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



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

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15 Responses to JACK WATERFORD. Labor could fall further yet

  1. Avatar Charles Lowe says:

    Firstly – I think Labor self-seduced. I think Labor believed, since 2016, it would win. It thereby collectively entered a ‘fool’s paradise’.

    Secondly – I think Labor’s campaign structure was incompetent. When one’s in battle, one must know who to report to and who it is that can make relevant decisions, how quickly and with what authority.

    Thirdly – yes – I, too, think Labor spread its resources way too thin.

    Fourthly, Shorten’s “popularity” was seminally important. I’d summarise his approach as a (wooden) public machine mouth and, privately, as an arrogant, non-interactive ‘know-it-all’. Further, I believe that ordinary voters subconsciously (or otherwise) discerned that.

    Fifthly, Labor’s “team” wasn’t. Chris Bowen refusing to spell out the amazingly fair consequences of Labor’s economic policy, Brendan O’Connor’s silence on how Labor would restore fairness to ripped-off employees; Penny Wong’s conniving silence on how Labor would not disrupt Chinese infiltration; Linda Burney’s mutedness on how our First Peoples need a proper Constitutional emplacement; Richard Marles’ gutlessness in arguing for a far more confined – and thereby realistic – Defence budget and, perhaps most telling of all, Mark Butler’s insane “politeness” in regard to climate change.

    No passion. No commitment. No sincerity.

    No wonder.

  2. I attended a large, confident gathering in a Perth pub last night where a relaxed Anthony Albanese addressed the Party faithful. Albo and Scomo are well matched while the Coalition team is nothing special. At this stage I would have a small bet on Labor winning the next election.

  3. Avatar Alan Austin says:

    Paul Sullivan is correct. Jack Waterford comes close in one or two sentences but then veers away.

    After six years of virtually all the mainstream media misreporting Labor and Coalition achievements, notably on the economy, the May election outcome was inevitable.

    Few voters consider party leaders. They come and go. The last six prime ministerships have lasted an average of one year and 312 days. If electors voted for the leader, Paul Keating would not have won in 1993, and John Howard, Tony Abbott and Scott Morrison would never have become PM.

    Voters vote federally for the side they perceive will manage the economy better. Until the mainstream media reports this topic accurately – particularly, that Labor have always managed the economy better than the Coalition – the last three election outcomes will be repeated indefinitely.

  4. Avatar Allan Kessing says:

    Surely the real problem is that neither side is respected nor trusted so people stuck with the same-old crap rather than be betrayed yet again by a “Labor” party barely distinguishable from the government, both being crammed with apparatchiks, chancers and carpet baggers who’ve never made a dent on the real world?

  5. Avatar Stuart lawrence says:

    labour lost becasue their policies were like a university essay or school project without a good title page.

  6. Avatar michael lacey says:

    Steve summed up labor

    If Labor had won the election, it would have walked into an economic crisis for which it was not only not responsible, but also not prepared. Its core economic policy, of returning the government’s budget to surplus—a policy it shares with the Liberal Party—would actually make things worse. Circumstances would force it to run deficits instead—big ones—which the Murdoch Press would have pilloried it for, and the deficits would have described as the cause of the crisis.

    At the moment the conservative media is desperately trying to distract away from their own economic mismanagement by continuing to focus on the labor party.

    Nothing will change for labor until they shed neoliberal dogma!

    • Avatar John Doyle says:

      All too true. Labor has been approached to adopt MMT as its economic framework, Because MMT is in the news now especially after AOC [Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez] a fresh face in Congress touted it together with her Green New Deal. and it went viral. Most establishment Economists dissed it as would be expected. It shows up just how bankrupt the established mainstream has become. In fact there are daily articles saying it is wrong and destructive with out foundation in the real world.
      All MMT does is set the record straight and point out basic errors in mainstream narrative, which politicians run with. Simple errors that a modicum of understanding of accounting would show up, such as being “in the black” with a budget surplus. It is total nonsense. The Budget itself has spending on both sides of the ledger, also a nonsense. Yet these errors are treated as gospel, such that Labour in a case of extreme foolishness aimed for a bigger surplus than the LNP.
      Labor’s economics spokesman. Bowen refused point blank to discuss MMT with Bill Mitchell, thus robbing labour of a winning edge, although it would have to be carefully managed to avoid . unnrcessary conflict. In Fact one wouldn’t even have to mention MMT, as the policies can be imposed as sensible policies inside the existing framework, which they are.
      Labor missed a chance to set a new direction after Rudd’s stimulus in 2009. It was MMT in action, but hurriedly done as the emergency dictated. Instead of boasting about dodging a recession the LNP took over the narrative with a totally fake story. Labor just didn’t have the ticker to destroy it and Swan added insult to injury by aiming for a surplus, unbelievably incompetent action. Labor deserve to be where they are, although the LNPdon’t deserve the reins either, they held up better on the day.

      • Avatar Jocelyn Pixley says:

        I like MMT because a lot of it is Keynesian or even from Schumpeter, and there are notably some MMT women at the Levy Institute who show why a Basic Income has no legs compared to full employment on decent wages and properly supporting ‘social security’ as it used to be called here. What slightly upsets me are Wray’s mild assumptions that 1. the bond vigilantes who loathe social justice spending will remain quiet (maybe in the US) and 2. that governments can be trusted to be oriented to social justice, long-term reinvestment and decent wages. 2. has nearly always been true of social democratic governments, but rarely of right-wing pro-armament and pork barrelling governments. Nixon was the most notorious, but neoclassical economists wrongly accused social democracies not Nixon et al. I agree that Labor should be far prouder of its GFC response and not succumb to defending surpluses when they are counter-productive, as the case now. Meantime the LNP lot are ever more dangerous.

