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Does the economy trump all else?

11 November 2019

Labor’s election review hasn’t quite nailed the party’s key problem

Right:

Craig Emerson (left) and Jay Weatherill at the release of Labor’s federal election campaign review in Melbourne last Thursday. Julian Smith/AAP Image

Craig Emerson (left) and Jay Weatherill at the release of Labor’s federal election campaign review in Melbourne last Thursday. Julian Smith/AAP Image


Given the infrequency of Labor federal election wins, a cynic might observe that an inquiry would be more appropriate on those rare occasions when Labor emerges victorious. Of course, the surprise nature of the 2019 defeat meant that more questions than usual would be asked and that some of the answers might prove uncomfortable.

Craig Emerson and Jay Weatherill’s review seeks to dispose of the argument that Labor’s policies on franking credits and negative gearing played a decisive role, citing the swing to the party in more affluent seats. This may well become the accepted wisdom, although it continues to be challenged by Labor’s triumphalist opponents. On the best interpretation for Labor, though, it is surely ironical that the policy seems to have cost it more votes among those who’d never heard of franking credits than among those likely to be most disadvantaged by the proposal.

The more general point made in the review — that the policies were vulnerable to misrepresentation and reinforced perennial concerns about Labor’s economic management skills — seems sound. Remarkably, it seems that none of the party’s strategists anticipated such a danger, naively assuming that they could control the direction of the ensuing debate.

As the review stresses, these revenue measures were designed, above all, to avoid any risk of a budget deficit. If the “all surpluses good; all deficits bad” theme is now settled bipartisan policy, and if revenue-raising measures are inevitably vulnerable to scare campaigns (perhaps more so in the age of social media), then what costly policy proposals can Labor afford to take into an election campaign? “Not many” seems to be the obvious answer.

Not surprisingly, the review pays considerable attention to Labor’s poor performance in Queensland, although its argument that this is a post–Kevin Rudd phenomenon is unhelpfully ahistorical. In the twenty-nine elections since the second world war, Labor has secured a majority of the two-party-preferred vote in that state just three times. Western Australia isn’t much better (five two-party majorities since the war, three of these down to favourite son Bob Hawke), although fewer seats are at stake. While it was understandable that the review would focus on the role played by Adani’s coalmine, federal Labor’s problems in the state are long-term: voters find a reason to reject the party at virtually every election. The puzzle is that Queensland and Western Australia both have Labor state governments, yet large numbers of voters won’t have a bar of the federal version. Perhaps a separate inquiry is needed?

Curiously, the review describes coalminers as “low-income” workers, though this is not generally the case. For them, as I argued just after the election, a conservative vote can be consistent with economic self-interest, especially when the traditional workers’ party seems ambivalent about defending their jobs. These lost votes may not be easily recovered.

For some, the most confronting sections of the review are likely to be those criticising the party for having “been increasingly mobilised to address the grievances of a vast and disparate constituency.” It goes on:

 

Working people suffering economic dislocation caused by technological change will lose faith in Labor if they do not believe the Party is responding to their needs, instead being preoccupied with issues not concerning them or which are actively against their interests.

 

The risk, says the review, is that Labor will become “a grievance-based organisation.” It will be fascinating to see how this virtual declaration of war on “identity politics” plays out, and especially whether it is seen as a criticism not merely of style and emphasis, but also of content.

Emerson and Weatherill conclude that “Labor reached voters engaged in the political process while the Coalition reached disengaged voters.” While there is an element of the bleeding obvious in this observation (that’s how elections are won in a system of compulsory voting), its value may lie in reminding party activists that the most important voters are generally not interested in politics and will usually only pay attention (if at all) when the law obliges them to head for the polling booth. They were unlikely to be engaged by the thought of studying Labor’s 250-plus costed election policy proposals; they are certainly not reading the Emerson–Weatherill review; and they aren’t currently interested in how Anthony Albanese is performing as opposition leader.

The review also concedes that the Coalition overtook Labor in social media effectiveness in the 2019 election. While the technical aspects of this are best left to experts (ranks which definitely exclude this writer), it can often seem the case that social media platforms facilitate easy misrepresentation of proposals for change. While Labor ran an effective “Mediscare” campaign in 2016, that was surely matched by its opponents’ allegations in 2019 that a Shorten government would introduce “death taxes.” Perhaps it was ever thus even with traditional media, but those resisting change seem to be working the new technology better than the proponents.

Finally, while Bill Shorten comes in for solid criticism, it may be that the person most threatened by this review will be his successor Anthony Albanese. The authors seem to believe that an opposition leader needs to be highly competitive in the approval/preferred PM polling to have any chance of taking government, and that even a solid two-party-preferred lead could be vulnerable to a focus on the leader’s unpopularity in the heat of a campaign.

Left untackled is the challenge of identifying the point at which an opposition leader is irredeemably unelectable. But it’s true that if Albanese fails to achieve a competitive polling position soon enough for his critics, Labor’s current leadership rules — requiring sixty per cent of caucus votes to precipitate a challenge — may not protect him. The rule is unlikely to survive if it is viewed as an impediment to electoral success.

The review has been praised for its lack of self-pity, and while that is a clear positive, there must be many Labor supporters frustrated by the electoral double standard that seems to apply in the areas of leadership and party unity. In 2013, Labor was punished for the (non-policy-based) Rudd–Gillard divisions yet the Liberals’ disunity (much of it over policy) attracted no sanction in 2019. Liberal leaders as colourless as John Howard or as off-centre as Tony Abbott can win office, yet only dynamic Labor personalities like Gough Whitlam, Bob Hawke and (sorry, haters) Rudd can get the party into government from opposition.

The likely answer is that the economy trumps everything, and until federal Labor can put voters’ minds at rest over its credentials on that front it may continue to struggle in the heat of an election campaign. Shadow treasurer Jim Chalmers will enhance both his party’s and his own prospects if he can make a positive impact. He would do well to avoid the hubris of his predecessor Chris Bowen, whose channelling of Marie Antoinette (“let them vote for someone else”) possibly offered the earliest clue as to how the 2019 election would play out. •

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