JACK WATERFORD. Labor could fall further yet

Did Morrison win that election? Or did Labor simply blow it?

In a nation like Australia, which, uniquely I think, has both compulsory attendance at a polling booth and preferential voting, the outcome, at least in two-party preferred terms is pretty much a zero-sum game. What one party loses, the other gains, perhaps via ultimately unimportant intermediaries.

It would be nice in that sense to read the Liberal Party’s review of its May federal election campaign. Perhaps the draft could come from the Labor Party’s review of how it seemed to snatch defeat from certain victory, published to the world only this week.

Here’s what it might say, with only a few substitutions of words.

“The coalition won the election because it had a strong strategy which capitalised on the change in the Liberal Party leadership, a change which did not cause Labor to amend its strategy or its tactics.

“The prime minister, Scott Morrison did not clutter his pitch to voters with an extensive, let alone risky policy agenda, and he focused hard on the risks that complex, apparently redistributive policies, with big spending proposals supported by increased taxes, posed to jobs, growth, and a sound economy. He also sought to capitalise on distrust – not to mention positive dislike – for the opposition leader Bill Shorten. Morrison himself was not at this stage popular with most voters, but they bore, and seemed to welcome marketing of himself as a daggy old dad of somewhat pedestrian outlook.”

“Not one of these tactics or strategies was decisive in the coalition victory – achieved virtually single-handedly by Morrison himself. But in combination they explain the result. It is the more remarkable because the opposition ran a disciplined party, with few outburst of disunity – one which could have been contrasted with a coalition which had seen a succession of leadership changes, and, during the term of government quite open disunity and chaos.”

“Morrison did not win the election because of Labor’s specific tax policies, such as imputation credits  or changes to the rules of negative gearing.

“These were strongly criticised, including as evidence that Labor’s inclinations were always to increase taxes as against the coalition’s desire to lower them. The focus on these points potentiated suggestions that rents would rise under a Labor government and that it had a secret plan for inheritance or “death” taxes.

“But it cannot be said that the Liberals won simply because voters rejected particular Labor tax policies. Rather the size and complexity of the whole Labor economic package – and Labor’s failure to settle on a cohesive and persuasive strategy, or narrative unifying all of its policies – allowed a general attack on a high-taxing risky alternative. Morrison hammered home the argument that Labor would crash the economy and cause people to lose their jobs.  His argument was especially effective in creating anxieties among insecure low-income voters in outer-urban and regional Australia.

“Morrison was better able to connect with this constituency, in major part because working people, particularly those experiencing economic dislocation, did not see that Labor’s policies responded to their needs. Instead they saw Labor as being preoccupied with issues that either did not concern them, or which seemed to act directly against their interests.

“Labor had seemed to develop a grievance-based approach to issues, seeming to move to appease one pressure group after another, and developing a seemingly uncoordinated big set of policies which they failed to sell as a package.

“That’s quite apart from the fact that they saw right through Shorten’s deceit, conscious ambiguity and different messages to different audiences, particularly  as to Adani and coal mining in Queensland.  By contrast, Morrison had clear and simple messages, even if they were focused on the weaknesses of the other side. Morrison did not much frighten voters, but Shorten did.”

One could go on in inverting some of the conclusions drawn by Craig Emerson and Jay Weatherill about the weaknesses of the Labor campaign, making them seem, instead strengths of Morrison and consequences of his strategic and tactical skill.

In some respects, it does not matter, since the outcome, if a narrow victory, was clear and, for Labor, seemingly  catastrophic.

In other respects, the Emerson-Weatherill review of Labor’s campaign matters quite a bit, and not only to those who had hoped for a Labor victory, or who were somewhat desperate for an end to the coalition.

The first question, perhaps, if not directly addressed by the review is whether voters endorsed the coalition, or whether, instead, they decided not to risk a Labor alternative. The truism, usually, is that elections are referendums on a government, not on an opposition, and that it takes rare skill to make the opposition the issue. Paul Keating did it with John Hewson in 1993.

