Inside Story

Why campaigning mattered

Labor’s campaign review highlights how the party misjudged in the lead-up to the election

Rodney Tiffen 13 November 2019 1657 words

Strong narrative: voters on election day in the seat of Dickson. Glenn Hunt/AAP Image

Scouring the entrails after an election is one of Australia’s most creative political pastimes. In its simplest form, pundits project their personal views onto the electorate — after all, if the losing party had a platform closer to their beliefs it would obviously have won.

Many commentators also indulge in over-explanation: the winners did everything right, the losers everything wrong. Most Australian elections are won by a fairly narrow margin, but some criticisms seem to imply that the loser was lucky to get a single vote.

Added to the mix this year were several unique features, nearly all of which worked against Labor. The most obvious was the inaccuracy of the major opinion polls, which created so strong an expectation of a Labor victory that one betting agency paid out on the Wednesday before polling day.

According to Labor’s campaign review — possibly the most honest and penetrating election post-mortem by a losing party on record — the general expectation of a Labor victory led many groups to “bank” the win before it happened. In other words, many took a Labor victory for granted and were already putting in bids for commitments by the incoming government.

A second unique factor was the unprecedented amount spent by Clive Palmer’s United Australia Party. In the six weeks leading up to polling day, Palmer outlaid more on advertising than the Labor and Liberal parties combined. After his preference deal with the Coalition, and especially as the election approached, its major theme was anti-Labor, and especially targeted at “Shifty Shorten.”

In strictly electoral terms, with the UAP failing to gain a single seat, this might seem like Australia’s most expensive advertising failure. But it may well have had a significant anti-Labor impact. And Palmer’s pay-off for his lavish spending may be yet to come.

The third unique feature was the increased importance of the digital campaign, particularly as a vehicle for promoting falsehoods. Three years ago, Labor outperformed the Liberals not only in digital campaigning but also (with its Mediscare campaign) in misleading claims. In 2019, the degree of false campaigning progressed to a new level, with a subterranean allegation — mainly in social media, occasionally supported by the Liberal Party itself — that Labor planned to introduce a “death tax.” This sheer invention was repeated frequently, with effects that are impossible to measure. Palmer also promoted a bizarre claim that Mark McGowan’s Labor government in Western Australia had sold an airport to China for $1.

The election result led to months of self-flagellation within the Labor Party. But picturing Labor’s problem as being too far to the left (or even the right), or arguing that its loss demands a radical rewriting of policy, strikes me as misguided. For four reasons, the lessons for 2022 lie more in campaigning skills and priorities than in the overall thrust of party policy.

1. Dagginess beats donnishness

Labor’s campaign review nominates Bill Shorten’s unpopularity as one of the three principal causes of the loss. Perhaps deliberately, it fails to probe the leader’s lack of popularity with any precision. It simply notes that heading into election day, Labor’s polling showed that Shorten had a net favourability rating of minus 20 while Scott Morrison’s was minus 4.

Shorten campaigned well by most measures, but while the short grabs of the Labor leader on the TV news focused on snippets of policy, full of facts and figures, Morrison was generally shown interacting with people and doing things. While Shorten’s performances were generally competent and well informed, Morrison projected a persona of friendliness, freshness and trustworthiness.

Beyond any particular policies, some voters make their decision on the basis of whom they trust more — and that is partly determined by which leader is most likely to be on their wavelength. To the extent that TV images influenced votes, Morrison probably came out ahead.

One group that Labor’s review identifies as swinging against Labor were Christians, who might have been alienated by the party’s campaigning for marriage equality, for instance. Probably more importantly, Morrison’s overt religiosity may have won him some votes among conservative Christians. Morrison’s major public expression of religion during the campaign — as a devout Christian in church on Easter Sunday, praying arms aloft — was politically astute. He could not be charged with exploiting religion for political purposes, but the imagery would have been sufficient to register with strongly religious voters.

2. Effective opposition is more important than projecting a positive alternative

It is often said that oppositions don’t win elections, governments lose them. But an opposition needs to help a government lose, to reinforce in the minds of potentially swinging voters what a disaster it has been.

