Apologies if our 2019 Election Wrap-Up special episode is late but we had to wait until every postal vote had been received and counted, and see if there was any sign of a late swing. Of which, there was none.
The Liberal–National Party has been returned to
But, that’s democracy in action: the electorate chose more of the same, and it seems they couldn’t stomach the idea of Bill Shorten as Prime Minister of Australia.
Was it Bill Shorten, or were there other factors in play? Elections are never won or lost on just the one issue, and we think it was a combination of media indifference to Labor, too many policy targets, and the small matter of $80 million worth of advertising racked up by Clive Palmer’s United Australia Party.
The Liberal–National Party won the social media
The opinion polls were completely wrong, and it’s a niche industry that will need to redefine itself if the public is to ever take polling seriously again. Labor has a new leader – Anthony Albanese – and we think he will be a fine match for Prime Minister Scott Morrison.
We’ll be providing more analysis post-election – that is, if we are allowed to report on these matters, and avoid scrutiny from the Australian Federal Police.
Eddy Jokovich: The May election resulted in a yet another Liberal–National Coalition victory, their third in a row, and the result went against the flow of a generally anticipated Labor victory. The Coalition made a net gain of one additional seat, to land on seventy-seven, while the Labor Party lost one seat to land on sixty-eight seats; the other six seats going to minor parties and independents.
There was a 1.2 per cent swing towards the government, and the final result was almost the reverse of most people’s expectations. It was one of the most surprising election victories in Australian history, more surprising than Labor’s victory in 1993, and ruining the reputation of all the major polling companies along the way.
During the last parliamentary term, there had been leadership changes in both the Liberal and National parties and, compared to the stability of the Labor Party, the Liberals were divided and unstable for the best part of three years, and had little to show in their policy agenda for the future.
There was a stench of corruption and dysfunction that followed the Coalition everywhere yet, somehow, the electorate chose to have more of the same for the next three years. It is commonly said ‘there is no such thing as an unwinnable election’, and so it proved to be for the Coalition. What went right for the Coalition, where did it all go wrong for Labor?
David Lewis: We can look at the fear of change as a big motivator for the electorate. On a superficial level, we can look at all the changes that we’ve had in prime ministers in recent time, and the electorate just didn’t want to see any more change at the top: since 2007, there have been six prime ministers: Rudd, Gillard, Rudd (again), Abbott, Turnbull and Morrison.
Perhaps a change to Morrison in 2018 was also considered as a change of government, so why change if the government is still ‘new’? In specific electorates, jobs were seen as a major issue and Labor didn’t really address this issue in any real or substantive way. They also got stuck on details of key policy announcements, such as their franking credits scheme, which most people didn’t understand. They also got stuck on defending Bill Shorten as ‘a good bloke’, and someone who is really likeable, when in fact, Shorten was not seen as a very likeable figure, or a very popular figure.
The Liberal Party was able to hold key marginal seats, which were swinging seats, but had a Liberal Party bias: Scott Morrison visited Tasmania eight times, as well as spending a great deal of time in Queensland, and these states swung very strongly towards the LNP. There were other factors in the mainstream media: the Adani mine was widely reported as being the saviour for jobs in north and central Queensland—seen as a positive for the Liberal–National Party.
There was a great deal of opposition to the mine, but the opponents had no real plan about what to do if the mine didn’t proceed: there was some vague discussion about renewables and retraining, but nothing of great substance. There is now a feeling among the commentariat—and the Labor Party—that the time of the big-picture-detailed-policy campaign is over.
EJ: Elections are never based on just the one issue: there is always going to be a multitude of issues that affect the final outcome. And the collection of ideas, policies, imagery and ‘feelings’ each party puts out affects the result.
Before the election, I predicted the Labor Party would comfortably win, and this was based on overall performance over the past three years, opinions polls all pointing to a Labor victory, betting markets, and general expectations that Labor would win. But, like many other people, I got that one wrong. You weren’t so sanguine, and you expected the Liberal–National Party to be returned to government, on the back of preferences from independents, One Nation and the United Australia Party, in key marginal seats.
DL: I do get it right occasionally! Most of the evidence pointed to a swing to Labor of about 4–5 per cent, and the Liberal Party was in an organisational mess: not just federally, but in New South Wales as well.
I’ve mentioned this before, but most of the political orthodoxy has changed over the past decade, largely due to the ascension of Tony Abbott as the Leader of the Opposition in 2009, and then on to become prime minister. Political parties on the right started to behave differently and unpredictably, and many of the political rules have changed, as has electorate behaviour and responses. And maybe that’s one aspect that was misunderstood as far as predicting the election winner: the rules of politics have changed substantially, but the methods of assessing the value of politics—through opinion polling and media analysis—hasn’t changed very much at all.
