Purpose, She Wrote: Julia Gillard on Labor’s Future

Julia Gillard has kept a deliberate, dignified silence since her departure as Labor leader in June. But last week, she announced a series of public events with Anne Summers – which sold out almost immediately. And on Saturday, she published a substantial 5000-word essay in the Guardian about her legacy, the future and purpose of Labor, and the pain of losing power.

Rudd’s reinstatement sent ‘a very cynical and shallow message’

She criticised Labor’s eleventh-hour decision to replace her as leader with Kevin Rudd, saying it ‘sent the Australian community a very cynical and shallow message about [Labor’s] sense of purpose’. The decision was rooted not in an embrace of a new policy agenda, but a belief that ‘Kevin Rudd had the greater talent for governing’.

Labor frontbenchers Chris Bowen, Joel Fitzgibbon and Bill Shorten have emphatically defended the decision, though they haven’t contradicted Gillard’s reasoning. Bowen told Weekend Sunrise that Rudd made Labor ‘competitive’, while Fitzgibbon told Insiders that Labor held onto 10 or 20 more seats than they expected to under Gillard.

‘Labor unambiguously sent a very clear message that it cared about nothing other than the prospects of survival of its members of parliament at the polls,’ wrote Gillard of the leadership change.

Labor must re-embrace its purpose

She says that Labor’s first task in opposition is to re-embrace its purpose. This includes making decisions about how much of its record in government it seeks to own, and how much it seeks to reject.

Gillard pleaded for the ALP to stand behind carbon pricing, despite its public unpopularity. ‘Climate change is real. Carbon should be priced.’

She called on Labor to ‘claim and explain’ policies like fair work, education reform, disability care, health and aged care reform and the demands of the Asian century – and to learn from the mistakes of 1996. After that election loss, the party distanced itself so comprehensively from the Keating government (hoping to leave behind negative associations like high interest rates and high unemployment) that it lost the opportunity to be associated with achievements like modernising the economy, turning the nation towards Asia and ‘appropriately and fairly responding to the native title decisions of Mabo and Wik’.

‘Labor must not make that error again,’ she said.

Bring policy debate into the open

Gillard also believes that the party needs to value the kind of work that’s done behind closed doors, rather than on our television screens. She says that bringing policy development work into the public arena would ‘show purpose to the public’ as well as highlighting the value of that work to parliamentary colleagues.

James Button recently made a similar observation, at our Australian Democracy in 2013 event. He criticised the divide between the inside world of politics and the outside world of the voting public, and called for the ALP to conduct its policy debates in public again, like it used to.

‘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,’ Gillard proposed. ‘Policy contests could then be taken out of the back rooms and into the light … 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.’

New leadership: ‘Albo’ vs Shorten

The idea of open public debate may be put into practice immediately, with the contest for the Labor Party leadership. Contenders Anthony Albanese and Bill Shorten will engage in a month-long contest; they’re still deciding whether debates will be open to party members only, or to the general public. Televised debates are also being considered.

Shorten and Albanese have agreed that whoever wins should remain leader until the next election.

‘‘We’ve got to conduct these next 28 days civilly, and that once the verdict’s over, that’s it, and we get behind each other for the next three years,’ Shorten told Weekend Sunrise.

Related posts