Former Labor Leader Bill Shorten was never betrayed by his right hand man, Anthony Albanese. Picture: Liam Kidston
Former Labor Leader Bill Shorten was never betrayed by his right hand man, Anthony Albanese. Picture: Liam Kidston

What Australia missed about election

THERE is only one thing you need to know about the federal election result.

We were wrong. We were all wrong. And even after all the times we got it wrong before, we got it wrong again.

Incredibly, there are infamous global precedents for how wrong we can get it and yet we still got it wrong. The examples are cliches: Trump, Brexit, Macron, Ardern, Trudeau.

I am going to quickly explain how I got it wrong and then I will explain how we can get it right.

A little bit of misinformation can be a very dangerous thing - just ask the pilot of a Boeing 737.

One piece of bad data can set off a chain reaction that ends in catastrophe. In Boeing's case it caused death and destruction; in the slightly lower stakes of an Australian election campaign it caused only sadness and confusion - although judging by many reactions you could be forgiven for thinking it was an actual plane crash.

The results of every single public and private pollster pointed to a clear Labor victory. Not only was the ALP ahead, but the Coalition was already behind. In a political oddity, the government needed to actually win seats to maintain the status quo. A slim majority was slashed by a by-election and then smashed by an electoral redistribution.

This was the political equivalent of a pretty boy's first night in prison, and that was before the election campaign had even started.

On top of this, the ALP had thumped the Coalition ever since its first horror Budget of 2014 with the sole exception of Malcolm Turnbull's honeymoon period, which, for reasons best known to himself, he failed to consummate.

Then, for reasons still unknown to anyone, Turnbull was knifed by the right of his own party only to be replaced by someone in the centre of it.

Once Malcolm Turnbull was unceremoniously ousted, everyone assumed it spelled the end for the Liberal Party. Picture: Kym Smith
Once Malcolm Turnbull was unceremoniously ousted, everyone assumed it spelled the end for the Liberal Party. Picture: Kym Smith

The Liberal Party had already descended into the state of dysfunction once occupied by the Labor Party and then said: "Hold my beer!"

As the race went on the polls tightened, yet never deviated from a clear Labor victory. Even the great Antony Green's purpose-built election computer had the ALP at 81 seats. Still the universal wisdom was that it would be a close-run thing.

But that didn't make sense. A record number of voters had already cast their ballot in postals and pre-polls - 37 per cent in fact.

Now I don't know much about nothing but I'm pretty sure that in close ballots people don't come rushing out to smash whoever they're going to smash weeks before polling day. There's no such thing as an undecided voter who's already voted.

In other words, it seemed clear to me the polls were wrong and a surprise swing was on. At least I was right about that.

The problem was that because every poll had predicted a Labor majority I figured the swing must have been towards the ALP. Like the pilot of a 737 Max, I produced a rational response to irrational data and ended up ploughing the plane into the ground.

And I have never been happier.

The truth is the election result was a good one - and I am not talking about the Coalition.

It was good for Australia and it was also good for the Labor Party. Here are 10 reasons why:

1. Australian elections are still won and lost from the centre: In an age of often frightening volatility in once-stable Western liberal democracies, it should be seen as a blessing that the sensible centre is still what decides Australian elections. The Liberals only won after heading off Peter Dutton's right-wing coup and despite the hysteria of some on the left, the Coalition did not run hard on the populist right touchstones of immigration or border protection. Likewise, the hard-line class war rhetoric of Bill Shorten was clearly a toxic turn-off to voters.

2. People are pragmatic, not ideological: It is clear that much of the hubris among the Labor leadership and strategists derived from a sense that the public was ready to come with them on a great reformist project that would tackle unfairness and inequality in the taxation system and, indeed, the capitalist system. In fact most people don't think or care much about systems at all. They just want to know if they are going to be better or worse off.

3. Be very, very careful touching other people's money: Labor's greatest mistake was not so much going after franking credits - indeed before this election few people even knew what they were and even fewer people used them - but the way they went after them. Rather than reassuring retirees they would still be better off under a Labor government because of its other generous policies in, say, health and cancer treatment - or developing a specific policy to offset the pain - the message was that people receiving the credits were rorters or freeloaders on the public purse. If you are going into an election promising to take someone's money, you need to have a bloody good reason for doing so and you certainly shouldn't abuse them in the process.