If politics was still operating by the pre-2009 ‘rules’, there was no way the Liberal Party would have won the election; there should have been a decisive electoral defeat for them, with an organisational restructure after they lost the election. But politics has changed, it has become more unpredictable, and the 2019 election provides an excellent case study of that.
EJ: Of course, hindsight is wonderful, and it is much easier to become an expert after the event. In retrospect, we can look at other factors as well for Labor: equivocation on mining, where they collected the worst of both worlds through indecision about supporting or sanctioning the Adani mine, and this meant their opponents could pick and choose which tactics to use to attack Labor.
The issue about mining jobs in Queensland, Western Australia and, to a lesser extent, northern Tasmania was a key factor for Labor. Even though there won’t be many new jobs created through the Adani project—ultimately, there will only be around 100 ongoing positions—the lack of a clear outline of where Labor stood on Adani cost the party a number of seats in Queensland, and thwarted their quest to pick up additional seats in Melbourne, where closing the Adani mine was popular.
Politically, it would have been better for Labor to at least make a clear decision, and it seems the correct decision would have been to say they were prepared to close the Adani proposal—those seats in Queensland would have been lost anyway, and they would have picked more seats in Melbourne, and possibly other capital-city seats around the country.
DL: There’s also the factor of Labor expecting to win too much, and perhaps because of this, overlooking the smaller tactics the Liberal Party used. The Liberal Party seemed to have the attitude of ‘nothing to lose’—except government, of course—and tried every political trick in the book.
But even still, we also have to remember that the Labor Party lost the election through around 29,000 votes in just over eight seats, seats that are volatile and can change quickly. The seats won by independents is interesting as well: there are three right-leaning members, and three left-leaning, including Adam Bandt from the Greens. Essentially, it’s only a one-seat majority for the Liberal–National Party.
EJ: A one-seat majority is not very much over the cycle of the three-year electoral term. All that’s required is the death or resignation of one or two government MPs in marginal seats—or another constitutional issue going to the High Court—and there’s always a chance those seats could be lost in subsequent by-elections, and then the government falls into a minority position. So it’s a majority that’s still wafer thin, and there’s not much room for the Coalition to move.
DL: There are some interesting seat issues that may become problematic, and it may happen sooner than we think. The Melbourne seat of Chisholm—won by the Liberal Party—seems to have had its voters misled, with Liberal Party posters suggesting in Mandarin and mimicking official Australian Electoral Commission signage, that the only way to vote is to put the Liberal Party first.
I’m sure members of the Chinese community would have been able to see through that but, perhaps reading signage in a second language, and coming from a political system that’s different to Australia’s, the messaging may have been strong enough to deceive enough voters to push the Liberal candidate, Gladys Liu, over the line.
Of course, it’s a case of whether these incidents end up in the High Court, and there’s also the question of eligibility of some of the United Australia Party candidates—there is an argument suggesting the UAP didn’t win any seats so it shouldn’t matter, but their preferences were very helpful in getting the Liberal Party re-elected in many seats, so that’s certainly something that should be looked at as well.
EJ: Bill Shorten has resigned as leader of the Labor Party but during his resignation speech, he said there were many vested interests acting against him and Labor: News Corp, Sky News, the real estate industry, the banking sectors. And of course, as soon as he made this claim, these vested interests all proceeded to attack him even further—left, right and centre—the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age attacked him as well. It’s almost axiomatic—they spent a great deal of resources telling everyone how unpopular Bill Shorten is and now claim the election result as vindication of their position.
And now the mainstream media is attacking Shorten for resigning from the leadership, even thought that’s what leaders normally do in modern politics, if they’re lost two consecutive elections and spent six years as the leader. It’s what Labor leader Arthur Caldwell did many years ago in the 1960s; Kim Beazley did the same in 2001. Shorten resigned of his own accord; it’s the obvious thing to do.
But as soon as he did resign, the mainstream media claimed it was only a matter of time before he’d want to take back the leadership, he still had leadership ambitions, and he would continue to be a destabilising force in the Labor Party and whoever did become the new leader, they would be under constant pressure from Shorten. Shorten and Labor can just never get a break from the mainstream media.
DL: It’s what the media do—they were always clamouring for Tony Abbott to return to the Liberal Party leadership after he was toppled by Malcolm Turnbull in 2015, and there was a group of Abbott supporters who were working towards that, destabilising Turnbull’s position and claiming Abbott didn’t really get ‘a fair go’.