If Labor lost because it had become the issue, did it lose because it had too many policies, too many dud policies, or because it had so exposed itself with policies that it was fighting on too many fronts?

It is unfair to say that the coalition did not have policies. They were, of course, the policies put forward in the Budget as well as many put forward over the life of the coalition government. Yet Morrison did not devote much expounding on or defending his policies; he was more concerned with attacking Labor’s.

Labor might have let debate about the soundness or the appropriateness of coalition policies go by default, since it had a grab-bag of policies it was constantly announcing and then defending. The daily round of announcing fresh policies took time away from defending existing policies, or attacking coalition policies. Coalition policies could thus be the “safe” or the default choice.

There is always something comical about seeing commentators focused on drawing out or criticising reports explaining why things did not turn out as we had previously confidently expected. On day one we tell you what is going to happen. On day two we explain why it did not happen as we said it would. Soon after, players vent their frustrations about supposed systemic weaknesses of the campaign – criticisms and reservations they did not express during the campaign itself, (perhaps for fear of disturbing the image of unity). Then we are back in the umpire’s chair scoring the criticisms  — sometimes pretending we thought this all along. We are being wise after the event and, in passing final judgment, ready to excuse nothing except our own mistakes.

For myself, I think the conclusions of the review are correct. But they don’t go far enough. The broad conclusions speak ill not only of the party organisation, but about the way in which its resources were mobilised for battle.

There were, it seems frequent campaign meetings, either among frontbenchers drafting policy proposals in conferences with each other, or between the leadership team and party officers, or both. No doubt these meetings involved disclosure of insights received from focus groups, from the testing of different slogans or formulations of policy, evidence about the background feelings of voters, or their attitudes to Labor or the coalition.

But, fatally, these meetings never did settle on a persuasive strategy for wooing voters, let alone some performance indicators by which impact on voters of particular strategies or tactics might be measured.

Indeed there was no formal campaign committee at all, and there was no real forum at which strategy and tactics could be refined by evidence or experience.

Just as seriously, Labor never did settle on a “narrative” – a story or vision explaining how its policies all came together into a coherent whole.  Indeed the lack of such a narrative allowed Morrison to suggest a counter-narrative. By his account, the combination of spending proposals – in health, education and child care, for example — and the accompanying taxation measures to fund them, more or less cancelled each other out, establishing merely how Labor was addicted to a bigger scale of government intervention in the economy. They ceased to be a blueprint for an alternative program for creating jobs, promoting economic growth and an enterprising way of developing the nation, a different vision of what Australians could achieve.

Here are a few more summarised findings:

  • Labor’s campaign lacked a culture and structure that encouraged dialogue, challenge and debate.  As a result warning signs and concerns from within the party ranks were ignored, and no one in the top teams seemed to be spending enough time playing the sceptic, or paying attention to evidence that the message was not settling.
  • “Labor failed to campaign sufficiently and consistently on reasons to vote against the coalition”. It did not hammer home the evidence of long-running civil war and disunity, to focus on evidence of maladministration, poor processes, ideologically driven policies, and abuses of power. Controversial figures such as Barnaby Joyce, Tony Abbott, and Peter Dutton escaped extensive criticism, in part because of Morrison’s success in playing a one-man band putting the government’s case.
  • Indeed, Labor had so many policies, it often failed to devote enough attention to explanations of how it was that it said that some policies – in health or child care for example – were better than what the coalition had on offer.
  • Labor targeted too many seats, such that resources were spread too thinly and its impact was diluted. Its campaign, long prepared in skeleton, did not recalibrate its fire when Morrison replaced Turnbull, even when it was obvious that Morrison was a completely different, if not unassailable, character.
  • Labor’s policy formulation process lacked coherence and was driven by multiple demands rather than by “a compelling story” of why Labor should be elected to government.

