Labour after Keating has performed with a lot to be desired, and leaders from Simon Crean, Kim Beazley, and Mark Latham missed precious opportunities to return Labour to the Lodge. Worse, the party has shown signs of friction and drifting, offering less attractive policy packages to the public. Labour did not capitalise on Coalition's, and particularly Howard's, blunders during previous elections and did not hammer home the points Labour was making. As Labour at this current stage is facing similar, recurring opposition wilderness to the 1950s, and as factions voiced bitter loathing after defeats, the party is in danger of being sucked back to that tortuous path.
There was a long time that Labour seemed to have no clear leader to lead beyond squabbles and bickering. Bob Carr, the successful Labour Premier of NSW over a decade, had been seen as a chance to bring a new face to federal Labour caucus, but he chose to keep some distance from federal politics and refused to go to Canberra. Anyway, he announced his resignation from that state post in 2005, perhaps signaling a genuine retirement.
Labour's current predicament is perhaps reminiscent of a previous cycle of events in the early 1980s, when the federal Labour was terribly hopeless, so that they had to recruit an outside help in the shape and form of popular Bob Hawke. The downside is whether Labour faithfuls can wait that long this time, and if the current Labour Party does think out of the box, whether they are able to muster enough confidence to experiment again after the defeat of wild card Mark Latham in 2004. To dispel this daunting scenario, Labour finally moved at the end of 2006 to replace Kim Beasley with Kevin Rudd as the party's leader before the next election.
The contrast between the tired veteran and the more youthful successor is apparent for everyone to see, and with Rudd's not so blank political career and portfolios, it stirs up a vague image of the power transfer between Hawke and Keating being replayed. My impression of Rudd is mostly his fluent Putonghua. This is not in the sense of "fluent" when people give generous complements to an eager language learner. I mean real fluent, speaking almost as a native. Rudd gave a lengthy interview on a Hong Kong TV in 2006 about WTO and trade issues. The interview was conducted in Putonghua throughout, and Rudd demonstrated his perfect Chinese expressions and fluent choices of words regarding specific and complex trade issues, so much so that his Chinese host lost points with his heavy southern accent and frequent confusing phrases. If Rudd did win the government office, he would be the first Australian Prime Minister talking straight like a native Chinese.
The Rudd phenomenon caused some stirs in recent times, while the question remains if this heat of enthusiasm can last to the election day this year. The long draught passed some hopeful phases of reversing the fate, but so far has not seen the end of it. It may still be possible that certain troubles or mishaps lead to another disappointment to Labour faithfuls.
After Hewsen's election defeat, the Liberals moved to a centre right position and tried to project an image of "compassionate conservatives". This has not only brought them four election wins, but also shrank the ground for Labour. The Hawke-Keating era moved Labour to a centre stand, which was fine at the time, but when the Coalition did the same, Labour backed itself into a corner. You simply cannot be more conservative than traditional conservatives. In the end, it makes people feel that Labour has lost its soul through a course of pragmatism and political convenience. The tactic of eclectics could easily backfire and cause long run retreat.
Labour is in urgent need to rebuild its credibility and to launch clearly defined programmes adherent to its principles. This is not easy when the West is in general going the direction of conservative right, following the US's lead, and when the Coalition makes their agendas appealing to many interest groups and sounds economically sensible. The distinction with the Coalition is in no way to be blurred. It is time for the leaders to think and act like true believers of Labour, before the risk of getting genuine social democratic ideals vanishing in this country.
Labour governments in the past three decades have profoundly transformed the Australian society, first the Whitlam and then the Hawke-Keating administration. Their invaluable contributions centred on initiatives on economic restructuring and implementation of social welfare. The impact of these drives is shown in growth and a balanced society of today. Each of these governments benefited from leaders' vision and path opening, and the gains from these significant transformations are for the entire citizenry to share. It is thus hoped that Labour leaders have the vision and creativity to hold on to the course and organise tasks more confidently, as a ruling party rather than a bitter opposition, and with those remarkable attributes win back the right to rule and gain momentum countering conservatism.