But he did have two years as prime minister and his performance showed he just wasn’t up to the job. But Abbott is now out of Parliament, having lost his seat to the independent, Zali Steggall, so it’s all over for him, and he probably knows it. For Bill Shorten, there’s always the media agenda against him. The ABC’s Michael Rowland aired a photograph of Shorten putting out the garbage at his family home on the Sunday morning after the election, as if to humiliate him even further.
Rowland claimed it was just to show the fine line between being the potential prime minister one day, and then just being another person in the street on the next day, and the brutality of politics. But to be fair to Shorten, there have been many worse people than him that have gone on to become prime minister.
EJ: History has shown that once a leader resigns from the leadership of the party, there’s very little chance of coming back as the leader again. Kevin Rudd managed to do it, but he only did it after he spent the best part of three years undermining Julia Gillard and the Labor Party.
John Howard came back after resigning the leadership of the Liberal Party, as did Andrew Peacock, with Howard then going on to become prime minister. Kim Beazley did return to the leadership in 2005 after Simon Crean resigned. There are those precedents, so Shorten returning to the position can never be entirely ruled out.
It’s unlikely though, but we can also never underestimate the right wing of the Labor Party and it’s desire to cause trouble for their left wing—which is where the new Labor leader Anthony Albanese comes from.
DL: It’s right for the Labor Party to keep Shorten in the shadow ministry—if he wants to—and it’s likely he’ll be the shadow minister for the National Disability Insurance Scheme. Labor has to honour its former leaders—with the exception of Mark Latham—as does the Liberal Party, and it’s right for Shorten to stay on, even if it is as a mentor to other Labor MPs, in the same way Wayne Swan stayed in Parliament for an extra term, made a quiet transition and then quietly resigned.
Malcolm Turnbull, of course, resigned immediately after he was toppled by Morrison in 2018 but why would he stay in Parliament after the way he was treated by the Liberal Party? It’s going to be different for different politicians, and it depends on the circumstances. Whether Shorten remains in Parliament in support of the new Labor leader, or genuinely goes on fighting every day for the causes he believes in remains to be seen. Either way, it really doesn’t matter.
The big target claims another victim
EJ: Many political commentators have been suggesting we’re unlikely to see a political party enter an election campaign with a big-target strategy for a long time. The 2019 election loss for Labor is similar to what happened to the Coalition back in the 1993 election, when they released their Fightback! manifesto: that really was a big target.
Labor’s platform in 2019 wasn’t anywhere near as comprehensive as Fightback! but there were enough targets for the Coalition to take aim, especially the proposal to reduce franking credits—which was misread and misunderstood by many people in the electorate—and their negative gearing policy, which was attacked by the partisan real estate industry and simplified to a very sharp political message by Josh Frydenberg. What are the ramifications for elections into the future?
Will we see Labor crawl up into a ball and adopt a small-target campaign—which hasn’t really worked for them in the past—and have even smaller policy details presented by the Liberal–National Party? The LNP didn’t have much of a policy agenda at all, and this ended up being a very successful election strategy for them.
DL: There is an inherent imbalance in the political system in Australia: Labor has to be inspiring to the electorate, it has to provide good reasons to the electorate to vote for them, when compared to conservative governments. Labor can’t just be ‘more of the same’; they have to offer key differences.
In 2007, the last time Labor won government from opposition, they had simple pithy slogans—Kevin ’07—and a leader in Kevin Rudd who had solid electoral appeal. Sometimes, it’s those big slogans that resonate with the electorate—Gough Whitlam’s ‘It’s Time’ slogan in 1972. This is in contrast with John Howard’s ‘Incentivation’ slogan from 1987, which was a total turn off for the electorate. ‘Kevin ’07’ was simple; it succeeded, but it was also backed up by key policies announcements.
In 2019, the franking credits scheme was difficult to explain—Labor spokespeople had to go through the process of explaining how many shares someone would need to own to be able to receive $26,000 worth of franking credits; and then explain franking credits had been paid to people who have invested in certain companies, who pay their dividends back through credits that have already had tax paid on them—but is counted as separate income, yet is tax free. Well, by the time they would get to this point, they’d already lost their audience. Shorten did run a good campaign, but it lacked the ‘snap and pop’, and watching Labor ministers trying to explain the franking credits proposals was a good example of this.
The Liberal Party doesn’t need to be inspiring to the electorate: they’re traditionally considered to be the party of the ‘steady hand’, and there for the ‘forgotten people’, that idea that was successfully cultivated by Robert Menzies in the 1940s. Whether this is fair or not is a different matter: politics is never played out according to which party deserves to win; it’s about who succeeds in the game of politics, and the Liberal Party has won that game.
