How to lose an election

Typically the media describe Labor’s loss as a drubbing, which it wasn’t. Leaving Qld aside, Labor won 62 of 121 seats, the LNP 54, and the crossbench 5. Qld was the shocker, losing 4.34% TPP to land on 58-42 to the LNP, which is nearly wipe-out territory.

So there was a story about what happened in Queensland, yet as Anthony Albanese told Katharine Murphy in a podcast, Labor’s primary vote was an all time low. Labor now has to convince about 1.2 million people to change their vote. So he for one understands that Labor needs to appeal to a wide variety of people.

Yet the result in the end was close, so like the last American presidential election, all narratives of how Labor lost and how Scott Morrison won are true.

The weight of advertising in favour of the LNP was astonishing. When we get to know who donated what next year, we will be more than interested.

My favourite narrative is that a significant slice of the electorate who don’t pay attention to politics, policy, the usual media carry-on. However, they could not escape being aware of the torrents of negative attack advertisements, focussing on Shorten personally, and often containing messages that were wrong or misleading.
Rebecca Huntley says that a three-second exposure to such an image could determine a vote.

Here to remind you are two of the common ones, first from Palmer and second the LNP using Labor’s colours and insignia:

These appeared on electronic billboards, in print, online and in letter box drops. They were all over the approaches to polling booths. My brother relates that one night while driving along the Inner City Bypass in Brisbane, he could see two large electronic billboards simultaneously displaying the negative “THE BILL AUSTRALIA CAN’T AFFORD etc” attack ad.

Peter Lewis, who runs Essential Media said their last poll showed 47 for Labor, 45 for the LNP and 8 undecided. They allocated the 8 to get Labor over the line. In retrospect if they reported their actual results they may have been right. It is possible that fear of the negative advertising campaign by itself drove the doubtful apoliticals heavily to the LNP. We will never know.

Mike Steketee has a good article in Inside StoryThe slippery slope of officially sanctioned lying:

    It’s time to act before deceptive campaigning gets completely out of control

SA and NT already have such laws, Prof Graeme Orr and Zali Steggall want them for federal elections too.

My main criticism of Steketee’s article is that he seems to say that both sides (the two major parties) are equally guilty, and that it all started with Mediscare. I believe that Mediscare was unethical. Without it the LNP would have won handsomely, Bill Shorten would have been replaced by Albo, and…

Steketee seems to have no memory of Turnbull shouting at us all that house prices would be smashed by Labor’s negative gearing policies, or Howard with Tampa in 2001, or in 2004 when Howard told us repeatedly that interest rates would always be lower under the LNP (followed by seven consecutive rate rises in the subsequent three years), and all the rest.

Labor should get together with the Greens and the crossbench to initiate laws to stop the rot. Albo did say that he wanted to raise the standard of political discourse. I do recall Malcolm Turnbull saying similar.

However, the truth is that Labor made no attempt to defend itself. Pamela Williams published a three part investigation in the AFR (pay-walled) on how Labor lost the election. The short story is that Labor’s campaign management and strategy was excruciatingly awful. For the record, here are the links:

From that I’ve extracted five main points:

First, she also comments on Shorten’s confidence as being “worse than shaky”, a big point made be Erik Jensen in his Quarterly Essay The Prosperity Gospel: How Scott Morrison won and Bill Shorten lost where he says that people see need in Shorten rather than seeing him as a leader. Certainly he was not seen favourably in Queensland, to the extent that showing up here so often may have made his chances worse.

Secondly, Noah Carroll came from Shorten’s right-wing base in Victoria. Victorians are perhaps not the best at discerning what goes down elsewhere, especially in NSW and Queensland.

Third, I had in my mind a team of 15 or so in campaign headquarters. Williams says it was 140 occupying two floors of the Gough Whitlam Plaza in Parramatta:

    He gathered his teams together – top party officials, his ad men, his research people, the marginal seats experts, the tactics set, the policy group, the media strategists, the digital groups, and the intel people who would spend their days trying to detect what was happening on the other side – all the campaign brains that fit together to run the motor.

