Back to Issues and Ideas

I have an opinion piece in the National Times today on the implications of the leadership challenge for the future direction of the ALP.
Party values must rise to the challenge, National Times, 28 February 2012

When they’re in progress, political leadership challenges are like cyclones: throwing policies into disarray, snapping friendships in an instant, and hurling participants off into the distance.

Yet as history shows us, the morning after a leadership challenge often dawns clear. Gough Whitlam saw off two leadership challenges from Jim Cairns before gaining a large swing in the 1969 election, and going on to win in 1972. After the Coalition’s loss in the 1993 election, some worried that leadership infighting would doom them to irrelevance. Three years later, united around Howard, the Coalition won a crushing victory and 11½ years in office.

Today, the challenge Labor representatives like myself is to quickly move the conversation from personalities and powerplays to inspiration and ideas. Getting caught talking about individuals is bad for any political party – but it’s particularly harmful for the progressive side of politics. Whenever people perceive that we’re only interested in our own jobs, they naturally start to lose trust in politicians. And the less people trust politicians, the less likely they are to believe that government can make the world a better place.

This is why political distrust has a partisan dimension. As Republican President Ronald Reagan famously said, conservatives believe that ‘government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem’. Like Reagan, Tony Abbott has sought to denigrate government at every turn. For Abbott, criticising the National Broadband Network, Trade Training Centres, and the school building program feeds into a larger narrative: that government can’t be trusted to help Australians.

The big ideological contest in Australian politics is not the minor policy differences between Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, but the yawning chasm that separates Labor from the Coalition. On economics, the Coalition has rejected not only the counter-cyclical fiscal policy of John Maynard Keynes, but also the market-based reforms of free-market economists like Milton Friedman.

Much to my surprise, Labor is now the only party committed to harnessing the power of emissions markets to reduce carbon pollution, and water markets to save the Murray-Darling. Under Mr Abbott, National Party protectionists have become dominant, threatening what was once a bipartisan commitment to open trade, and a bipartisan support of foreign investment as a means to create jobs and raise wages. Perhaps this should not be so surprising, given that Mr Abbott once described the late BA Santamaria as ‘the greatest living Australian’.

When it comes to the size of government, a Coalition government would make 12,000 public servants redundant – around 7 percent of the total. This falls short of US libertarian Ron Paul’s commitment to slash 10 percent of the public service, but not by much. Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey has flagged the Departments of Climate Change and Health as the first two on the chopping board.

On tax, a Coalition government would raise income taxes rise on ordinary Australians, but cut them for big miners. This isn’t just inequitable; it’s inefficient. Under a profits-based mining tax, the tax bill rises when mineral prices are high, and falls when they’re low.

The Opposition has also given us a clear indication of their priorities. If you’re in the top 1 percent, a Coalition Government would reinstate your private health insurance rebate immediately. But if you’re born with a disability, the Opposition tell us they would only commit to a National Disability Insurance Scheme when fiscal circumstances permit.

With election campaigns increasingly focused around the leader rather than the party, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that individuals matter much less than the party in power. The best evidence of this is a study of unexpected leadership transitions carried out by US economists Ben Jones and Ben Olken. They conclude that in a democracy, there is no economic impact of an unexpected change in leadership. As Tolstoy famously wrote in War and Peace: ‘great men – so called – are but labels serving to give a name to the event’.

As the rapid leadership turnover in NSW Labor’s final term of office demonstrated, progressive parties are poorly served by a frantic search for a Messiah who will lead them out of the wilderness. Each leadership challenge represents a lost chance to talk about jobs, health and education, and acts to sap the public’s confidence in government. That’s why I believe that those of us who are progressive on policy issues should be conservative about leadership changes. And it’s why I’m looking forward to getting the national conversation back to the opportunities of the future.

Andrew Leigh is the federal member for Fraser, and the co-editor (with David Burchell) of The Prince’s New Clothes: Why do Australians Dislike their Politicians? His website is

Be the first to comment

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.

Stay in touch

Subscribe to our monthly newsletter


8/1 Torrens Street, Braddon ACT 2612 | 02 6247 4396 |