EJ: The Liberal Party probably doesn’t need to create a new inspirational strategy for the next election: Labor did have ‘Kevin 07’ back in 2007, but didn’t have anything like that for 2019. But whatever the case, Labor will have to make sure the election doesn’t end up being a Catch-22 for them.
Is Australian democracy for sale, and how much does it cost?
EJ: The billionaire owner of Mineralogy, mining tycoon Clive Palmer, spent almost $78 million on advertising for the United Australia Party during the election campaign—not so much to win any seats, but to act like a stalking horse for the Coalition, picking up 450,000 primary votes across Australia, with 75 per cent of those preferences directed back to the Coalition.
It wasn’t possible to look at a screen, watch television, listen to radio or read a newspaper without coming across a United Australia Party advertisement campaigning against the Labor Party and Bill Shorten: it was brazen, it was audacious and it worked. There are currently no laws to stop anyone in Australia from advertising during political campaigns and elections, as long as it’s authorised and amounts of spending and donations are declared, albeit, the information about this spending is embargoed until at least eight months after this election.
Australian politics and election outcomes are being highly influenced by the asset rich class and business tycoons: this is becoming an increasing problem for Australian politics.
DL: And it has been a problem for some time. In 2010, Kevin Rudd retreated on his climate change policies after a massive negative advertising campaign promoted by the mining industries.
The mining sector seems like it’s a big employer of workers when driving through mining areas such as the Hunter Valley in New South Wales, but across Australia, it only makes up around 1 per cent of the entire workforce, and that’s a number that’s dropping, as automated mining becomes more prevalent in the industry. But it’s an industry that still has a large and undue influence in Australian politics.
EJ: There was a large amount of attention during the election campaign on the Adani mine in Queensland—and not only during the campaign, but over the past two or three years. What is largely unknown to the electorate is another development application through Clive Palmer’s company, Minerology—it’s the Alpha–North Development Plan, almost double the size of Adani’s Carmichael mine. And, if it’s approved, it will produce over 33 per cent more coal than the Adani mine.
Clive Palmer’s intentions in the 2019 election didn’t have much to do with winning seats or getting United Australia Party members into the Senate—it was all about making sure the Labor Party didn’t get into office. But Palmer isn’t altruistic enough that he’ll just spend $78 million to make sure Labor didn’t win the election; he’d be looking at a trade off for his political work.
The Adani mine was the mine receiving all the political attention, as well as the political heat, and there doesn’t seem to be an economic case to support the Adani proposal going ahead. But it’s Minerology’s Alpha–North mine that will end up getting the approval—and Palmer’s $78 million investment in what was essentially Liberal Party political advertising will offer a great return.
DL: Not once did Clive Palmer mention the Liberal Party in a negative way in any of the UAP advertising: it was all a hatchet job on how terrible the Labor government had been in the past, and how awful Bill Shorten would be if he ever became prime minister. Palmer would have been hoping to win at least one seat, or have at least one Senator, but he didn’t even come close.
To spend $78 million on advertising shows how much money can go into these campaigns across Australia, but he achieved what he wanted: to deny Labor a term in government, and probably get the approval for the Alpha–North mine.
EJ: The United Australia Party achieved 3.4 per cent of the primary vote across Australia and the party provided candidates in all 151 seats in the House of Representatives. The level of primary vote fluctuated between 2.8 to 4.5 per cent in every single seat, so we can say the $78 million spent on advertising was effective in picking up that level of primary votes.
Around 75 per cent of these primary votes went back to the Liberal–National Party through preferences, so it definitely had influence in marginal seats, especially in Queensland and other mining areas—and that’s just votes that went to the UAP: there’s little doubt the negative Labor advertising would have directed other primary votes towards the LNP.
DL: We can see the UAP and Clive Palmer directly supported the Liberal–National Party, and there will be payback, but it doesn’t take too many external factors for favours to be denied: if a politician or a political party can sniff the wind and detect changes in the political environment, they’ll dump Clive Palmer like a hot potato, particularly in light of some of his more questionable dealings.
One of his mining companies still owes his employees almost $7 million in worker entitlements, and owes the Australian Tax Office around $70 million. Of course, there are other companies that may still owe him vast amounts of money, but there are some interesting questions about where some of his revenue is coming from. There are also questions about the links between his company, Minerology, and the Liberal Party, the National Party, big farming companies, the banks, and the mining industry overall.
EJ: The Minerals Council of Australia is a very conservative organisation, with its board of directors comprising some very right-wing individuals. Back in 2009, the Council spent $122 million on a highly aggressive campaign against Labor’s emission trading, mining tax and carbon pricing proposals, and kick started the moves by the Labor Party to depose Kevin Rudd as prime minister.