It would take someone of rare administrative skill to run an outfit like that. In her third piece we get this:

    Halfway through the campaign, Carroll’s empire gave the impression of a fast-running river, battened to its mission. But by the end of the campaign, stories had started to filter out that suggested rocks in the water. It was certainly dishing dirt in defeat but many started pointing fingers at dysfunction in headquarters. There were claims that Carroll rarely if ever met with John Utting. There were questions later, after it was all over, about why Carroll had kept Sebastian Zwalk, the director of research and advertising and one of two assistant national secretaries, on the outer.

Labor needs to select its next campaign leader with care.

Fourth, Williams then says this:

    Carroll had been heavily reliant on a consultant, David Nelson, sent as an emissary from the Queensland ALP. Nelson became involved with him in key decision-making at CHQ and he was frequently in Carroll’s office, steadily becoming central in the campaign. But he was a mystery figure to most.

I’m wondering who this person is and whether he has been asked to explain himself.

Fifth, we get this:

    There were concerns, too, about whether CHQ had failed to establish a framework narrative for Shorten himself – to work out “which” Shorten was at the heart of the campaign. There were many ways to project his identity.

    Morrison, by contrast, had established in a very short time a powerful identity to project to voters. Everyone laughed about Morrison’s daggy-dad routine, but it felt authentic and it held. Morrison was an ad man and they pilloried him for this, but he had rapidly revealed since October an identity as easy-going, but a protector of his family. He then bolted this onto a Liberal narrative that he was there to protect voters from Labor raiding their wealth.

When the campaign team have to work out who the leader really is, then they are in trouble. Remember the “real” Julia? Albo, I think, is authentically himself, and won’t need teams of people to invent zingers for him to fire off.

Labor put out over 150 policies, the very existence of many ignored by the media and so-called expert commentators. Yet those policies provided multiple attack points for a ruthless opposition.

Shorten had a reasonable grasp of the ginormous policy detail, but not enough to sell or defend it. And he should have been more active in shaping policies so that they could be defended. Even Pauline Hanson could see that a limit of say three investment houses eligible for favourable tax treatment would have made the negative gearing policy more acceptable and defendable. As it was, Qld Labor senator Chris Ketter knew he was in trouble when on polling day a couple of teachers told him what they thought about being called “the big end of town”.

And so we ask ourselves, what is the way back?

ScoMo has effectively told us that it is good to be rich, and if you have a go, you’ll get a go. The rest are the authors of their own condition, and don’t deserve our empathy. His version of the Bible perhaps doesn’t have this verse:

    Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.

Tim Costello told Phillip Adams that Jesus today would be a communist for sure.

From the many ‘vox pops’ done by the ABC during the campaign I see that the hip pocket nerve rules in voter land. Only for their children will people make sacrifices.

James Hansen once said that people will recognise the need to do something about climate change when they see it from their window.

That time is now, so whatever else is happening, I suspect that the climate emergency will be front and centre. Acting on that must be cast as essential for the future, because it is true, and also politically saleable.

26 thoughts on “How to lose an election”

  1. In the podcast of the interview with Albanese by Katharine Murphy, I thought she was rather offensive in attacking Labor’s tactics in parliament as “bitch and flop”, a term used around her office at The Guardian.

    It was an illustration of how group-think and simplistic labelling infests the media.

    Albanese handled it well, I think, keeping his cool, and politely pointing out that the phrase was derogatory (she said it wasn’t) and premature, given that Parliament had only met for four days.

    I was also a bit surprised by the rudeness of her “Oi, oi, oi, oi” interjection near the beginning. A bit of respect would do no harm.

    Would she say that to ScoMo?

  2. Katherine Murphy isn’t alone in showing disrespect to interview subjects. Sometimes I have the impression that certain journalists hold an (unjustified) feeling of superiority.

    Not sure who first said it, but I was amused to hear someone say that the Canberra Press Gallery suffers from delusions of adequacy.

  3. As a first, quick comment.

    Shorten never impressed me much. I recall saying so on this blog. He was wooden and sometimes sounded whining. There have been quite a few Opposition Leaders more adept than him.

    With a large policy suite, a leader has to be prepared for the most obvious questions. Bill often wasn’t well prepared. I think leaders get coaching don’t they?

