What if Labor has already won?

What is the point of winning elections? The question seems redundant to the point of irrelevance. But the tenor of Australian politics in the present day suggests otherwise.

Consider the behaviour of the bulk of the ALP and its associates since their election in 2007. If there has been one overarching criticism of the party, it has been their incessant reliance on focus groups and polling to shape messages, prioritise policies, even swap leaders.

For a decade, barely an action has been taken by either major political party that has not passed through the prism of popular approval. Schoolkids’ handouts targeted at disaffected Labor families, paid parental leave and nanny support to animate Tony Abbott’s appeal among that renowned block of unitary voters, women. Tax cuts in the tens of billions of dollars when interest rates were already on the way up. David Bradbury. On a boat. North of Darwin.

So much of the recent coverage and discussion of the government’s predicament (including my own) has focussed on how awful things are and what the government can do (if anything) to retain office at the next election.

Kristina Keneally, in The Drum recently, made that case that dumping or watering down the price on carbon/emissions trading scheme/carbon pollution reduction scheme/great big new tax on everything and everything’s family was the last chance. The ‘hail mary’ pass that maybe, just maybe, could resurrect the ALP’s fortunes.

Michelle Grattan suggested that Julia Gillard step aside (although the metaphor was a touch more militaristic). So did Chris Kenny. The Daily Telegraph has wanted Gillard to call a new election from the minute that the last one finished. Alan Jones wants to chuck her in a bag and leave her to the elements. The obituaries are, no doubt, already written.

In all of this prognostication and opinionating, perhaps we’ve all forgotten what this winning and losing caper is all about. What if Labor has already won?

In this world of desperate quantification (numerical support providing objectivity in all things), there appears to be a fierce urge to measure something as unmeasurable as politics.

Presently there are two ways of doing this: polls and elections. Thus, if a party is polling poorly, they are likely to lose an election. They have therefore failed. QED.

But what if – what if – by achieving its stated aims from 2007, the ALP have already won? There’s something cheapening, and frankly distasteful, about the idea that the purpose of winning election is winning further elections.

Pricing carbon pollution has been an incredibly hard task in Australian politics. John Howard couldn’t do it. Kevin Rudd (and Malcolm Turnbull) couldn’t do it. Yet in only a few weeks, Julia Gillard’s ALP will begin implementing this major economic and environmental reform.

Of course Gillard said one thing before the election and another thing afterwards (granted, an unusual deviation from politicians’ normal behaviour), but surely passing the law is more important than winning the election.

Everyone’s talking about what the ALP should do to retain office. But that is based on a flawed premise: that retaining office is the purpose of government. Surely that is at the heart of the trauma our government is being inflicted with.

Perhaps implementing a legislative agenda, dare I say a vision for Australia, is the victory. In that case, the ALP can be at least a little proud. WorkChoices is dead in a ditch and still hated by the electorate. A carbon price is in, and despite the desperation of the likes of Keneally, it’s unlikely to be repealed unless Abbott slaughters them next year, or calls a successful double dissolution. They hauled a recalcitrant electorate through a potentially massive recession pretty much unscathed. The national disability insurance scheme. The apology to the stolen generations. Signing Kyoto. The mining tax, watered down as it is. And so on.

It’s no floating of the dollar, but hey, Rudd/Gillard is no Hawke/Keating.

Even if much of the government’s legislative agenda has been driven by a desire to appease key constituencies (in which case, great job!), it has manoeuvred this agenda through a minority government, a ferociously hostile opposition and an electorate that stopped paying attention ages ago.

Most people would like to believe that those who enter parliament choose to do so in order to Make A Difference. In which case, ALP mission accomplished. The carbon price is a major structural reform that will likely be looked back on as an important step in the fight against climate change. The NDIS looks like being another winning policy in the Labor tradition. There was no recession here.

Labor may well lose the next election, but perhaps they’ve won this war.