There wasn’t even an election campaign at that time, but the Minerals Council did their upmost to ensure all of these proposals became a major political issue. The emissions trading system was dumped, although the mining tax and carbon pricing proposals eventually were introduced by the Labor Party.
But the ongoing campaigns implemented by the Minerals Council were so great that they helped remove the Labor government in 2013, and by 2014, both the mining tax and carbon pricing were also removed. Of course, in a democratic country, everyone and every business has the right to spend money on political campaigning in whichever they wish to, but $122 million to campaign on one issue? That’s a large amount of money. The Minerals Council also managed to mobilise many of its workers to campaign against Labor, but they were pawns in the machine: most of these workers were retrenched after the mining boom ended in 2014, and their jobs have been largely replaced by automated machines: so much for loyalty.
We can see how big business has a massive advantage over the left side of politics, and it’s difficult to launch counter arguments if your side of politics doesn’t have the same access to that level of funding. It’s a vexed question, but for the other highly moneyed people in society—the likes of Gina Rinehart, Harry Triguboff, Frank Lowy, Kerry Stokes—they’d be looking at how the United Australia Party performed in the 2019 election and they’d be taking notes on how to influence elections in the future, with the support of the Liberal Party and other conservative parties.
DL: What is not understood very well is the products of mining belong to the Commonwealth of Australia, not the mining companies: the mining companies claim they do, but they don’t, they just receive a licence to mine.
From this point, the federal government has the right and the obligation to charge a good and fair levy for the privilege of mining companies being able to do this. It’s actually irresponsible for governments to continue giving highly favourable and preferential treatment to some of these corporations, with little or no return to the public. They hold too much sway, too much power, and too much influence in Australian politics.
The honest response to many workers in the mining industry is there will need to be a structural adjustment plan, where workers may need to retrain and move into other worker-viable industries. But the convenient lie has more currency, and when industries promote these advertising campaigns to protect their vested interests against the community interests, everyone else misses out.
EJ: The amounts of money spent by vested interests and industry groups is one issue in Australian politics: there are no limits on how much money can be spent on elections by individuals or corporations, and that’s one area that will need to be looked at in the future, but it will be a question of who becomes responsible for this.
The Australian Electoral Commission is responsible for the management of elections in Australia, but they’re limited by the amount of resources available to them during election campaigns. There were a few incidents where electoral laws were breached—on eighty-seven occasions and most breaches were performed by the Liberal Party—in areas such as unauthorised advertisements, leaflets containing false messaging, signage in foreign languages that also contained incorrect information favourable to the Liberal–National Party.
There was also some illegal text messaging, which contained further false information, some of it was litigious. The only action available to the Australian Electoral Commission in all of these circumstances is a ‘cease and desist’ order—and that’s only if they can find out who’s responsible for the messaging: by the time false or unauthorised material is removed, especially if it’s been available for several weeks, it’s just far too late—the messages are already in the public domain. Once these messages have been disseminated, it’s not possible to unsee or undo that message, especially if it has already been distributed through digital and online media.
But even with these peripheral issues, the Australian Electoral Commission is ill-equipped to deal with them, and it’s hard to see how they could manage or regulate the amounts of money flowing into election campaigns.
DL: The more obvious solution is fully publicly-funded elections, and we’re very close to that right now. The political parties or individuals that receive over 4 per cent of the primary vote not only have their electoral deposit refunded, but they also receive $2.77 per primary vote, which is designed to help fund their electoral costs, and support political campaign work in the future.
It means the smaller parties—even that ones that we might vehemently disagree with—get to have a say within the political process, and this is the essence of democratic systems, even if this funding process is skewed towards the Liberal, National and Labor parties.
EJ: One other factor that was apparent during the election campaign was the increase in access to social media for the political parties and the style of social media campaigning.
It was prevalent in the earlier New South Wales election, but federally, the major factors were the ‘death taxes’ and Bill Shorten memes appearing throughout Facebook and Instagram, on behalf of the Liberal Party.
These were produced by a New Zealand agency, Topham Guerin—they’re virtually unknown in Australia, but they’re an agency with strong links with Australia’s National Party and their job was to create and distribute anti-Labor social media material and digital advertising such as videos, animation and graphics, the most infamous graphic being ‘The Bill Australia Can’t Afford’: that advertisement was absolutely everywhere online.
The social media statistics were stark for the Labor Party: even through their aggregate of followers is substantially higher than the Coalition’s, their viewer engagement was 30 per cent lower. The Coalition’s social media and digital campaign work was quick and ultra-responsive, far superior to Labor’s: it’s clear they were the big winners in the ‘info wars’.
