Brett Gale
Wednesday, 22 May 2019

Thoughts from Down Under

Our Executive Director was asked by a UK think tank to draw some initial lessons for international social democrats audience from Labor’s election loss.  Here are his thoughts.

In the space of three days last week the Australian Labor Party suffered two immense blows.

On Thursday its favourite son and most successful Prime Minister, Bob Hawke passed away.  As if this shock to the soul of the party weren’t heavy enough, on Saturday Labor lost what many considered to be an “unlosable election”.

After going to the election with its most progressive and ambitious policy agenda in decades, and after leading in the published opinion polls for over 50 consecutive fortnights, Labor suffered the ignominy of seeing its hopes dashed and a minority conservative Liberal Party Government that announced no agenda for governing at all returned with a (slightly) increased majority.

For my UK friends who are old enough – remembering the pain, shock and surprise of British Labour’s loss under Neil Kinnock in 1992 will give one the flavour of the despair that Australian Labor supporters are feeling today (and will for the weeks to come).  

The true believers, the Labor faithful, are quite rightly stunned and asking, “How did this happen?”

While there has been a rush to hasty hot takes and sweeping pronouncements as to the reasons for Labor’s defeat, it’s important to remember that snap judgements made in the heat of a surprising and catastrophic defeat are often the wrong ones.

As Labor ponders its future over the next little while, questions quite rightly will be asked as to what went wrong. Those questions will touch on policies, strategy, campaign tactics and research.  These are all legitimate questions and only a fool or someone with an ulterior motive would jump to a definitive conclusion two days on from such an unexpected defeat. However, I offer four observations on what happened that may provide insight for global social democrats.

First, prosecuting a large change agenda as the centrepiece of a campaign has as many downsides as upsides.  

It is a truth universally understood that the lot of social democrats is never easy.  Achieving change is hard. The vested interests who have the most to lose will fight hard and they will fight dirty.  They certainly did down under.

With a bold, proud and sweeping agenda of change Labor was never going to die wondering, however vested interests leapt at the chance to attack our big target. Labor faced an unprecedented wall of fear and smear on its plans not just from the Government but from a range of business allies and other vested interests.

A “so-called” mining magnate running on his own vanity project of getting elected to the Senate spent $60 million on ads (more than the other parties combined) that were little more than wall-to-wall attacks on Labor’s tax agenda.  Clive Palmer simply did the conservative Coalition parties advertising work for them.

One of Labor’s key tax policies was designed to allow more young people and first home buyers into the market.  Yet, in an attack not seen before in Australian political history, real estate companies wrote to their tenants threatening all sorts of dire consequences for those vulnerable individuals if Labor was elected.

Former Australian PM Kevin Rudd has quite rightly pointed out the insidious impact of the Murdoch press in making political life in the Anglo-sphere more divisive, reactionary and greedy.  In Australia the Murdoch press controls 70% of our newspapers as well as one of two 24 hour TV news channels, and they used all of their considerable weight to campaign at every opportunity for a Labor loss.  Their gutter journalism culminated in a vicious attack on Bill Shorten’s mother less than a fortnight from polling day.

In hindsight, it is clear that Labor was not able to effectively counter the sheer volume of the attack from mining billionaires, media billionaires and the real estate industry more concerned with defending their commissions than helping first home buyers into home ownership.

These are incredible hurdles for any social democratic party to overcome and if Labor is to win next time it needs to work out a way to combat such attacks.

Combined with this Labor became the hunted not the hunter during the campaign.  In what was a role reversal of the traditional nature of campaigning, the Government faced little to no scrutiny of its plans while Labor bore the brunt of a sceptical and negative media.

The second salient feature from Saturday’s election was that Australian Labor, like our social democratic peers elsewhere, faces a real dilemma as to how to marry a progressive agenda with the more materialist aspirations of our traditional working and lower middle class base.  For Australia’s resource intensive economy, these challenges are perhaps even more acute then elsewhere.

By appealing to a call for fairness at a time of rising inequality and growing frustration we thought we had solved this problem.  It appears we have not. The vexed issue of climate change is a case in point. Swings were recorded to Labor in seats comfortably held by Liberals, where climate change mattered whilst in coal mining constituencies even larger swings were recorded against Labor.

This shattering of Labor’s former voting coalition reflects an increasing Americanisation of Australian politics.  This is perhaps the most startling observation I’d make about Saturday. Australia is now pretty much politically evenly divided and polarised, with this, the third election of the last four that has resulted in a hung parliament or near-hung parliament. Indeed, the result can almost be read as a status quo result.  This poses a challenge for Labor on how to campaign in future. While elections have always been about the electoral math with the era of big swings certainly over, Labor will have to work out how, seat by seat, it will build up the required number of seats to form Government. In this respect we will almost begin inheriting a system that in practice will be like America’s “electoral college”.

Finally, it is obvious that we need a new paradigm of polling and research.  Following on from failures of opinion polls to predict both Brexit and Trump, Australia now has its own example of massive polling failure.   Consistently throughout the campaign, every single published opinion poll pointed to Labor winning and last minute final polls had Labor on 51% of the vote whereas the final result was the exact opposite with the conservative Coalition on 51% to Labor’s 49%.  

All Australian Labor members will now enter a period of soul searching as we should.  But we should also embark on this period of rebuild with some semblance of hope.

As Labor people we rightly revere our history and it’s important we remember its lessons.  In 1969, 1980 and 2004 we lost elections we truly thought we would win.  It was tough for Labor supporters and true believers but within three years we bounced back to form three of the most progressive Governments in Australian history.  Universal health care, the NDIS, access to university for working class kids, LGBT rights and environmental reforms were all born out of our victories in 1972, 1983 and 2007.

We’ve lost before and bounced back and we can again.   

About Brett Gale:

Brett Gale is the Executive Director of the Chifley Research Centre.