    What’s wrong with arguing your Party’s case?? The ALP was fairly quiet on that score I thought. Having spent several years criticising Mr Abbott’s “simplistic three word slogans” the Party fell into the currently fashionable sloganeering mode as the election approached.

    [Qld can’t be excluded from the totals. We are one national electorate when it’s federal.]

    Mr Albanese needs to repeat “lowest Federal vote for decades” until his MPs and Party members acknowledge that fact.

    Where were the young voters?
    The women?

    These supposed supporters of Labor….

  4. Mr Albanese needs to repeat “lowest Federal vote for decades”…

    I think he said, in the history of federation.

    No Queensland is part of the nation, I was merely trying to demonstrate that there was a special problem here. We tend to vote conservative nationally. I can recall when Labor was reduced to just one seat in Qld. As a high water mark in 2007 Labor won 15 of 29.

  5. If you look at the results we don’t vote nationally – we are collection of states with very different political cultures & indeed voting differently at the electoral level within states – see the Pollbludger breakdown on NSW – I am not sure what national campaigns mean -anymore. Some evidence that the quality of individual candidates makes a difference

  6. WA was 11 to 5.
    Swing that around and ALP win.

    Queensland’s LNP primary was only up %0.5, not a huge game changer difference.

    Also, if one looks into Ms Murphy’s track record she’s just as disrespectful to conservative MPs, if not more so.

  7. Doug, good comment. One thing that came home to me in Labor’s review meeting on Ryan is that the election was a booth by booth affair, and a lot of difference from one end of the electorate to the other.

    For the LNP, ScoMo ran the campaign, and Liberal members, even senior ministers, mostly stayed at home and I gather talked about the little things the govt had done in their electorate. That probably paid off.

  8. Jumpy, you can’t turn WA around federally. At state level I think Qld and WA are also quite conservative, but sometimes the Lib/Nats are unelectable.

    Here we get the city Liberal voters often voting Labor because they don’t like being run by farmers and provincials. The Gold Coast and Sunny Coast always lean Liberal. Qld is not at all homogeneous, I think.

  9. Re Ms Murphy’s lack of respect, I’m old enough to remember when Sir Robert Menzies was first interviewed on what would now be the 7.30 Report.

    He was treated like you would the Queen.

  10. Yes

    We don’t vote nationally but obviously the results are aggregated in a national HoR. What I was getting at, is that it’s how our electoral system operates…. (just as I believe it’s pointless to complain about the Electoral College in the US. That is their system and their Parties presumably play according to those rules.)

    Here, a campaign may be organised nationally. I think the journalists’ lazy “if the swing was uniform nationally….” may have quietly conditioned us all to think less clearly about policies and the reception of those policies in each State and in each electorate.

    If the quality of candidates is becoming more important, good! There’s one positive.

    Preferential voting is also a feature, not a fault.

    I still think Mr Shorten was a poor leader.

    Lowest ALP primary vote since Federation? That should lead to deep thinking. Not excuse-seeking.

  11. My comment about state variation was to point to its significance for campaigning in the future – along with the variations within states at the electorate level. Quality of the candidate also seems to make a difference.

  12. My federal electorate of Dawson ( strangely named after a socialist Premier) was generally a Nat seat ( but ALP in 07 and 10 )
    Even though it is dominated by the state seat of Mackay that’s been an ALP stronghold for over 100 years.

    Obviously boundaries make a big difference when you add a few pesky non city folk into the mix.

    Perhaps Labour shouldn’t openly shit on the bush folk and pretend to care like Libs do.

    On Albo, he seems to me like the rebound chick one gets after a long relationship and before the next love.
    Short term Albo.

    The next love is hard to predict.

  13. Yes Doug

    Perhaps a centrally-directed campaign is foolish?
    (Only useful if the campaign is centred entirely around one person, such as a PM?)

    Better tactics to have a campaign centrally-funded but State based, and local. A few Parties might say that’s what they did in 2019, and have always done…..

    Could I just say to any bruised or embarrassed Queenslanders: no worries!

    It made some Victorians cringe to see and hear Mr Shorten equivocate on the Carmichael mine, and apparently to tell two different stories, depending on whether his audience was in Qld or in a southern metropolis.

