder to win the 5th election than it is to win the 4th.

The Victorian report focusses mostly on what I would call "ordinary" complaints about government.  "Time for a change". Failure to invest in "Public Transport." "Cost of Living."

The NSW report is a bloodletting - on one level, it airs out the dirty laundry whilst the party fortunes are as low as they are ever going to get. From this point, the party can (at least in theory) refocus, rebuild, and get on with the job of holding O'Farrell to account.

In Victoria, the ALP lost the last election by a small margin.  Indeed, the loss was a major surprise, the ALP having lead every single 2PP Newspoll between the 2006 election and 2010 election, save the last poll taken in the week of the election.

Further, the Victorian Coalition's 2 seat majority means that the state is one by-election away from a deadlocked parliament.

For those reasons, Victoria could easily come back to the ALP next time round. If a Coalition member dies, an election could be just round the corner, with the ALP in genuine contention.

Only the most optimistic Labor member could foresee Labor winning the next NSW election, barring an absolute meltdown for the Coalition.

The one thing that I was disappointed to not see in the NSW report was a closer look at the Coalition's gains in Western Sydney.

...and after  Maps from Wikipedia
Western Sydney is always a battle ground, and most people expected large gains there, but nonetheless the number of seats gained and the margin by which they were gained was truly remarkable

I've written previously that O'Farrell has the opportunity to bring about a fundamental shift in these seats. If he can bring the "Howard's Battlers" across to the Coalition permanently, the traditional Labor dominance in NSW could be at an end.
By the same token, until Labor reconnects with those voters it is difficult to imagine them clambering out of opposition.

This report is a good step on the road to redemption, but is not more than a step. Much more remains to be done.

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