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Election 2019: making sense of miracles and Labor’s love lost

Introduction by Croakey: Despite months of turmoil in the Coalition government, despite being in opposition for long enough, despite having plans to lift wages and address some neglected health and social issues, despite being consistently ahead in the polls, the Australian Labor Party (ALP) was not the winner of last Saturday’s federal election.

And frankly, some people are astonished.

It’s difficult for health advocates to be non-partisan about this. There’s more to read on the initiatives that we now seem set to miss out on, elsewhere at Croakey.

Gordon Gregory, who writes below, has been around for a few elections. He was CEO of the National Rural Health Alliance for 23 years, so he’s seen a few political twists of fate, but even he was astonished on Saturday evening.

He advances three reasons for Labor’s defeat, and dishes out some good advice to both the newly elected government, and the opposition.


Gordon Gregory writes:

One measure of a person’s engagement with Australian politics might be the word they select to describe Scott Morrison’s election victory. Morrison himself has described it as a miracle. Others have called it a debacle. Plenty of others are not much concerned. Some of those at my hockey game on Saturday were not even aware that the campaign was ending; and few of them intended to forego the Canberra Raiders NRL game or the AFL Match of the Day, in favour of the TV election coverage.

A friend of mine who had been on the campaign phones during the week reported that more than one person with whom they had spoken said they had already voted but couldn’t remember who it was for. And when I was in the supermarket on Sunday afternoon the nice young man who served me said he hadn’t yet had time to find out the election result.

Being astonished

The word that continually comes to my mind is ‘astonishing’. This is my word of choice because it connotes the chasm between what I had expected and what actually occurred. In my own defence, it was surely impossible to follow current affairs without being affected by the ongoing and underlying picture painted by the polls that the ALP was ahead.

More detailed attention revealed that the Coalition’s electoral challenge was made even tougher by a seat redistribution, that made two Victorian Coalition-held seats notionally-Labor.

Then there was my close observation of the Labor campaign itself – observed, it has to be said, through the lens of partisanship. It would be natural, I assumed, that the voting public would prefer a plan openly focused on an increase in taxation for some of those who could afford it, as a means of providing a range of additional or new government services for those in greater need. Preferred, that is, over the Coalition’s promise to give everyone a tax cut, and otherwise to continue to do what needs to be done “to maintain a strong economy”.

In pursuing tax cuts it is to be hoped that we have learned from the long-term risks and damage of the regular Howard-Costello tax giveaways and, in contrast, Norway’s sovereign wealth fund approach to current largesse. If we do have to proceed with tax cuts, let’s hope we experience just a gentle global zephyr, not strong headwinds.

Naïvely I really did believe that, if the case was clearly made, people would be prepared to pay a small price to provide more preschool education, dental care for pensioners, penalty rates for workers and a more rapid transition to renewable energy.

Among other things, I gave insufficient attention to the impact of a negative perception of the Labor leader’s personality; to the hatred that some people have for unions and union bosses; to the fact that a number of people still do not believe in the science of climate; and to a generalised fear of change.

Having initially been astonished, I am now sifting through the various commentators’ reflections on what has occurred and drawing my own conclusions.

Three reasons why

It is my view that, in the main, Scott Morrison’s victory was founded on his success in making it a presidential campaign, and Labor leader Bill Shorten’s inability to get ahead in that.

In the light of their spectacular inability to predict the election results it would be ironic to give too much credence to polls relating to the status of ‘Preferred Prime Minister’. But we know that Bill Shorten regularly trailed Scott Morrison on that measure. His automatic response to a question about why people seem not to warm to him, when he said “Wait till you meet me,” was one of his best interpersonal moments in the campaign.

Shorten’s televised set pieces suffered because of his seeming lack of a natural sense of theatre, of an awkwardness in vocal patterns and body language, resulting in a manner of presentation that comes across (to me at least) as wooden or contrived.

Everyone says how good he is face-to-face when working a room, and in negotiating between conflicting interest groups. But I and the vast majority of the population have not had the chance to share such time with him.

My suspicion about the importance of his style of presentation  was deepened by Shorten’s interview to camera immediately following the death of former Labor Prime Minister, Bob Hawke. Here was an opportunity for some ringing phrases, some rhetorical leaps and lucid praise delivered with generosity and gravitas. What we got instead was a hesitant interview based on the formula that Australians loved Hawke because he loved them.

The unsatisfactory nature of this immediate response was counterpointed by the four-page media statement Shorten released a little time later:

In Australian history, in Australian politics, there will always be B.H. and A.H: Before Hawke and After Hawke. After Hawke, we were a different country. A kinder, better, bigger and bolder country.”

So the first and foremost reason for Labor’s defeat, in my belief, was the superiority of Scott Morrison’s interpersonal and media style.

Next, in my view, was Labor’s lack of clarity around its level of support for the proposed Adani coal mine.

Adani as a lightning rod for jobs and economic development of regional areas. (Yes we saw that the ALP proposed alternatives for economic development. But still.)

Adani as a constant reminder of the capacity of politics to project the economy and the environment as being mutually exclusive. (Wrong, yes, but powerful.)

Adani as an emblem of the umbridge taken by locals to interference from those ‘down south’ who are not personally or commercially invested in those affairs.

