Reports on electoral strategies are often written in order to be avoided. They are scripted for the express purpose of gathering dust on shelves, or decaying in digital files rarely to be consulted except by historians. But the review of the reasons why the Australian Labor Party lost the May 2019 Australian federal election was deemed of particular interest. Authored by Jay Weatherill and Craig Emerson, the report was harsh. “Labor lost the election because of a weak strategy that could not adapt to the change in Liberal leadership, a cluttered policy agenda that looked risky and an unpopular leader.” The authors advance 60 findings and 26 recommendations.
The review does make relevant and cogent points. The campaign was deeply flawed: dissenters and contrarians concerned that Labor was not making the progress needed to win government were dissuaded. Victory would surely be inevitable. But with the campaign barely a week old, the primary vote had fallen to 34 percent, with Labor coming out on the two-party vote with 47 percent. This was at odds with the optimistic magic that seemed to be coming from internal polling, with Labor set to secure 37 to 38 percent of the primary vote in marginal seats, and nab 51 percent of the two-party vote.
Having Shorten as leader was a handicap. Six years which had included seeing off two prime ministers had taken a toll on popularity. (This ignores the obvious point that Shorten was never popular.) He was also “attacked through an enormously expensive campaign funded by Clive Palmer, which dovetailed into the Coalition’s campaign.” The review did concede that, especially when it came to Queensland, the opposition leader fared poorly, especially when compared with Prime Minister Scott Morrison.
The review suggests taking a battering ram to centralised campaigning. “Success is likely to require a campaign culture that is less centralised and encourages a greater diversity of views and more robust internal debates – to reflect the increasing diversity of Labor’s constituency from inner-city voters to those living in outer-urban, regional and country communities.” Australian regionalism, in other words, must become a serious feature of ALP policies.
One of those manifestations is a nod in favour of preserving such beasts as coal mining, thereby giving the renewables sector a generous shove off. The stranglehold of the resource sector is secure. “Labor should recognise coal mining will be an Australian industry into the foreseeable future and develop regional jobs plans based on the competitive strengths of different regions.” The stance taken by the party on the Adani coal mine project “combined with some anti-coal rhetoric, devastated its support in the coal mining communities of regional Queensland and the Hunter Valley.”
On the policy front, the report did not single out the tax policies as being, in of themselves, costly. What mattered was their complexity and their message, lost in the Coalition megaphone approach designed to foster “anxieties among insecure, low-income couples in outer-urban and regional Australia”.
An important point made by such commentators as Katharine Murphy is that the broad church of Labor is fracturing. The view of the congregants are at odds with each other; the high priests are not sure what line their sermons should take. “The central question of the review,” poses Murphy, “is how does Labor fuse its increasingly divided core constituencies – those constituencies being blue-collar workers and affluent metropolitan progressives?”
The reviewers have their own existential assessment. “Success in resolving this dilemma will first require Labor to acknowledge it exists. It will require Labor to devote the necessary time and energy as a party to address it.” The party had “been increasingly mobilised to address the political grievances of a vast and disparate constituency.” A certain core of “working people” facing “economic dislocation caused by technological change will lose faith in Labor if they do not believe the Party is responding to their needs, instead of being preoccupied with issues not concerning them or that are actively against their interests.”
Such analyses tend to contain a mandatory amount of self-flagellation. But the report’s sense of electoral contrition risks dulling the policy making arm of the party, giving the apparatchiks further reason to be more conservative. The focus there will be to push the party further into coalition territory and the political right, thereby making them even less appealing than they already are. Why go for Labor when you can get the true Conservative with reactionary trimmings?
Labor has already become the hostage of the poll meter, the statistical projection, the party factional machine. The Gillard-Rudd years were symptomatic of adjustments that did little to project a party secure about itself, and everything to suggest that demons of contradiction had taken residence in the castle. The poll dictated the policy, rather than policy driving the polls. Fearful party factions, knives at the ready, did the rest.
The report does little to discourage that, even if it does suggest faults in the internal polling system of the party. Do not dare to dare, as it were. Restrain yourself: the electorate needs generalities, not complexities.
Australian politics lost its shine some time ago – if, indeed, it ever had it – obsessed as it is by various measures of the pragmatic and reactionary. This review is bound to re-enforce such tendencies, extinguishing any social democratic embers that might be lingering. But an important group who resist sufficient chastisement remain the pollsters who persist in their mawkish way to parade figures supposedly obtained with the highest degree of accuracy. The influence of such modern astrologers must be curbed.
Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org