Brand Labor on the nose across country
A COMPANY or product brand is a highly valuable asset that can change customer behaviour and shift demand through the creation of a positive image.
A brand’s equity is derived from the goodwill and name recognition earned over time, which in business translates into higher sales and profit margins over those of competitors.
Take Facebook. Over a remarkably short period, Facebook has built a brand image that represents all that is current, creative and cool in the technology world. IBM, on the other hand, has struggled with its brand over decades but has settled for an image that is solid, safe and secure.
However when a company or product brand actually has a negative impact, it usually means a business would be better off with no name at all. MySpace springs to mind.
It is the same in politics.
As far as “brand Labor” goes, the Australian Labor Party is in grave danger of entering negative territory. With a NSW state election only weeks away, Labor strategists must be tearing their hair out in an attempt to rebuild an image that now associates Labor with all that is indecisive, incompetent and irrelevant.
It will be instructive to see how many Labor candidates devise ways to distance themselves from “brand Labor” during the March election campaign.
This sorry state of affairs for the century-old, once-proud brand Labor is one of the unfortunate legacies of Labor’s recent period of dominance in state governments. The reality is that the culture of those administrations has now infected the entire Labor movement. There is no doubt that, in the not too distant past, Labor experienced extraordinary success at the state level with a model that became the template for the party across the nation.
Starting with NSW, Bob Carr won his first election in 1995 and remained premier for a decade, followed by Morris Iemma, Nathan Rees and now the beleaguered Kristina Keneally.
Peter Beattie won his first election in Queensland in 1999, staying in power until 2007 when he bequeathed power to Anna Bligh, whose government appeared to be failing until her strong performance during these present catastrophic floods.
Steve Bracks won unexpectedly against Jeff Kennett in 1999 and then handed over to John Brumby in 2007, who lasted until last November’s election.
Similar patterns of success occurred in Western Australia (until the 2008 election), South Australia, Tasmania, the ACT and Northern Territory.
In terms of the longevity of these governments, switching leaders at strategic moments was an effective ploy, up to a point.
This is because one of the major criticisms of all recent state Labor governments has been their relentless pursuit of popularity at the expense of successful public policy development and implementation.
Carr was lauded by his peers as a master manipulator of the media and political cycle; Beattie was an unashamed and self-described “media tart”; while Mike Rann and Alan Carpenter were former journalists elected in large part because of their skill at media management.
However, the one overriding and common feature of Labor in the states in recent years has been an inability to deliver quality services and infrastructure. While it has often been said, by all sides of politics, that perception is reality, recent and current state Labor administrations have turned that concept into an art form.
State Labor’s past success in winning elections seems to have been based on a formula where all contentious or controversial decisions were avoided; where focus was maintained on winning the daily media cycle; and where any critics, not only the parliamentary opposition, were targeted and personally vilified.
For years, this formula translated into electoral success, but the general public are increasingly aware that it also means poor government.
The most recent election results in WA and Victoria are a testament to that fact, and it seems certain that on March 26 the voters of NSW will severely punish state Labor, not just for its incompetence, but for its often appalling and arrogant behaviour.
However, there is an exponential increase in complexity and scale in terms of governance at the federal level and that is why the traditional state Labor template does not, and cannot, work in Canberra.
Federal Labor’s attempt at the switch-the-leader tactic is not having the success it once had for state Labor governments in trouble. The fact is that neither Kevin Rudd nor Julia Gillard has tackled any serious reforms.
Moreover it is becoming increasingly apparent that policy development and implementation is not Gillard’s strength.
Admittedly Gillard has form. Her claim to fame as opposition health spokesperson was the widely derided Medicare Gold, which former Hawke minister Barry Jones rightly described as “a turkey”. Gillard’s policy contribution as shadow immigration spokesperson was the very same failed border protection policy that is now severely damaging the government’s credentials, both here and overseas.
Gillard would no doubt point to her reforms of workplace relations. But her initial Fair Work policy caused so much angst in the business community that Rudd, then opposition leader, had to step in and rework it into something acceptable to business and the unions. The debate on whether her eventual workplace policies are in fact retrograde and have taken Australia back rather than forward in economic terms, is only just beginning.
Gillard’s only other claim as a reformer is in education. However, even a cursory check of the policy agenda developed in 2007 by Howard government education minister Julie Bishop, now Deputy Opposition Leader, shows that Gillard largely adopted Bishop’s policy agenda on educational standards, quality teaching, literacy and numeracy testing, principal autonomy and performance pay.
With tax reform in the too-hard basket, Labor’s policy fig-leaf is reduced to climate change and its current commitment to a price on carbon emissions.
The Prime Minister faces two monumental hurdles with this policy and there is serious doubt that she has the courage to implement it, or the political skill to successfully take the public with her.
First, prior to the last election Gillard repeatedly and unreservedly ruled out any form of carbon tax. Any reversal of position will be portrayed by Tony Abbott and the federal opposition as an act of gross dishonesty, which creates fertile ground for an inevitable scare campaign based on substantially increased prices and living costs.
Second, at the height of one of the nation’s most severe droughts, the public was willing to support action on climate change.
However it is doubtful they will be as supportive of such measures when half the nation is experiencing flood conditions and water restrictions are the furthest thing from their minds.
State Labor’s relentless obsession with the short term, where every act of government and every policy is viewed in terms of its immediate appeal to voters and its potential for winning the daily media cycle, has been wholeheartedly embraced by Gillard.
It is the underlying cause of all her policy blunders: think of her East Timor processing centre or the citizens’ assembly or the cash for clunkers scheme. All conspicuous failures.
If Gillard stays on as prime minister, it is doubtful that anyone in federal Labor has the courage or the vision to look beyond the media cycle, let alone to the next election.
There is little inspiration to be found in the culture that flourished in state Labor governments over the past decade and which now dominates federal Labor. Brand Labor is in substantial strife simply because the product is not delivering on its promises.
The Weekend Australian, January 15 -16, 2011