Finally, I believe the third reason for the election result was the real or perceived losses to be borne by some as a result of the ALP’s suite of revenue raising measures, such as rolling back negative gearing and franking credits.

Target size – a small red herring

Commentators in the media have made much of the asserted folly of an opposition going to the polls with a large policy agenda. Comparisons have been made with John Hewson’s Fightback! Package which is thought to have lost the Liberal Party the federal election in 1993.

In my view, the notion that oppositions with large policy targets lose elections is an artefact created by media commentators.

In the lead-up to the 1996 election, which he won, John Howard made a series of headland speeches in which he considered matters such as the role of government, a fair Australia, national identity, what he called “the innate conservatism of the Australian people”, industrial relations, and telecommunications.

It was Howard’s hero Menzies who emphasised the need to pay attention not only to the what is needed but also to the how and when, in order “to persuade a self-governing people to accept and loyally observe” coherent plans for change.

Labor Prime Ministers Whitlam and Hawke both came to power on the back of policy agendas that had been carefully planned over a long time and were successfully sold to – and even provided inspiration to – voters.

Another Labor contender, Kim Beazley, lost in 1998 and then in 2001. On the latter occasion he was thought by some to have failed to develop alternative policies on domestic issues. If he had won the election this could perhaps have contributed to the myth of election-winning small target strategies, but unfortunately he was undone by the need for a bipartisan approach to the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the Tampa affair.

It is hard to make the case that the losing party leaders between 2004 and 2013 (Latham, Howard, Abbott and Rudd) all lost because of the common characteristic of having a broad policy agenda. One must concede, however, that on at least one occasion the obverse was true. Tony Abbott won in 2013 with a target so small as to be regularly rehearsed in three triptyches: “Stop the boats, Axe the tax, Repay the debt”.

Bill Shorten adopted a similar approach in 2016 but lost. He risked becoming known as ‘Invisibill’ because of his small target, small policy strategy. Perhaps he suffered from a triptych deficit.

It is certainly true that the ALP’s agenda for election 2019 included some very complex issues. Most noticeable among these were proposed changes to franking credits and negative gearing. The complexity of these matters exposed the ALP to both real and invented doubts and uncertainties which could always be traded on by political opponents.

While people might not object to proposed policies in a general sense, they are more likely to take a negative view if they believe the policies will impact on their own income and lifestyle. How many were there who, like a very good friend of mine, failed to vote Labor for the first time ever because his family was set to lose income from the changes to the arrangements for franking credits? How many of that number were correctly informed about the potential impact?

Incidentally the debate about whether those new arrangements would have constituted a retirees’ tax or the withdrawal of an unsustainable gift is merely semantics. What should really have mattered is the number, and economic situation, of people who would have been affected. More should have been made of details about the proportion of the refund under current arrangements going to super funds with large balances.

Frequent references to “the top end of town” and to the investor who already has five or six properties and is benefiting from negative gearing were unhelpful to the ALP’s case.

In housing as in other policy areas there is surely a hierarchy of need, starting with the 100,000 people estimated to be sleeping rough each night in Australia. Then there are issues of public housing supply, rentals and rental regulation.

Home ownership is still a vital and worthy aspiration in Australia but given the changes in patterns of settlement, population numbers and commercial realities it can no longer be viewed as holding the same place in Australian society as it did 30 years ago.

A mandate for Government and Opposition

Some of my views about elections and mandates have been put on the agenda elsewhere. A mandate should be neither a straitjacket nor a carte blanche licence to proceed unencumbered with proposed policy actions.

A mandate won or imposed should not preclude a new government from changing its mind on something promised. The belief that politicians and, in particular, Prime Ministers should never ever change their mind is one of the silliest and most damaging characteristics of government in Australia.

On the other hand, it is annoying and illogical for a new government to claim a mandate for a swag of specific issues as if, when people cast their vote, they were aware of and supported every single commitment in a particular Party’s platform.

The situation with the new Morrison Government is quite odd: in the election the Prime Minister promised very little by way of a forward agenda. This makes it even more important for him to engage with the public in explaining and debating new policy proposals that emerge.

The central economic issue of the winning case in the campaign was preservation or improvement of people’s family income – whatever the consequences for the future. Given this fact, there is an overwhelming case to make one of the first new policy proposals of the new government an increase in the rate of Newstart.

Not only would this strike a significant blow for economic fairness but it would also provide a significant boost to the economy through an immediate increase in consumer spending, including in regional areas.

It would be a very sad thing – one might say astonishing – if the 800,000 people on Newstart, which has not increased in real terms for 24 years – were trampled over while the rest of us wait for our (early?) tax cut.

As for the new Leader of the Opposition: whoever it may be, she or he has no mandate from the public but an important responsibility. The Westminster system relies on there being an Opposition at all times, not just for the duration of an election campaign.

The Opposition’s duty is to scrutinise the government’s activities in the light of its own beliefs and agenda, and to provide alternative ways and means of doing government business.

As Labor Senator Penny Wong has already observed, the ALP in opposition will continue to advocate for the sort of reform that will have a balance between securing growth and enhancing fairness, which is different from the stance likely to be adopted by a conservative Morrison Government.

Gordon Gregory is former CEO of the National Rural Health Alliance.

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