    I can only imagine how that went down with Queensland voters….

    And another thing: Mr Shorten after the Labor loss was reported to have blamed “dark and powerful forces” that worked against the ALP. Bill, Bill, give it a rest mate. There are always dark and powerful forces working and lurking…. some send out dark legions to letterbox electors, others powerfully creep around “door knocking”, others concoct mysterious advertisements using the dark arts of PR and Spin, and MOST of them tell fibs. Yes, fibs Bill. Dark fibs. Mysterious and hidden fibs. Handwritten notes. Word of mouth. Facemuck posts. Twitts. Whispering campaigns, rumours, fibs, and then on top of that, fibs.

    It was always so, Bill.
    Dark forces worked against Gough yet he won in 1972 and 1974.
    Dark forces worked against Hawkie, yet he won several times.
    Dark forces worked FOR and against Mr Latham, some of his own making.

    Unless you’re heading for the ouija board and seance party, Bill, give the mystic and powerful forces a wide berth and look a bit closer to your office, for example.

    Thanks, Bill.

  14. Mr A

    I still think Mr Shorten was a poor leader.

    I think he was a very good leader of the party but not seen as a good potential leader of the Nation.
    His “ preferred PM “ polling was always terrible even with the 3-4 point bias of pollsters.

  15. Interesting one Jumpy. The take home message is that it is very easy to end up with a result that doesn’t really effect the real will of the people. (I don’t think this was a problem in 2019.)

  16. Ambi: I think Shorten was the leader the country needed and it is a shame that he didn’t win.
    I think Morrison was a very good campaigner. Hard to tell at this stage whether he use his win wisely. At the moment I see him as a shallow smartarse who still thinks he is leader of the opposition.

  17. Headline in Nine newspapers:
    Shorten failed to understand the middle class economy, says Keating.

    Story written by Latika Bourke.

    Jumpy: BillS certainly kept the ‘warring factions’ on a tight leash. Licking wounds after the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd battles….

    But what was it about the similar – nay more ferocious – Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison pageant that voters discounted??
    Why was disunity not death for the Coalition?

    Or is that too simple an answer?

  18. Ambi: Morrison managed to sell himself as the new broom who was not part of past conflict. He then ran as an attacking opposition leader who took advantage of Labor behaving like a government that was being careful to do/not do things that would make governing difficult. (Shorten was right about Adani and sovereign risk but this didn’t inspire those who wanted to stop Adani (Or those who wanted Adani subsidized.)

  19. Yes John

    I noticed that Mr Morrison didn’t have much to say about his government’s “record of achievement”.

  20. Ambi, disunity would have been death if ScoMo had gone earlier. Part of his narrow path to victory was getting the timing right. People have short memories.

    If he had gone later, the economy would not have looked so good.

    And John is right about “Labor behaving like a government”. Their policy agenda became the focus, and ScoMo behaved like a leader of the opposition attacking it.

    Now some are blaming Labor for their woes, because they lost the unloseable election.

  21. Timing is important, absolutely.

    Folk just get bored with politicians too and the “ new shiny thing “ effect can sway a few.

    Shorten was in our face constantly whinging about the Government for ( in nowadays terms ) ages.
    He lost in 2016 and changed nothing.

    Keep in mind that I despise the Presidential aspect that the media push. Too much of the coverage blames the Captain ( PM ) for the loss but the self proclaimed referees ( media ) get a lot of calls wrong and the players ( MPs) that didn’t put in still get a pretty good loss pay.
    The trouble is the crowd award the points that decide the winner and a good percentage voted against the ref for giving ALP too many free kicks.

  22. Jumpy, I suspect the ones that decided it were not paying attention to any of that, in effect were impervious to the media, but did not escape all those negative images of “shifty Bill”.

  23. Brian
    I don’t think very many are impervious to media even if they’re not paying close attention to politics.

    Maybe Bill is shifty.
    There is some evidence that points to that conclusion.!

  24. Jumpy, here in the big smoke people constantly look at their phones, which are getting bigger. They don’t take much notice of regular media anymore, except perhaps for entertainment at times.

    I think Shorten is pretty straightforward, and actually didn’t play much part in the Rudd/Gillard/Rudd fiasco.

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