Time for Labor to plan what to do when they lose
The federal election might still be seven months away, but things are so grim for the Labor Party that minds are almost certainly being turned to a 2013 version of The Embassy Rooftop Strategy.
“It’s time to start wheeling the choppers out of their hangars,” an ALP veteran said yesterday, in reference to an operation mounted by a handful of MPs, party officials and government staffers before the 1996 election.
There is very little doubt now that Julia Gillard’s government is going to lose on September 14, and lose badly. Labor realists predict privately that the result will be worse than Paul Keating’s 1996 defeat; worse even than the anti-Whitlam routs of 1975 and 1977.
Gillard and those around her don’t share this view, which is understandable. If they lose hope they lose the ability to fight. But someone will have to prepare for the looming electoral disaster.
In 1996 it was a group centred on then ALP national secretary Gary Gray and operating in strict secrecy. I have told the story before, but it is worth repeating.
Gray put together a document headed What To Do When Labor Loses. A former senator and one-time party official, Stephen Loosley - from whom Gray sought advice - added the subtitle The Embassy Rooftop Strategy.
That was an allusion to the evacuation of more than 1000 Americans and 5000 South Vietnamese from the US Embassy in Saigon as North Vietnamese troops occupied the city in April, 1975.
Helicopters plucked them from the embassy roof and flew them to ships of the US 7th Fleet in the South China Sea.
What To Do When Labor Loses was a plan to use the time remaining in government before an inevitable election defeat to set Labor up for opposition. “You save what you have to save,” a member of the group told me later.
It involved, among other things, warehousing of valued staffers in the bureaucracy, earmarking and retention of documents likely to be useful in opposition, and ways to protect the seats of talented MPs so they would be available to help Labor rebuild.
Keating was not told about it. He would have gone off his face had he known. But those involved are convinced the strategy laid the groundwork for Kim Beazley’s near win over John Howard in 1998.
Back in 1996, they didn’t fuel up the choppers until quite close to the election, partly because Keating’s awesome political skills gave the party hope until near the end.
But Gillard’s political skills are not in the Keating class, and voters have given plenty of notice of what is in store for Labor.
Should anyone associated with today’s ALP have the foresight of Gray and his colleagues 17 years ago, covert planning for how best to survive defeat can start earlier this time.
Gillard, meanwhile, can continue planning for the victory that she - unlike most of her Caucus - still believes is possible.
Now it is the May Budget that is pivotal to the Gillard strategy.
On Thursday night the government whip, Joel Fitzgibbon, commented that the Budget was Treasurer Wayne Swan’s best chance to “redraft the message, redraft the plan”.
And he added: “If we don’t get a bounce out of the Budget, we’ll be still in strife.”
Because Fitzgibbon is a supporter of Kevin Rudd, his words were seen in the context of the Labor leadership.
But, setting the leadership issue to one side, Gillard and Swan themselves are relying heavily on the Budget to turn the tables on Tony Abbott.
The idea is to produce a financial blueprint that shows how the government proposes to fund its policies, including the National Disability Insurance Scheme and the Gonski school funding reforms.
That, they believe, will put irresistible pressure on Abbott to explain where the coalition intends to get money for its expensive promises - including which programs would be axed.
The Liberals and Nationals would certainly be vulnerable to such an attack, if the government had the ability to mount it effectively.
But the Prime Minister and the Treasurer have not been able to turn already announced coalition cutbacks to the government’s advantage.
Proposed abolition of the Schoolkids Bonus should have the potential to cause the coalition political pain. So should reversal of the tripling of the tax free threshold.
Effectively the coalition would force many Australians back into the tax system.
But Gillard and Swan struggle with retail politics, and that does not augur well for Labor in a Budget battle against Abbott - one of the most effective populist politicians on the scene.
In any case, Swan has been so embarrassed over the surplus backflip and the mining tax debacle that he will battle to be taken seriously when he gets to his feet for the Budget speech.
That is why the talk in Caucus is about the size of the expected election defeat, not the possibility of victory.
But, amid the gloom, there is just a touch of optimism.
“Even if we lose as badly as I think we will, it doesn’t necessarily mean we will be out of office for a long time,” says a prominent Labor MP.
“It only took us eight years to get back into office after the 1975 landslide.”
Laurie Oakes is political editor for the Nine Network
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