Since early 2010, when Rudd as prime minister chose not to call a double dissolution election after the Senate blocked his emissions trading scheme legislation, the ALP has descended deeper and deeper into a dark age, comparable with the years after its disastrous 1955 split.
It might not look that bad to some. After all, Labor did hold on to office in 2010, albeit as a minority government under Gillard and then briefly Rudd, before losing heavily in 2013. And in the 2016 and 2019 elections, the Liberal-National coalition has managed to secure only very slim lower house majorities. But all the way through, Labor’s primary vote has declined and certainly shows no sign of recovering.
It could have been different, if only Rudd had called that election in 2010. The political environment was febrile. Liberals were divided over the issue; two of the party’s senators had voted for Rudd’s ETS. Tony Abbott had used the division to knock off Turnbull as leader. The Greens had voted against the ETS and Labor voters were angry. At that point, the electorate wanted the climate change issue resolved. It did not happen.
Things fell away for Labor after that. Rudd put the ETS on ice, shaking public confidence in his government. Gillard replaced him. Before a subsequent election later that year, she promised not to introduce a carbon tax. Post-election, she teamed up with the Greens to put together a carbon tax. That was it for her government. Labor is yet to recover from the misjudgments of 2010.
The Liberals, by contrast, have been just as riven in the past 10 years but have a much happier story to tell. Labor’s leadership ructions in 2010 and 2013 hurt it badly. The Liberals’ deployment of the leadership conveyor belt, from Abbott to Turnbull to Scott Morrison, has not stopped them from retaining office.
This is why the 2019 election deserves to be seen as a watershed moment, as important politically as the elections in 1983 and 1996, which brought about changes of government. It showed that the default position for most Australian voters – not a big majority but enough to make a difference – is to opt for the Coalition. In 2019, they were willing to be swayed by Clive Palmer’s advertising and the ridiculing of electric cars and the retention of tax rorts because they might be able to take advantage of them one day too. They did not care that Morrison campaigned as a solo operator who was not offering them anything new or even talking about the future.
Unless the Labor Party disrupts this, offering a compelling case for change that is coherent and can be fully explained before the official election campaign begins, it not only stands no chance of electoral success, it will go backwards and lose seats. That would make it even harder to recover at the following election.
This is what an electoral dark age looks like. Labor went through just such a period under Bert Evatt and Arthur Calwell in the late 1950s and 1960s, plodding through, uninspired, with its constituent support groups atomised and unable to coalesce – and losing, always losing.
Albanese might genuinely believe he will be prime minister soon. But he needs his caucus to believe it too.
Shaun Carney is a regular columnist.
Shaun Carney is a regular columnist. He is the author of books on industrial relations and the life of Peter Costello, and has been commended by the Walkley Award judges for his political columns.