Winning from Opposition

Bruce Hawker

We often hear commentators say “oppositions don’t win elections, governments lose them”. What a load of rubbish. A well organised, highly disciplined and clear thinking opposition can take a term or two from just about any government.

Labor has come back from devastating defeats in just one term – but only when their leaders and advisers make the most of every opportunity. The two recent examples that come immediately to mind are the NSW opposition led by Bob Carr after the election rout of 1988 and Mike Rann’s post-1993 opposition. NSW and South Australian Labor had been reduced to rumps (Rann had a lower house caucus of 10 when he took on the Party leadership) yet in just three years both Carr and Rann were able to force their Liberal opponents to govern as minority administrations. From there these two Labor leaders went on to win their next election despite earlier confident predictions that the Liberals would govern NSW and South Australia for a generation or more.

As an adviser to Carr in opposition I was privileged to be part of that remarkable revival. Listed hereunder are 10 pointers – based on that period in opposition – which I hope will help anyone currently working in opposition:

1. Whether you are a politician or an adviser, never stop believing that you can win the next election. If you allow yourself to get into a negative mind set you’re one step away from giving up. I’ve known opposition leaders who realised they didn’t have the will to win and to their credit they resigned and made way for leaders who did have that fire in their belly. Team building events and  planning weekends should be an ongoing part of opposition.

2. Hold the government to account from their first day – don’t give them a honeymoon if you can avoid it.

3. In order to be able to hold the government to account, get organised. Make sure every staff member is selected on merit – in opposition there can be no passengers. That also means ensuring you have engaged advisers with the most important policy, press and forensic skills engaged. It also means having on staff and on the frontbench a mix of youthful enthusiasm and experienced operators. “Wargaming” and forward planning should be part of your weekly routine.

4. Understand that an effective opposition is more like an insurgent force than a standing army. You are unencumbered by the responsibilities of government and that allows you to move quickly. However, you don’t have the resources of government and so you need to withdraw and move on to the next issue rather than get bogged down dealing with too much detail. By moving quickly an effective opposition can destabilise a slow moving government as it is forced to respond to its innumerable stakeholders.

5. Be prepared to do detailed research on the shortcomings of the government and its members. A good opposition acts as a watchdog on the government with respect to both policy and probity.

6. Make sure you have an effective shadow cabinet system with weekly meetings and properly drafted policy papers circulated well in advance of the meeting. Sloppy policy development must be avoided at all costs.

7. Reconnect with the electorate – particularly those who left you at the election. Don’t repeat the sins of office from opposition. “Labor Listens” style tours are critical for a number of reasons – not the least being that they are potential sources of ongoing advice and stories.

8. Start the serious business of policy development early and reach out to those groups you probably stopped listening to in government. Gather around you as many outside sources of advice as possible – there will be a growing band of useful and well informed experts in any number of areas who will happily give up their time to assist you in opposition.

9. Use all the communications tools available to you – eg traditional media, social media and telephone canvassing – particularly in targeted seats. Importantly, when responding to a government story make sure you aren’t reduced to being a commentator – resist the urge to just provide the angry last paragraph in the story. Bob Carr always insisted that when drafting a response he had three “positive alternatives” high up in the media release.

10. Most importantly, get down to the business of constant campaigning. Elections are won by those who campaign from the first day in the term, not from the day the election is called. However, effective campaigning requires discipline and adherence to processes eg making sure your media monitoring never misses a day and valuable clips are collected, catalogued and stored.

Finally, constant campaigning is only effective if you do all the things listed above. There are no shortcuts to winning office.

Bruce Hawker is the Executive Chairman of Campaigns and Communications Group. He has advised the Labor Party in more than 30 election campaigns in the last 15 years.

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