It was Federal election night, 2019.
I’d spent the day handing out ‘How to Vote’ cards for the Labor Candidate for Page, Patrick Deegan, at the Lismore Heights Public School polling booth, and I was sitting in my living room, with a pizza and a bottle of red wine in front me, looking forward to the count.
The expectation was well-founded. The incumbent Government had become so shambolic, so riven by internal hatreds, that even Prime Minister Scott Morrison himself had described it as a “Muppet Show”.
By about 7.30pm however it was apparent that election night was not going to go as expected. There was indeed a swing – but it was actually in favour of the Morrison Government, not against it!
The unloseable election was about to be lost.
Loading Up the Camel
Samantha Maiden’s new book Party Animals: The Secret History of a Labor Fiasco asks ‘what went wrong?’ It draws the writer’s observations of the campaign, and of the broader political context, and also features interviews with a range of people from within and without the Labor Party.
Ms Maiden doesn’t blame one single factor – nor should she, because inevitably elections are complex and many different factors are at play. But she does highlight some key themes, noting that Labor:
- Had too many policies;
- Had an unpopular leader;
- Failed to link its research program to policy development;
- Was selling a confused narrative with too many complicated messages; and
- Pretty much believed that the result was in the bag, when it actually wasn’t.
Ms Maiden argues that false confidence affected Labor’s election result in a number of ways. Perhaps the most damaging impact of this belief was the way that stakeholder groups (including the union movement) focused on getting their ‘asks’ into Labor’s suite of election commitments rather than getting Labor elected. They ‘banked the win’, and then loaded up the camel with too much policy baggage.
This analysis makes a fair bit of sense. It suggests there was a mood for change in the electorate, but not for the type or scale of change that Labor was proposing. It suggests that the change people were for looking for was simply competence, and a return to sensible government.
Labor, however, was offering an ill-defined, big-spending revolution. To voters this looked like chaos. By going big, and failing to tell a coherent story to explain its vision, Labor managed to turn a vote for the Muppet Show into a vote for stability.
In fact, Ms Maiden’s conclusion is one that already has been widely accepted within the Labor Party. For example, in an interview with the New Daily, Labor Member for Chifley Ed Husic MP called for the party to take a more disciplined policy platform to the next election.
“We’ve gone to two elections with lots of big, bold policies, probably too many to count,” he said.
“We can’t afford to be the generation of Labor politicians who couldn’t get it together to win government.”
Finding the Voters
Mind you, getting your policies right is only part of the story. You still have to convince the voters- and that isn’t easy if the voters aren’t listening.
There is a very good reason why so many media outlets are closing down – and that’s because people are no longer tuning in like they used to.
People can now effectively ‘curate’ their own news through their social media feeds instead of relying on news outlets to package it up for them – thus cutting out any information or arguments that conflict with their existing world view, biases and prejudices. Or they can just turn off the noise altogether.
The Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and historian Anne Applebaum recently summed up what the new media landscape means for political professionals when she wrote that:
“many people no longer trust major media outlets to give them valuable information—and they may never do so again. They no longer trust politicians or groups they perceive to be outside their tribe either.”
This new style of politics favours renegades like Donald Trump or Clive Palmer, whose buffoonish outsiderism and smart-arse mocking of the political class can garner an enthusiastic following on Facebook and Twitter.
Ms Maiden notes that Clive Palmer’s estimated $60 million-plus advertising spend (including a national billboard blitz) was only one aspect of his strategy to influence the election. While the politicians focused on the 6pm news bulletins and the 7.30 Report, Clive Palmer was twerking has way around the FM radio stations and pumping out the memes:
“As the media continued to dismiss him as an idiot, Clive was assembling an online army turned off by traditional politics.”
Mr Palmer’s United Australia Party failed to win any seats, but Ms Maiden argues his huge advertising campaign did “drown out the Labor Party’s own advertisements,” while the social media hi-jinks helped to reinforce a public perception of Bill Shorten as shifty and untrustworthy.
It is hard to believe that Clive will be back for another tilt, but the problem remains for the major parties – just how do they connect with those disaffected and disengaged voters?
The Vision Thing
There was another warning inside Ms Maiden’s book that shouldn’t be overlooked:
“But the danger for the Labor Party is that it becomes lost fighting the ghosts of previous elections.”
In other words, fixing the mistakes of 2019 might not help Labor win next time around. The Party needs to look forward, not back.
Australian politics is in the midst of an extraordinary upheaval. We are experiencing seismic changes to how we work, how we socialise, how we relax and how we travel. The crisis may ease, but it is hard to see Australia ‘snapping back’ to how things were in 2019.
The community’s expectations of politicians already seems to be changing. We want our politicians to succeed – we want them to keep us safe, to save our jobs, and to lift the pervading sense of gloom.
In that sense, the community has left partisanship behind, and so politicians who continue with tacky cheap shots suddenly look out of touch.
That why I suspect that Scott Morrison’s take-credit-for-everything-and-responsibility-for-nothing shtick will soon start to wear thin.
As we get to the next election, I think Australians may be crying out for more substance and gravitas from their political leaders.
Qualities such as leadership, inspiration, and hope – as well as demonstrated competence – may well be back in vogue.
Or maybe we’ll just want more memes.
Either way, I’ll be in front of my TV again, with a pizza and a bottle of wine, ready for the show.
Party Animals: The Secret History of a Labor Fiasco is available at Booktopia and your local independent bookstore.