DL: ‘The Bill Australia Can’t Afford’ was one of those all-capturing meme messages, and it worked extremely well. Was it fair and was it accurate? Probably not, but it put enough doubt into people’s minds and it helped to swing the election, although we can’t be sure by how much. And in contemporary politics, the online factor can’t be underestimated.
Although it was still in its nascent form, it helped Kevin Rudd win the 2007 election. Twelve years down the track, the mainstream media and journalism is going through major changes and reforms. News Corp has just announced fifty journalists will be retrenched. Fairfax Media has been purchased by the Nine Group.
Mainstream media is still highly influential in political matters, and that’s still where most people receive their political news and information, but online media is increasingly becoming more influential.
EJ: The newspaper industry is travelling in a slow-moving death vortex, and has been dying for some time. The old advertising ‘rivers of gold’ have dried up, and it’s now a question of how long print newspapers will be around for. But, to be sure, these are still the news and information behemoths and will be there in the future on some level, albeit in different forms. The future for traditional news outlets such as the Daily Telegraph, Sydney Morning Herald or The Age is to go purely online, with a weekly print version containing more long-form analytical material that has a longer shelf-life than yesterday’s news.
Whether there would be a public appetite for that type of printed publication is unknown, although The Saturday Paper is one independent news outlet that has bucked the trend. The Australian will perhaps disappear, once Rupert Murdoch also departs the scene, so we may be in for a major realignment in the news media industry.
DL: As always, the media played an influential part in the election and, as they usually do, they favoured the Liberal–National Party, especially the commercial mainstream media and, increasingly, the ABC. But that’s a known quantity, we’ve come to expect this: Labor had so much material to work with on the incompetence of this government, but failed to make progress in this area.
The Howard government was competent; the Fraser government was competent; both of these governments had the look and feel of long-term, stable governments, but lost elections when they had outstayed their welcome and the electorate decided it was time for fresh faces in politics. But the Liberal–National governments since 2013 haven’t been effective at all: they’ve had many leadership changes; they’ve been divided; they can’t agree with each other.
There have been questions about government corruption. The LNP member for the Queensland seat of Dawson, George Christensen, had spent 300 days in the previous year chasing a fiancée in Manila, claiming he could still do his parliamentary business from overseas on his iPad—which, on the surface, seems like outrageous behaviour by a Member of Parliament—yet Labor couldn’t make political mileage out of this.
Some of this, of course, was deflected by friends in the parochial media: for example, media management and story framing depicted Christensen as getting a hard time from outsiders in Sydney and Melbourne, and downplayed the idea of an absent MP spending most of their time overseas.
It all seems incongruous, and the electorate of Dawson had the wool pulled over their eyes. Essentially, Labor didn’t capitalise on many of these behaviours and poor government performance and didn’t push these issues to the electorate as hard as they could have.
What to expect in politics over the next year
EJ: The counting is over and most of the seats in this election have been declared. The election writs will soon be returned, and that’s when the next session of Parliament will commence.
Before this election, we predicted a massive realignment of conservative politics in the wake of an expected defeat, but this didn’t turn out to be the case. All of the Coalition ministers who emptied out their offices and shredded all the ministerial documents will have to fill up their bookcases again and develop what their agenda is going to be for the next three years. Labor has a new leadership team led by a new leader, Anthony Albanese, and they’ve already embarked on listening tours in Queensland, Western Australia and Tasmania—areas that swung strongly against Labor—to talk to the electorate and find out where they went wrong.
The mainstream media has already upped the ante and relentlessly attacked Labor and its new team, and started talking up the prospects of former leader Bill Shorten creating havoc by wanting to return to the leadership, even though he voluntarily resigned from his leadership just a few days ago. If this is the way the media is going to behave in the future, it’s going to be a very long three years before the next election.
DL: Albanese has commenced the process of media management: there has been some good reporting on him, although some media—from the predictable areas—have started to attack him. And this is where it gets hard for Labor: Albanese is new to the job and new leaders usually have some level of a honeymoon period, but currently, the media doesn’t want to give any respite.
That should change though, as Albanese is, at least, a lot more televisual in a way Bill Shorten wasn’t. But it’s still too early to tell.
EJ: Media management is a key factor within politics, and Shorten, as the previous leader, continuously receive poor support from the media, the media constantly telling the electorate how unpopular Shorten is. Labor decided the best way to circumvent this was to speak directly to the people through ‘town hall meetings’. This is a common strategy in United States politics and, during the last election cycle, Shorten appeared at eighty town hall meetings across Australia.
The upshot is that all-comers were invited to these meetings, not just the party faithful; and undecided voters, or those skeptical about Shorten as a leader, would be suitably impressed, walk away from these meetings and then talk to others in the community about their impressions. And, in most cases, this worked: Shorten is a far more dynamic speaker in these town hall meetings, and it seems like it is a natural forum for him, whereas many of these qualities didn’t translate at all televisually.
