Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Horizontal Collectivism and the Fire in the Belly of New Labor

PM Rudd press conference on Syria during the 2013 campaign

When I first raised the term ‘horizontal collectivism’ with my wife there was a profound blankness in her expression.  This was not due to any lack of intellectual rigor that she applied to understanding the term; it was merely an acute demonstration of the need to address your target audience in the appropriate way – in other words, to speak in the language that your audience understands.

Communications professionals in the Labor movement since the 2007 election of Kevin Rudd, have largely ignored this message.

But, as Sean Kelly has advised in his Sydney Morning Herald article of 9 September 2013 regarding the legacy of the Rudd-Gillard era, let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater.  Let’s ‘unpack’ this term to see if there isn’t something there that might begin to stoke the fires of revival that the party now so poignantly needs:

So, a definition to start with: ‘horizontal’ – well, in itself, entirely self-explanatory – on the same plane; flat; parallel.  Ok, that was easy. 

What about ‘collectivism’ – this one’s more problematic and brings up nods towards communism; Marxism; Leninism; even Stalinism; and, infers, at least for my purposes, a notion of ownership or management by the people for the people. 

Together ‘horizontal collectivism’ denotes, at least for my purposes, a common and equal ownership and management of commonly held ideals and values where the individual has equal ownership and responsibility for the ideals and values of the collective whole.

So how does this tie into the current position of the Labor party in its struggle to become relevant again to the political discourse in this country?

Quite simply, whilst ‘horizontal collectivism’ might, by definition, form the very heart of Australian Labor’s philosophical foundation it is a meaningless and entirely pretentious term that will completely fail to ignite the fire in the belly of the coming Labor generations until it is applied through conviction and belief to the entire organisation.

Somewhere between fervent hope and utter conviction lies my belief that the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd era of Australian political history will ultimately be regarded with respect, congratulation and more than a grudging acknowledgement.  That immense achievements were made during this brief history – achievements that were the equal if not superior to Medicare; superannuation; the floating of the Australian dollar; and the economic, structural and social reforms of previous Labor governments from Whitlam to Keating – is clear on any dispassionate inspection. 

PM Gillard announcing regional
development assistance  in Bendigo
Labor’s problem is that we neither owned nor communicated these achievements as the commonly held ideals that they were and, until we do so, we are condemned to the Tory view of recent history that would depict us as bickering, chaotic; dysfunctional and, most seriously, divided.  The result?  The only story was the interminable and, frankly, ‘Game-of-Thrones’-esque series of plots and counterplots of the last 3 years that, last Saturday, delivered Labor opposition.

So how do we ‘own’ these achievements?  How do we make known to what will undoubtedly become an electorate increasingly disappointed and frustrated by the direction that the Abbott government will take us?  As entrée, witness the completely indefensible appointment of only one woman to cabinet in the just-announced Abbott ministry; only 6 women in a front bench of 42; and, the total disregard for the importance of science by the non-appointment of a minister for that portfolio (of either gender).

During the course of the Gillard-Rudd government, those of us fortunate enough to be more closely involved, witnessed the utter conviction of a number of portfolio ministers who were not always in the political limelight.  Jenny Macklin immediately comes to mind but others including Jan McLucas and Kate Lundy could not pass without mention.  Their selflessness and tireless activity bettering the future of many Australians, particularly those to whom fate has dealt a bitter hand, was exemplary and did not beg headlines or particular reward.  These Labor stalwarts executed their portfolio duties with grace, efficiency and tireless commitment because they believed in what they were doing and understood how this indicated the Labor way.  Labor’s failure to properly recognize and own the efforts of these individuals as depicting fundamental Labor values and ideals speaks more about the shortsighted pursuit of power – ‘Whatever it Takes’ - thanks Richo for imposing that legacy – than it does the promotion of fundamental Labor values.

PM Rudd announces plans to move
Garden Island Naval Base to QLD
Strategically, Labor’s communications gurus need to constantly connect and re-connect with these values – we need to steer the political debate away from power for the sake of it and back to values.

It would be far too simplistic – although enormously tempting – to say that the Murdochracy is responsible for the dilution of the Labor message over the last three years.  Tempting because it was undeniably a huge factor, simplistic because our strategic communication failed to counter this bias.  An undiluted and consistent message based on fundamental Labor values would have cut through – it is what people wanted to hear and were unable to because of our own self-generated background noise.  That Murdoch (and the coalition for that matter) ‘turned the knob to 11’ merely served to amplify our self-inflicted dilemmas rather than provide amplification of any particular policy deficiencies.  We did good things but who knew?

During his commentary on QandA on Monday 16 September, former Labor leader Mark Latham proposed that Labor must get its leadership and structure right before dealing with policy and ideals – I disagree wholeheartedly.  Labor must first return to what it believes and values; it must learn to communicate those ideals and values to a policy-starved and disengaged electorate that did not vote in droves for the major parties at this election but voted against them – witness the 5.8% swing towards “others”.  Then, and only then, should it spend time and energy debating the structure and internal governance that will lead it into the next election.  As noted Australian playwright David Williamson mentioned on the same QandA program; “the people didn’t vote Tony in; they voted Labor out.”

The grass-roots participation in the selection of the next Labor leader is a good start – this might be an example of horizontal collectivism in action.  But we need to go further:

PM Gillard at the signing up
of the NT to DisabilityCare Australia
Communications professionals – the much maligned (although often deservedly so) spin doctors of the political process - are both the villains and, potentially, the heroes of this piece.  Villains because of our complete failure to adequately sell the significant and, frankly, life changing reforms of the Labor government from 2007 to 2013; and potential heroes because we can regroup and address our deficiencies; we can develop strategies to defy an ostensibly biased media and we can counter the destructive conservatism of the incoming government. 

And how do we do this?  We return to the light on the hill; we return to the core values and ideals that brought the Labor movement in Australia together and, through these ideals, we reignite the Labor cause in a country that I have no doubt will crave a return to these values in the next three years of conservative rule.

Through horizontal collectivism – being harnessed together as equals striving towards shared ideals and values – the fire in the belly of Keating’s true believers can be reignited and we can and will prevail in three years time.  

We have much work to do.

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