Taking aim at Kevin Rudd wasn't the only grenade Nicola Roxon threw at Labor on the way out of public life.

Before describing Rudd as a "bastard", and warning of his destabilising influence if he remained in parliament, the former senior minister in the Rudd-Gillard governments fleshed out some tough lessons for her colleagues.

Especially if Labor returned to government.

Coincidentally, she is one of three prominent Labor women who has unleashed a spray at their party this week, days after an historic ballot elected Bill Shorten as its federal parliamentary leader.

It was as if his election popped the lid on pent-up emotions about Labor in government and where it heads to now.

Roxon, in giving the John Button Memorial Lecture, said the party needed to talk frankly and constructively about the past six years or face risks worse than confront it now.

Frankly, she centred on Rudd and his leadership style; and constructively she offered a list of 10 housekeeping tips for members of a future Labor government.

As well, she said, Labor needed to lift itself above the personality politics and stop seeing things as "Kevin legacies" or "Julia legacies", and just see them proudly as "Labor legacies".

Former parliamentary secretary Maxine McKew echoed that sentiment in her updated book - Tales From the Political Trenches - saying the Gillard-Rudd power play may have rendered the party as reflexive as "acid rising in the gullet".

Roxon believes Labor erred by not campaigning on the national disability insurance scheme before the September 7 election, saying it was a top-class achievement painting the perfect picture of Labor's purpose.

In government, Labor allowed opinions polls to have too much influence when they should have been regarded as a snapshot only, not a predictor.

"Otherwise we resign ourselves to a static life - and a progressive party will never win without new ideas, and new ideas take time to be absorbed."

Polls can't tell you that someone disagrees with you but begrudgingly admires your determination, Roxon said.

"It is harder to win the seats back if your people don't think you stand for anything."

The retired MP warned her colleagues never to lose sight of their real purpose, channelling a dead American president: "Always ask what you can do for the party and the nation, not what it can do for you."

Personal career disappointments needed to be handled with dignity such as John Brumby's "exemplary behaviour" after the humiliation of being removed as Labor leader on the eve of an election in Victoria.

If you are part of a Labor team, and care about its mission, you put that before your own hurt or ambition, Roxon said.

"This was never demanded of Kevin after he lost the prime ministership and it should have been."

Roxon might have given Anna Burke the same advice this week after the outgoing Speaker spat the dummy when she failed to win a place in the shadow ministry or the job of chief government whip.

Burke lashed out at the "couple of blokes" - factional powerbrokers - who stitched up the positions prior to a caucus ballot.

"The problem with women is that they think effort will be rewarded and recognised," she wrote on The Guardian Australia website.

"They work like girly swots and naively believe that they will get meritorious selection. But there is no meritocracy."

Burke lamented the mood for democracy, following the double-header leadership ballot that allowed the rank-and-file a vote for the first time in ALP history, had not extended to the caucus.

Which brings us to another Roxon housekeeping tip: Be polite and be persuasive. Or as she calls it "keep yourself nice".

This is not a tip just for the sake of nice manners, she said, because it fundamentally affected political outcomes as well.

Roxon cited the example of Rudd ignoring then NSW premier Kristina Keneally during health reform negotiations and, behind her back, calling her Bambi.

McKew agrees, describing as "humiliating" Rudd's treatment of a pastor who asked the prime minister about gay marriage on ABC Television's Q&A program during the election campaign.

Roxon said a future Labor government must refine the operation of cabinet and keep its focus on the big picture. It should be used only to sign-off on purpose, direction and broad structure, but not excessive detail.

One of Rudd's failings was his overwhelming inclination to focus on minutiae, as a way of avoiding the big, harder decisions, she said.

Instead, a prime minister should delegate more to ministers, freeing-up leadership time and shield the government's most senior spokesperson from the inevitable failures and mistakes.

Roxon believes Labor's future leaders must accept they are not always right, and cannot always fix everything.

"If the public is promised a messiah, they're inevitably going to be disappointed."

She hopes her take on events might be worth something to the next generation of Labor leaders - and Shorten, for one, appears to have heeded one lesson.

During the Labor leadership campaign he declared the era of the messiah is over.