“Stage one in the campaign manual for administrations facing re-election is: choice not referendum, future not the past. The Labor strategy came nowhere near achieving this, with its relentless focus on yesterday and lack of forward vision. For parties of the left in particular, the vision thing is crucial. With the exception of the national broadband network, I struggled to discern much mention of the sunlit uplands into which Labor would lead the nation. Where was Ben Chifley's ''light on the hill''? Barack Obama's ''yes we can''? Or even Tony Blair's more utilitarian ''A lot done - a lot left to do'' that saw Blair romp to a second successive landslide in 2001.” (Martin Salter, The Age, 24/8/2010)
I want to expand on what I was saying. Many of the details being talked about were indeed important. There were issues of welfare, health, economics and immigration that were and are absolutely vital to the future of the nation. However, each was tackled individually, a piecemeal approach with no overriding vision.
The reason for this was obvious: Labor’s driving vision was re-election, the Liberals’ driving vision was dislodging Labor. The view from the top stretched no further than the transfer of power.
But of course, why is such a vision important? I see it as essential because nations are more than what they do and governments are more than the sum of their policies. Overarching visions give formation to the individual policies, allows them to fit into a larger framework. What, after all, is the purpose of increasing health care, other than the utility to those who need it? The answer is in the larger vision: one of creating a healthier, more caring, more socially just nation, one that strengthens the weakest of its citizens to increase the strength of the whole.
In order to sustain such a vision, one’s policies must fit neatly around it. If one’s policies conflict with the overall vision, then the looking-glass clouds and voters turn away (see, for example, the dwindling popularity of Obama’s post-election policies). It binds a party to something other than mere pragmatism – and as Martin Salter points out, Labor was driven purely by pragmatism this cycle.
However, such pragmatism is inherently short-sighted. It appeals to the baser nature of the community: ‘what can the government do for me?’ It forges no bond between the community and the party; the very sort of bond that led certain segments of Australian society to vote Labor time and time again. That bond is gone now, Labor has abandoned its base, which is left searching for alternatives amidst the independent parties... or the Liberals, which feed the popular media very convincing lines about economic management.
In the long run, idealism is pragmatism. While in individual circumstances one might not be able to take the most politically-prudent option, the existence of a solid, convincing, driving vision will bind people to the party that adopts it. It will inspire voters to think about the future instead of dwelling on the past. It is, in short, leadership. To paraphrase West Wing, Labor is made up of politicians who see crowds running down a street and cries: ‘There go my people! I must find out where they are going, so I may lead them.’
So what areas might I like to see such vision? In my letter, I mentioned immigration and climate change. I’ll expand on this more soon.