This campaign ran the other way around, with the overwhelming focus on Labor’s policies. It went into the election with more precise policy proposals than most oppositions present, but this admirable approach didn’t help its cause. Because of the near-universal belief that Labor would win, the media showed more interest in what the next government might do than in what the outgoing government had or had not done.

Labor’s review concluded that “the almost daily announcements of new spending policies left little room for campaigning against the Coalition” and “Labor failed to campaign sufficiently and consistently on reasons to vote against the Coalition.”

Labor campaigned hard on issues of inequality, but interestingly its main theme centred on the “big end of town.” This seemed to work well while Mr Harbourside Mansion, Malcolm Turnbull, was leader, while the government was refusing, as it did on twenty-six occasions, to hold a royal commission into banking, and while Turnbull and his colleagues were trying and failing to give a tax cut to big corporations. But, as the review notes, Labor’s focus should have changed after the more suburban Morrison took the leadership.

It is notable that one group the review identifies as swinging against Labor were economically insecure, low-income voters. Labor didn’t pursue issues pertinent to these groups vigorously enough. It barely mentioned the cruel incompetence of the Robodebt fiasco during the campaign, for instance.

Labor could have put issues like these at the forefront of its campaign without necessarily giving detailed policy prescriptions. It could have taken a leaf out of Tony Abbott’s 2013 campaign playbook. Wanting to highlight the evil of unions, but knowing the public was wary of anything resembling John Howard’s infamous WorkChoices, he suggested a royal commission, which gave Labor no real target during the campaign and then kept the Labor opposition on the defensive for months. Labor could have called for such an inquiry into several issues in 2019, notably the exploitation of precarious and underpaid workers.

The Coalition had accumulated many liabilities and failures, but these barely figured in the campaign. Even the overthrow of Turnbull and his replacement by Morrison seems eventually to have worked out as a plus for the Liberals. The new leader seemed a breath of renewal, eight months into the job, rather than the head of a stale and divided government of six years. Labor rarely concentrated on the bitter disunity within the government or the exodus of talent from its ranks.

Which brings us to the third and fourth reasons, which are closely linked.

3. A strong central narrative is more important than mastery of detail

4. Fear trumps hope

The Coalition had a simple positive message — the economy was strong, as evidenced by a promised return to budget surplus — and a simple negative message about what it called Labor’s economy-wrecking policies. The theme of its advertising was relentless: “Labor can’t manage money so they are coming after yours”; Bill Shorten was “the Bill Australia can’t afford.” The negative outweighed the positive. The promises were limited: good economic management, tax cuts and some local pork-barrelling.

In stark contrast, Labor had “more than 250 costed policies,” a theme the review return to several times. For example:

The sheer size, complexity and frequency of Labor’s policy announcements had the effect of crowding each other out in media coverage and made it difficult for local campaigns to communicate them to their voters.

Labor’s constant flow of new spending announcements during the campaign became counterproductive as they competed against each other and added to perceptions of a risky program.

Labor’s crowded agenda had two adverse consequences for campaigning. First, its elements didn’t cohere into a strong single theme — or, as the review puts it, “Labor did not craft a simple narrative for winning the election.” Second, it was the total size of the package rather than the virtues of individual policies that dominated: “The almost daily campaign announcements of new, multi-billion-dollar policy initiatives raised anxieties among economically insecure, low-income voters that Labor’s expensive policy agenda would crash the economy and risk their jobs.”

Reporting on Shorten’s campaign launch, for example, focused on the total price tag rather than the content and benefits of individual policies. Importantly, the review finds no evidence that the two most controversial policies — the crackdown on negative gearing and the withdrawal of franking credit refunds — were significant vote changers in their own right. But the seeming ambition of Labor’s policies, especially when wedded with the widespread disillusion with all politics, “fuelled anxieties among insecure, low-income couples in outer-suburban and regional Australia that Labor would crash the economy and risk their jobs.”

No party can be elected if the public lacks confidence in its economic management. The conventional wisdom, probably well founded, is that a majority of voters nearly always think that the Coalition is the better manager. But that doesn’t mean the issue can simply be avoided. Labor seemingly made little effort to rebut the government’s central charges of economic incompetence and greatly increased taxes. In fact, tax as a percentage of GDP would probably have been little different under Bill Shorten than it was under the hallowed John Howard. •