What went wrong in Australia?

Executive Director of Chifley Research Brett Gale explains what went wrong for the ALP, and how the party can bounce back.

In the space of three days last week the Australian Labor Party suffered two immense blows.

On Thursday, its favourite son and most successful Prime Minister, Bob Hawke passed away. As if this shock to the soul of the party weren’t heavy enough, on Saturday Labor lost what many considered to be the “unlosable election”.

After going to the election with its most progressive and ambitious policy agenda in decades, and after leading in the published opinion polls for over 50 consecutive fortnights, Labor suffered the ignominy of seeing its hopes dashed and a minority conservative Liberal Party Government that announced no agenda for governing at all returned with a (slightly) increased majority.

For my UK friends who are old enough - remembering the pain, shock and surprise of British Labour’s loss under Neil Kinnock in 1992 will give one the flavour of the despair that Australian Labor supporters are feeling today (and will for the weeks to come).

The true believers, the Labor faithful, are quite rightly stunned and asking, “How did this happen?”

Of course, there has been a rush to hasty hot takes and to sweeping pronouncements as to the reasons for Labor’s defeat. However, it’s important to remember that snap judgements made in the heat of a surprising and catastrophic defeat are often the wrong ones.

As Labor ponders its future over the next little while, questions quite rightly will be asked as to whether the policy prescriptions were too radical, too many, not communicated well enough, or was the leader not likeable enough, the campaign strategy wrong or candidate selections, right?

These are all legitimate questions and only a fool or someone with an ulterior motive would jump to a definitive conclusion two days on from such an unexpected defeat. However, I offer four observations on what happened that may provide insight for progressives around the globe.

First, prosecuting a large change agenda as the centrepiece of a campaign has as many downsides as upsides.

It is a truth universally understood that the lot of social democrats is never easy. Achieving change is hard. The vested interests who have the most to lose will fight hard and they will fight dirty. They certainly did down under.

For almost 25 years the greatest article of faith in Australian politics was that too much policy from an opposition was a bad thing. For election after election, it was a core belief that Oppositions should make themselves a small target, and concentrate all their firepower on the Government’s faults, rather than on their own policy positions. Starting with Labor’s disastrous defeat in 2013 Labor Leader Bill Shorten and his team eschewed this approach.

Those of us concerned with developing a politics based on good public policy rather than mere political sound bites welcomed this state of affairs. Yet, if we hoped that a big policy agenda would turn Australian political orthodoxy on its head those hopes have been dashed in the immediate aftermath of Saturday night. Following the election loss, a large debate will now rage within the Labor party as to whether our premature hope in a new type of politics was wrong and whether a small target approach would have been better.

With a bold, proud and sweeping agenda of change Labor was never going to die wondering but it can be fairly argued that such an agenda did present a big target for attack. Labor faced an unprecedented attack of fear and smear on its plans not just from the Government but from a range of business allies and other vested interests.

A “so-called” mining magnate running on his own vanity project of getting elected to the Senate spent $60 million on ads that were little more than wall-to-wall attacks on Labor’s tax agenda. The blowhard Clive Palmer simply did the conservative Coalition parties advertising work for them and with far more expenditure than they were capable of spending themselves.

One of Labor’s key tax policies was designed to allow more young people and first home buyers into the market. Yet, in an attack not seen before in Australian political history, real estate companies wrote to their tenants threatening all sorts of dire consequences for those vulnerable individuals if Labor was elected.

Former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd has quite rightly pointed out the insidious impact of the Murdoch press in making political life in the Anglo-sphere more divisive, reactionary and greedy. In Australia the Murdoch press controls 70% of our newspapers as well as one of two 24 hour TV news channels, and they used all of their considerable weight to campaign at every opportunity for a Labor loss. Their gutter journalism culminated in a vicious attack on Bill Shorten’s mother less than a fortnight from polling day.

In hindsight, it is clear that Labor was not able to effectively counter the sheer volume of the attack from mining billionaires, media billionaires and the real estate industry more concerned with defending their commissions than helping first home buyers into home ownership.

These are incredible hurdles for any social democratic party to overcome and if Labor is to win next time it needs to work out a way to combat such attacks.

Combined with this Labor became the hunter not the hunted during the campaign. In what was a role reversal of the traditional nature of campaigning, the Government faced little to no scrutiny of its plans while Labor bore the brunt of sceptical and negative media. However, Labor itself bares equal culpability for this state of affairs as it chose to fight its campaign on its agenda rather than making the election a referendum on six years of failed Government.

The second salient feature from Saturday’s election was that Australian Labor, like our social democratic peers elsewhere, faces a real dilemma as to how to marry a progressive agenda with the more materialist aspirations of our traditional working and lower middle-class base. For Australia’s resource intensive economy, these challenges are perhaps even more acute than elsewhere.

By appealing to a call for fairness at a time of rising inequality and growing frustration we thought we had solved this problem. It appears we have not. The vexed issue of climate change is a case in point. Swings were recorded to Labor in seats comfortably held by Liberals, where climate change mattered whilst in coal mining constituencies even larger swings were recorded against Labor.

This shattering of Labor’s former voting coalition reflects an increasing Americanisation of Australian politics. This is perhaps the most startling observation I’d make about Saturday. Australia is now pretty much politically evenly divided and polarised, with this, the third election of the last four that has resulted in a hung parliament or near-hung parliament. Indeed, the result can almost be read as a status quo result. This poses a challenge for Labor on how to campaign in future. While elections have always been about the electoral math, with the era of big swings certainly over, Labor will have to work out how, seat by seat, it will build up the required number of seats to form Government. In this respect we will almost begin inheriting a system that in practice will be like America’s “electoral college”.

Finally, it is obvious that we need a new paradigm of polling and research. Following on from failures of opinion polls to predict both Brexit and Trump, Australia now has its own example of massive polling failure. Consistently throughout the campaign, every single published opinion poll pointed to Labor winning and last-minute final polls had Labor on 51% of the vote. The final result was the exact opposite, with the conservative Coalition on 51% to Labor’s 49%.

Australian Labor will now enter a period of soul searching as it should. But we should also embark on this period of rebuild with some semblance of hope.

As Labor people we rightly revere our history and it’s important we remember its lessons. In 1969, 1980 and 2004 we lost elections we truly thought we would win. It was tough for Labor supporters and true believers but within three years we bounced back to form three of the most progressive Governments in Australian history. Universal health care, the NDIS, access to university for working class kids, LGBT rights and environmental reforms were all born out of our victories in 1972, 1983 and 2007.

We’ve lost before and bounced back. We can again.


About the author

Brett Gale is Executive Director of ALP think tank Chifley Research, and is a former policy advisor and chief of staff to multiple Labor governments.



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