November 18, 2003 | Peter

Power in Opposition

Gough Whitlam spent a lot of time and energy persuading the ALP before 1972 that Labor could only accomplish things in government. Being in opposition, he argued, meant being impotent. And Labor had spent a lot of years in opposition by 1972.
This idea, that it was all about winning government, became a mantra for the post-Whitlam leadership, which was kind of ironic because most of Whitlam’s ways were anathema to the self-styled hard boys who took over post-1975. In particular, they equated debate within the party with a public perception of internal division, which was supposedly death at the polls. The NSW right in particular used this formula to hammer the left when any issues of principle arose.
I’ve never believed this maxim, although I could see how Whitlam had to promote it to get Labor out of its pre-1970 torpor. The very existence of a principled opposition puts moral as well as political pressure on the government, a role currently played mostly by Bob Brown.
And especially as an election looms the opposition can really shape issues, just by talking about them.
Hence the new government policy on Medicare. Howard wants Medicare dead (he did not put that notorious head-kicker Abbott there to revive it) – it has long been a bone in his throat. As mean as it is, there is no way the government would be seriously considering the matter at all if they did not fear that Labor’s concentration on health and education was hurting them.
A disciplined opposition can shift the whole agenda of national political life, as Whitlam did before 1972. As such, the opposion wil not only get government eventually, but also get it with a clear mandate for change.
Influencing policy from opposition requires a lot of hard work, a viable strategy and long term thinking. The trouble is, I’m not sure Labor has any of these capabilities at the moment. The potential is there, but there has to be a change in the whole culture of the party before it can happen.

Posted by Peter at 1:14 pm | Comments Off on Power in Opposition |
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