Each of these suggested fundamental and systemic weaknesses in the party and the senior party organisation. They reflect not only on the leadership of Bill Shorten, but on the professionalism of the party’s senior officers, and the structures the party created to adopt, refine and debate policy, then, later to market it.

The cynic will immediately note that these have been the deficiencies continually noted by the party’s internal critics. Particularly those who have deplored how the party has ceased to be an operating democracy and has instead become a mere brand, controlled by factional daleks (including Shorten himself) and managed by suits, advertising folk and salesmen. And, to add insult to injury, unsuccessfully.

If these were delivering office to a party and (half an) electorate hungry for power, it might be one thing. But the failure of the party at federal level has become the norm. And now, it appears, it is the other side which has become the more professional, the more effective in connecting with voters (particularly with new media) and the more flexible and able to shift according to circumstance. Yet there appears to be little accountability for folk inside the party machine. Nor is there any interruption to their ultimate translation, after a couple of years at the coalface, into comfortable jobs prostituting themselves by delivering access to Labor and results for the benefit of moguls in the gambling, alcohol or mining industry.

The review is quite silent about matters of party democracy or deficiencies in the party’s increasing incapacity to galvanise its own, or to use them as an intelligence gathering organisation on the impact of policies at local level.

To be fair, the review is of the campaign rather than of the party itself. Were it otherwise, powerful faction leaders (including Shorten himself) might have hesitated about selecting the particular reviewers. Yet the fictions of an active party —  of party branches and sub-branches, of rule by state and federal conference rather than by meetings of warlords, and the lack of connect or grounding of party functionaries—are very much a part of the problem of campaigns. And so is the lack of transparency and accountability – barring the odd intervention from an ICAC after a funding scandal.

The review is strangely silent about the lack of impact of heavily funded campaigns, run by friends of Labor, such as Get-Up and trade unions, and not only in support of independents with the prospect of winning such as Kerryn Phelps (failed), Zali Steggall (succeeded)  or Green or independent candidates in Melbourne pitched against Liberals in circumstances where Labor could not win. Peter Dutton, for example, was supposedly targeted with more than a $1 million in campaign funds – without any discernible effect. Indeed a negative effect. Did these bodies lack feedback mechanisms too?

Even with Steggall, one gets the impression that it was the enthusiasm of her own team of supporters, rather than interlopers that most influenced the decisive rejection of Tony Abbott.

The lack of impact of collateral campaigns seems the more odd given that, during the campaign,  many coalition party insiders had agreed that particular candidates were in especial trouble. Most Liberals, (apart from Morrison) privately thought that the government seemed doomed, and that the campaign was about saving the furniture. Some, such as Josh Frydenberg, were of limited use to the broad coalition campaign since they were trying to shore up their own seats.

Of course the result was close, and it might have easily been different with a few votes difference in particular seats. Then we would be talking about the genius of Shorten and his organisation, and opining about how obviously bad and deficient Morrison’s campaign had been. But if there’s a killer, regardless of the result, it is the steady downward drift of Labor first preference votes.

Labor, under new management, has more than two years to get its house, and its future campaigns in order.

It is quite clear that it is not going to succeed merely by tweaking the campaigning style, or by fewer, or less hard-hitting policies. Or by retreat from so-called core policies – about job opportunities, security and good working conditions, fairness,  equality, a special concern for the under-privileged and disadvantaged, and care for the environment.

Nor is it merely a matter of strategy or tactics. First and foremost it is about substance. And authenticity and an intellectual and emotional message to which its constituencies, particularly old working-class heartland constituencies, will respond.

The review – as well as other studies – suggest that the real problem was not with the policies but the way they were patched together.

A party merely focused on making itself more inoffensive, or willing to retreat from signature policies has a good deal more to lose than it has to gain.

It is by no means settled that a 33 per cent primary vote – only a third of the electorate – is a floor Labor cannot fall through.

Jack Waterford is a former Editor of The Canberra Times

[email protected]

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John Waterford AM, better known as Jack Waterford, is an Australian journalist and commentator.

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