Sunday, December 23, 2012

Robbo in Charge

Recently a read an excellent piece about how far back the preparations for Obama's 2012 campaign dated.

According to the piece (which, typically, I now cannot find), the campaign staff took off the day after election day 2008, no doubt to sleep off hangovers and general exhaustion. The very next day, they arrived, at the office, put up an Obama 2012 poster, and got to work.

Even if I have remembered the story correctly, it may be apocryphal. Either way, I love the idea that 4 years minus 1 day is the perfect time to start preparing for the next election.

That's not to say I tolerate politicians who feel the need to filter every decision through the "Will This Help Us Next Election" filter. Those are the worst kind of politician - they either have no personal sense of what is right or good, or ignore it in favour of the latest polling data.

What I mean is that it is thoroughly appropriate that a section of the party devote themselves to maintaining a long-term focus. That may mean expanding and encouraging party membership, or cementing loyalty from those that just voted for you for the first time, or encouraging voter registration (essential in the US, but important here too, especially if you work for the Left).

That does not mean, however, that it is appropriate or, for that matter, productive, to spend every minute in campaign mode. Tony Abbott's present predicament has demonstrated for us that, eventually, compulsive campaigning runs out of steam.

Rather, it is important to "play the long game". This is particularly so in a jurisdiction like NSW with fixed 4 year terms and no prospect of circumstances requiring an early election.

As of right now, it is 2 years and 3 months til the next election. That is too soon for Labour to begin campaigning, but this last year should have been spent positioning Labor for the next election.

Policies should have been formulated. Positions should have been taken. Labor should be shoring up those who voted for them last time and working out how to draw back others into the fold.

In 2007, NSW Labor won the election. It's hardly like there are not people out there willing to vote for them - Labor should be (at the very least implicitly) courting those and trying to bring back those who deserted them in 2011.

This is part of the reason why, when John Robertson ascended to the leadership of the ALP after Kristina Keneally stepped down, I (and almost everyone else) thought it was a pretty dumb idea.
Photo from a News website
At the time I wrote a post about it. Rereading it now, it is a pretty awful piece of writing, so I'm not going to link to it. Suffice to say that my view at the time was that Robertson was, at best, a short term solution, and certainly not someone that Labor should be looking to to lead them out of the wilderness.

First, some history. Robertson started his career as an electrician. He soon became involved in the Union movement, ascending through the Electrical Trades Union and Labor Council of NSW to become Secretary of Unions NSW and Vice-President of the ACTU.

That's all good and well. The issue is that, in his time involved in the Union movement, Robertson cultivated a reputation as a "Union headkicker".

That's not to say that the work of the Union movement is illegitimate or somehow disrespectful. It's just that modern professional politics requires a certain subtlety, a sense for the mood of an electorate that can often be absent, whether one hails from the Right of the Left.

Robertson demonstrated as much when he spearheaded the union campaign against Morris Iemma's plan to privatise the power network. Such a political view was entirely valid, but the manner in which it was carried out led to the downfall of a Labor Premier and the beginning of the revolving door that characterised the Labor leadership up until the 2011 election.

As Labor tried to mop up the mess caused by the internal defeat of the power privatisation policy, Michael Costa (then Treasurer) resigned his cabinet spot as well as his seat in the Upper House, and Robertson was appointed to fill the seat in October 2008.

There he stayed until the 2011 election, when he ran for the Lower House seat of Blacktown. Despite some momentary excitement from some in the lead-up to the election that he might not win the seat, he eventually won with a margin of over 7%:
People had been suggesting that Robertson could take over as leader since Nathan Rees was Premier - and it seemed somewhat inevitable that he would be the one to take over when Keneally stood down.

Naturally, that was exactly what has happened, and he has been in charge ever since.

Remarkably, he has barely managed to make a dent in the O'Farrell government's lead in the polls since that time.

That is worth nothing - in that time, O'Farrell has done a great deal to infuriate the left. Whether it was draconian budget cuts, outrageous changes in the Criminal Justice system, or the fiddling with the plans for the North West Rail Link, he has given Robertson plenty material.

And yet, somewhat remarkably, Labor has made almost no progress at all.

How can that be? A few reasons spring to mind.

Firstly, as one Labor insider said to me recently, he is "entirely devoid of personality". It's a little hard to connect with an electorate and convince them of the merits of your argument if you cannot convince them that you are worth listening to.

More importantly, however, Robertson hasn't managed to tell the electorate what he about, or for that matter what he says the government is about.

Much as I abhor the word "branding", it is an essential part of professional politics today. The public needs to be able to easily understand what you are on about and how you are different to the opposition.

It doesn't need to be complicated. Federally, the Liberals have branded Gillard as a liar. Everything she does is now viewed, by many, through that prism.

By the same token, ever since Gillard's speech on the Peter Slipper affair, Labor has successfully cast Abbott as a misogynist.

Have any of the attacks on O'Farrell stuck? Does anyone really think less of him than they did before after his first 18 months in office?

I doubt it. And a big part of the reason for that is the failure of Robertson to connect with the electorate.

Think about Kevin Rudd in the lead-up to the 2007 Federal Election. He was young (or, at least, he looked young). He was forward thinking. He was economically responsible but still progressive. He was anti-WorkChoices. He has a name that fitted on a t-shirt and rhymed with the year. He had been on TV. People liked him.

Now try and imagine a positive message for Labor in the lead-up to an election. Sure, it would be easy to criticise O'Farrell and tell the public about the bad things he had done.

But what could Robertson say about himself, about Labor under his leadership?

Much as with Tony Abbott, an opposition cannot (in ordinary circumstances) be little more than "the other guys". There needs to be a positive message about why they are better. That message can sometimes be little more than "all the bad things they have done, we would do them this way" - but it needs to be something.

And if Robertson cannot find a way to start selling a positive message, then Labor's numbers are not going to improve.

Labor are already in a tough position as they plan for 2015. Unless they make some changes at the top, it's only going to get worse. And it will be up to the Labor caucus to have the courage to make a change.

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