The only problem here is that even if a meeting attracts 200 people, eighty town hall meetings would attract around 16,000 people. That’s still a large number of people, but there are around fifteen million people voting in elections across Australia, and it’s a strategy that isn’t reaching enough people. It’s unclear if Albanese will continue with the town hall meeting strategy, although he will be embarking on a series of headland speeches over the next six months.
Having the media on-side is desirable, doing regular town hall meetings or headland speeches is desirable too: but it seems a bit too old style now, and too Clinton-esque—which worked very well in US politics in 1992, but may have lost some relevance in 2019. Social media and digital marketing is the avenue that needs to be explored and pushed further, and that’s an area Labor needs to concentrate on over the next three years.
DL: The events that don’t seem to work are the leaders’ debates and it’s hard to recall a time where issues discussed during the televised debate have swung an election.
Bill Shorten easily won the three debates he had with Scott Morrison. The Liberal Premier in New South Wales, Gladys Berejiklian, lost the debates she had with NSW Labor leader, Michael Daley. Yet, these didn’t make any discernible differences in the federal or New South Wales elections. The town hall meetings are a good idea, where leaders can practice their lines or their policy ideas in a public forum.
For Shorten, it was an effective strategy and most people came out of those meetings impressed and surprised with how well he performed under pressure, and took on people in the electorate who disagreed with him. But it’s an effective strategy that can’t reach enough people in electorate.
EJ: This might be because most people just want to have a break from politics, but there still isn’t much scrutiny being placed on the government, and their multitudes of corruption, which we’d assume would normally be a goldmine for political journalists.
Water mismanagement in the Murray–Darling Basin; vast amounts of money spent on water rights and non-existent water; there’s the Minister, Stuart Robert, who had to resign from the ministry several years ago—he had to repay $37,000 to the taxpayer for overusing his home internet account—he’s now the Minister for the National Disability Insurance Scheme. Sussan Ley, the member for Farrer: she was disgraced for rorting her travel allowance and also resigned: she’s now back as the Minister for Environment.
It’s hard to see what a Coalition minister would need to do to be banned from the ministry, and clear examples of corruption and incompetence have resulted in promotions.
DL: And there are many others: Senator Arthur Sinodinos is said to be taking over from Joe Hockey as Australian Ambassador to the United States. Sinodinos had those issues recently with the Sydney Water Corporation, where he couldn’t recall anything at the inquiry, but here he is being promoted as Ambassador, although it’s fair to say he is a far more substantial figure than the current Ambassador, Joe Hockey.
There’s the error-prone and even more incompetent Angus Taylor, the gift that keeps on giving to Labor, but Labor keeps throwing away. Senator Michaelia Cash, who has ignored subpoenas from the Australia Federal Police over tipping off media about union raids. It’s almost limitless.
EJ: Political events that occurred three or four years ago, even the highly nefarious events, tend to be forgotten by the electorate and especially forgotten by the media.
And unless the electorate and the media are reminded about these events by the Labor Party, these matters disappear into the ether. Sinodinos had been a good performer for the Liberal Party over many years: caught up in scandals, couldn’t remember anything about it, but now his memory has miraculously returned.
It’s hard to know what will happen with Angus Taylor: politics is a moving caravan, and the media usually loses interest about specific events and looks for the next area of excitement and political intrigue.
DL: Angus Taylor’s misdemeanours have related to water management, and perhaps this might be an ongoing issue, as there are many areas in New South Wales that are running out of water.
Tamworth is having water issues; so is Armidale; Dubbo is running out of water. Walgett has actually run out of water. These are substantial towns, yet all three areas are in seats that voted the Liberal–National Party back into office. Taylor isn’t out of trouble yet, but there are always future events that can come into play.
And with a 24-hour media news cycle to fill in, the media is always going to be on the look out for more stories on water mismanagement—whether or not they decide to run hard on these stories is a different matter.
EJ: In his first press conference as Labor leader, Albanese said he wanted to ‘slow things down a bit’, and he wasn’t prepared to front up to media conferences just to make impromptu policy announcements; rather than fulfilling that 24/7 media cycle, he wanted to be more considerate about what the Labor Party has to offer the community and spend more time on policy development.
One factor the media keeps bringing up: Shorten is from the right faction of the Labor Party and took the party to the left on many issues—some would argue he didn’t go left enough. Albanese is from the left, historically, but seems to want to take the party to the right. This should create an interesting party dynamic, and will need to be managed carefully by Albanese and Labor. The call to spend more time developing nuanced and carefully crafted policy should be welcomed as well.
