The limitations of Roxon’s niceness strategy

2013-04-24 04.49.50 amNICK CATER

Published in The Australian, October 22, 2013

IT is not yet clear how Labor intends to win back Moonee Ponds, but it is unlikely that Nicola Roxon’s niceness strategy will do the trick. 

Last week, the former minister offered Labor MPs “a few basic tips on decent behaviour”. She then called former Labor prime minister Kevin Rudd “a bastard” and demanded he resign as the member for Griffith, the constituency he was duly elected to serve.

It was a speech that would have been unlikely to impress John Button, the former Hawke government minister in whose honour it was delivered.

As Roxon rightly pointed out, Button was a straight shooter, but he was not the kind of person who would resort to an ad hominem attack or look for scapegoats for Labor’s present failures.

The closest Button came to despair was in The Quarterly Essay, in an article titled Beyond Belief, written shortly after the 2001 election defeat, in which he urged the party to rediscover its policy, purpose and direction.

Roxon chose a different approach. “Tonight,” she began, “I want to do something a little different than talk about Labor’s policy, purpose and direction.

“I want to provide some practical tips for the next Labor government, and for Labor MPs, on how to best conduct themselves.”

The unmistakable message is that when the electorate eventually comes to its senses, Labor will be on its best behaviour and ready to pick up the pieces.

“Keep yourself nice,” Roxon urged her successors.

“I know I’ll be accused of being ‘nanny Nicola’ here, but it is an age-old rule that needs to be imposed.”

Keeping yourself nice, she explained, meant avoiding calling a former NSW premier “Bambi” behind closed doors, particularly when Kristina Keneally was “whip-smart and went on to run rings around us at the final COAG negotiating table”.

It means avoiding ostentatiously packing up your office in front of the cameras, or subjecting staff or public servants to your vicious tongue, said Roxon, because “we need never see such shameful behaviour again”.

Some might call avoiding such indiscretions simple good manners, but for Roxon, proper conduct requires a further instrumental justification.

“This is not a tip just for the sake of nice manners,” she said.

“It fundamentally affects political outcomes too.”

The conceit that helped lose Labor government oozes from every line. Labor’s policy agenda was admirable, it was just that voters tend to become “confused or stressed by too much movement and activity”.

Genuine debate about renewing Labor’s social purpose was made “nigh on impossible” by “a shallow and manipulative media”.

And, of course, there was Kevin, the skittish autocrat the Labor caucus elected to lead it not once, but twice. As Roxon said, “if the public is promised a messiah, they’re inevitably going to be disappointed”. Indeed.

In so far as Roxon’s speech reflects current Labor thinking, the party’s prospects are grim.

Button once called Labor’s small target approach to policy the “Christopher Robin posture – get into bed and curl up small and nobody knows you’re there at all”.

But in this case, it is the historical scale of Labor’s defeat that is unrecognised. In Beyond Belief, Button describes Labor’s annus horribilis of 1977, when the party, led by Gough Whitlam, recorded a primary vote of just 39.6 per cent, its lowest since World War II.

The annus horribilis of 2001 was even worse; Labor’s primary vote fell to 37.8 per cent, its worst result since 1931.

In this, the most horrible of anni horribili, Labor recorded just 33.4 per cent of the national primary vote, the lowest since 1903. Yet it hardly seems to matter any more.

Its defeated prime minister travels the globe scoring audiences with world leaders. Labor’s former prime minister but one speaks to admirers at the Sydney Opera House about the evils of misogyny.

Roxon, bless her, gives lessons on etiquette in government, as if the party merely had to wait its turn. She offers no advice on how to reconcile Labor’s dual constituencies, the inner-city educated professionals on one side and suburban and regional working Australians on the other.

The results from last month’s election show the latter constituency has become even more disillusioned with the party.

Take the Opposition Leader’s own seat, for example, in what was once greater Melbourne’s northwest working-class heartland.

Bill Shorten was forced to rely on preferences in Maribyrnong, the first time Labor has suffered such a fate. In 2001, Labor’s primary vote in the seat was a fraction less than 60 per cent. This year it was 48 per cent.

Double-digit swings against Labor since 2001 in suburbs such as Moonee Ponds, Aberfeldie, Essendon and Keillor are signs of middle Australia’s disenchantment with the party, and it is happening in Shorten’s backyard.

Precious little appears to have changed since the day after the 2001 election defeat when Mark Latham noted in his diary that Labor faced an identity crisis.

“We abandoned our dialogue with suburban Australia, while the gentrified Left abandoned us for the Greens and the Democrats,” Latham wrote. “A wedge has been driven through the middle of Labor’s ranks.”

Notwithstanding Latham’s failures as a leader, his clarity of vision is sorely lacking in the modern party.

Roxon offers this telling comment: “We know bums on seats in parliament do matter – but they aren’t all that matters.”

If Shorten has any ambition to become the next prime minister, he must kill such indulgence in the bud, just as Whitlam did after being elected opposition leader in 1967.

The party cannot afford to allow its appetite for moral purity to overtake its hunger to return to office.