  7. Avatar Andrew Glikson says:

    It is “winner takes all” game.
    The numbers game, controlled to a large extent by vested interests-driven media, has given rise to some of most dangerous regimes.
    The question is rarely asked: Is it better or worse if a party with positive policies loses an elections or, alternatively, wins an election with the wrong policies?

  8. Avatar Paul Sullivan says:

    Why don’t the self-appointed experts, like Jack, who spend all their time examining Labor as if they were in power, mention the real elephant in the room as to why the LNP won the election, the constant six year long kill Bill Strategy and lies and distortions used by the myrmidons who grovel before Murdoch for their weekly paycheck.
    Labor lost because of rural seats in two seats, Qld and Tasmania, where the Murdoch press has no competition.
    One does not even have to buy the rags to see the headlines and get the message, merely walking past a newsagency with the Headline posters screaming out at you walk or into a supermarket and see his papers piled up near the checkout.
    The rest of the press are not far behind, including The ABC, with their constant nitpicking at Labor whilst giving the One Seat Majority of Morrison a relative free run.
    Differences in the LNP are ignored, whilst a minor policy difference between two Labor politicians is the stuff of major headlines and countless articles by opinionated media types and that is before we get to the Murdoch Liberal Propaganda machine daily output of lying bile.
    Labor is not in Government, does not need to have policies in place to suit the self-appointed political judges in the media and has two years or so to get their policies in place. Even then, it is up to Labor when and if they release them, after all, the media let the LNP go to the last election without policies.
    Since the election, One Seat Majority Morrison and his spineless, clueless sidekicks have received the same attention as before the election, virtually none, while the sins of Labor have fed a million stories and opinion pieces.
    The Standard Labor people are held to is a thousand times higher than LNPers.
    Would a Labor MP be able to get away with spending more time in the spicy hot spots of Manila than in Canberra? The so called fiancée does not even have a photo or mention Christensen on her FB page.
    The water scandals involving Joyce, Littleproud and Taylor, the native grass poisoning involving Taylor, the tax avoidance off shore Cayman Island scams involving Taylor, the $240 million Palladin of Kangaroo Island scam and other dodgy contracts involving overnight millionaire Dutton, The National Party figures who profit from the Indue Card, and on and on and on.
    All of these scandals have been allowed to flow away freely, unlike the Murray Darling river system the LNP has mismanaged to the point of destruction.
    One Seat Majority Morrison treats the media pack with the disdain they allow him to get away with as he smirks, avoids questions with “Canberra “Bubble” “Gossip”or just “Silent Australians are not interested in that”.
    The whole media from the ABC down, are acting the same as those jokes that work for Murdoch.
    The LNP’s and their propaganda arm, the Murdoch presses latest trick at avoiding responsibility is to push hard the lie that the Greens are to blame for the fires ,and none of us must ever mention climate change, because now (as ever) is not the right time and treasonous behaviour.
    They ignore the fact that the Greens have never been in power in the States or Federally, and their ability to influence anything is just laughable.
    Do the non Murdoch press point this out? No they don’t.
    So in conclusion Jack, I suggest, you give Labor a miss for a while and turn your thoughts and enquiries onto your own profession and the terrible Government we have.

  9. Avatar Sandra Hey says:

    I seem to remember the ALP had decided not to get into gutter politics that has defined the Liberal Party Leadership, from John Howard to this head kicker Scott Morrison. Very easy to prey on the vulnerable by why of spreading fear and malicious lies with the help of most MSM media. The ALP Overall will win the next election as a result of human decency and public policy.

  10. Avatar Terence Preeo says:

    Nothing about taking the fight up to Morrison. Why let the Libs get away with the BS they were spouting? Why not dispute the claim that the libs are the best economic managers? Why didn’t they get stuck into Morrison and attack the LNPs record?
    The ALP, it seems, have become too nice, too middle class. What they need are some head kickers.

    • Avatar Rex Williams says:

      Sadly, the Labor Party in 2019 is has become a compliant little voice in our Parliament. It is as though they have had a grand vision as a result of the election loss, along these lines. …….
      ‘Well, if someone totally narcissistic like Morrison can win an unwinnable election, everything he says, all his policies must be what the people want to hear. So we’ll go along with them, vote for all their ideas and hopefully wait for them to make a mistake. In the meantime, keep calm.’
      Policies? Why bother. Principles? We can manage without those too. The workers? They’ll manage somehow….they always do what they’re told.

      Let us not rock the boat, boys and girls.

      And they haven’t rocked the boat and seemingly never will, based on their performance to date.

      Just one example. We will see tomorrow a vote on ensuring that all genetically modified organisms (GMOs) continue to be assessed for safety. The Senate will vote on the issue this Wednesday (13th) and Labor Party support will be vital. Unfortunately, we see that the Shadow Health Minister Chris Bowen has said Labor won’t support the Greens disallowance motion. Therefore, likely to allow another win for a shocking piece of legislation.

      Can anyone imagine Labor voting for something like this ‘disallowance’ in the past? It was what’s right for Australia then. Not now.

      The Greens at least appear to have the guts to stand by their principles. They are much more of an opposition than Labor.

    • Avatar Kevan Daly says:

      That’s the ALP’s problem – it has too many head-kickers, e.g. Christina Kenneally, Kim Carr … It needs more “cool-heads” like my local member, Matt Thistlethwaite. He’s able to mount cogent arguments as well as appear in the lion’s den of SkyNews and give as good as he gets.

      • Avatar Michael Butler says:

        Too many head kickers? Really? I don’t recall any Coalition heads getting kicked during the campaign.
        Of course, if you mean factional head kickers, you’re probably right.

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