DL: That’s the obvious way to go, except for the possibility of this all being lost in the flotsam and jetsam of the 24-hour news cycle. Albanese runs the risk of being lost in the flow of events but, to avoid this, has to manufacture some of kind of pithy slogan that he can run with and hold up the policies he wishes to formulate and promote. It’s very hard to do.
EJ: If the Labor Party turns up to the next election as a small target with virtually no policy agenda, the electoral will ask: ‘what’s the point of voting Labor if you’re not offering us anything different?’ It’s a fine balancing act: they have to offer substantial policy, but not enough for their opponents to be able to launch a major attack.
We can look at the 1996 election campaign, where John Howard won the election comprehensively for the Coalition but offered virtually nothing substantial on policy matters, and certainly nothing resembling the Fightback! package from the preceding election. Can a small-target strategy work for the Labor Party? Conventional wisdom is that Labor needs to provide inspiration to the electorate but what has been forgotten is that in 2007, Kevin Rudd also offered very little during the election campaign.
He closely mimicked the Liberal Party so much that it infuriated the media—as well as the Liberal Party. Rudd rode on the wave of climate change issues at that time, promoted the idea of the ‘fiscal conservative’, where he actually promised to spend less money than the Liberal Party, and even made a virtue out of this.
The political adage is oppositions don’t win elections; it’s governments that lose them and it’s also a case where oppositions shouldn’t do anything at all to stand in the way of an electorate ready to throw out an incompetent government.
DL: But it’s also the job of the opposition to force a government into a position where they lose. Labor failed this time around, but they didn’t fail by too much. It was only a 1.2 per swing towards the government, which was probably around 5 per cent more than most people were expecting, but it doesn’t really matter how large the swing is—the Coalition won the most seats, and that’s all that matters.
EJ: Scott Morrison replicated John Howard’s opening act from the 2004 election: he announced the election date by claiming: ‘who do you trust on the economy?’. And, of course, this fed into the Liberal–National rhetoric of ‘superior economic manager’: it’s rhetoric they’ve been running with for a long time, ever since Labor vacated the economic space after the 1996 election loss—Labor created the conditions for twenty-three years of stable economic growth after 1996, but decided not to take any credit for this. Labor decided not to talk about the economy anymore, one of the more bizarre decisions in modern politics.
We can also look at Labor’s management of the 2009 global financial crisis: the Treasurer Wayne Swan guided Australia away from the calamity that afflicted the rest of the world—Australia was one of only four developed countries to avoid recession during the GFC—but Swan failed to make political capital out of this feat: it’s almost a case where Labor is too afraid to talk about their economic credibility. Labor vacates the economic space in politics; the Liberal Party fills in the void—they promote the idea of superior economic management, even though the facts don’t support this myth. But the mythology of the Liberal Party and superior economic management will soon have a major test, with a possible recession just around the corner.
Already, Australia is in a per capita recession—interest rates keep falling, and that’s usually the sign of a sluggish economy. But, of course, when conservative governments are faced with economic problems that they’ve created and can’t control, they’ll trigger up peripheral issues such as religious freedom, terrorism, attacking unions, or creating other diversions to keep the electorate and the media occupied.
DL: It’s a strategy that arrives straight from the American playbook, and the Americanisation of the far right: libertarianism promoted by the Koch brothers, Rupert Murdoch, and the whole gamut of billionaires who don’t want to pay taxes; the notion that business shouldn’t be constrained by government regulation.
But it’s a form of libertarianism that only benefits the wealth class; it’s the form that promotes individual freedoms and rights, yet severely limiting and restricting them at the same time. The idea of ‘the moral majority’ or the lunacy of ‘the quiet Australians’. Many freedoms are being restricted by social and cultural disadvantage and, increasingly, through the use of religion. In Australia, few people are concerned about religion, as long as it doesn’t impede on other people’s rights, or infringes the law, it’s largely accepted.
But Parliament is opened in each session with the ‘Lord’s Prayer’, a ridiculous situation in a supposedly secular country. Certainly, additional religious freedom isn’t required in Australia and the government will probably continue to use the issue as deflection when faced with economic problems.
EJ: Laws protecting religious freedoms are already in place. It’s evident this continued debate about religious freedom—which somehow has become a topic of debate, and came out of nowhere—is going to appear as a smokescreen for other political problems. The issue of religious freedom will take up much energy and attention from the media, and in the electorate: in the background, workers’ rights will be cut back; union influence will be diminished; wages will go down.
This election result hasn’t resolved anything: there are many serious economic issues facing the country, and all of these are worthy of attention. But the government will be doing their best to deflect from the bad news and promote all sorts of nonsense to the forefront.