4. Do the opposite of what Twitter tells you to: Yet again in this election, the sentiment on social media was not just out of step with but the exact opposite of the sentiment in the broader community. Shorten and Labor received vastly more positive mentions on Twitter than Morrison and the Coalition and we all know how that turned out.

5. Loud doesn't mean popular: It is also obvious that Shorten's campaign borrowed heavily from the shouty old-school socialist style of Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn. Both men achieved surprising success in recent years and have been effective at stirring up their hard-line left-wing bases but neither has captured a majority of votes at a general election and both appear to have flamed out. Just because someone is noisy doesn't mean they should be listened to.

6. "Shorten united the Labor Party" is a myth: The oft-parroted line that Bill Shorten deserves credit for leading such a united ALP is perhaps the most laughable lie of the past six years. The only reason the party was divided in the first place was because he was the one doing the dividing. It was he who played a critical role in knifing first Kevin Rudd and then Julia Gillard, on whose behalf he did the original knifing in the first place. And a large part of the reason he got the leadership is because everyone knew that if he didn't, he would knife whoever did. In other words, the only reason the killing stopped is because the person doing all the killing was put on the throne. And indeed now that he has been removed from it there are reports he is already trying to sabotage the leadership of Anthony Albanese before it has even begun. Calling Shorten a peacemaker is like calling a captured serial killer a lifesaver.

 

Peacemaker or smiling assassin? Picture: Liam Kidston
Peacemaker or smiling assassin? Picture: Liam Kidston

7. No one actually ever wanted Shorten to be PM: The running joke in Labor circles has long been that "Bill Shorten would make a great prime minister - I know because he told me so himself!" It's lucky Bill felt that way because few others in the caucus did. It was assumed Labor would be out of power so long because of Shorten's shenanigans that there was no chance he would actually get a shot at a winnable election. Credit to the Libs for somehow managing to screw themselves up so badly that he actually got two shots. Even so, Shorten's greatest success was the cliffhanger 2016 poll that everyone expected Turnbull to coast to victory in, followed by a stock-standard showing in the Super Saturday by-elections, which was painted as a Labor landslide just because the party hung on. As soon as the spectre of Shorten actually winning government loomed, the voting public did a full 180 and sent Labor packing to the wilderness.

8. Albo is awesome: In sharp contrast to lessons 6 and 7, Anthony Albanese was always loyal to his leaders, even as they plotted against each other. He never moved against Rudd, nor Gillard even after she knifed Rudd and nor did he move against Shorten himself even though he, the party membership and the public all knew he was the far more electable candidate. Now of course, it appears that Albo will be elected unopposed as the new Labor leader, despite Shorten - supposedly the great unifier! - encouraging others to run against him. And so despite Shorten's kamikaze campaign, this has been the most peaceful transition of power the Labor Party has seen in more than 40 years.

Former Labor Leader Bill Shorten was never betrayed by his right hand man, Anthony Albanese. Picture: Liam Kidston
Former Labor Leader Bill Shorten was never betrayed by his right hand man, Anthony Albanese. Picture: Liam Kidston

9. It is better to stand for anything than nothing: It is a common trap in politics to try to be too smart by half - to tell people what they want to hear and obfuscate on what they need to know. In fact people are far more likely to vote for a politician they disagree with than one they don't trust. A classic example was Labor's absurd equivocations on the Adani coal mine, which cost them a truckload of seats in Queensland while at the same time failing to deliver the projected landslide in Victoria. Had they taken a decisive and honest position either for or against the mine they would at least have picked up seats in one state or the other. By trying to have a bob each way they failed in both.

1 0. This was the election Labor needed to lose: For all these and countless other reasons that the internet isn't big enough to house, this election was actually a positive result for the ALP - much as it might not feel like it right now. It has taught the party to reach out to middle Australia, to avoid the simplistic regression of "us and them" politics, to work with business instead of against it and to champion suburban and regional workers over inner-city wankers. Let's face it, the latter already have their own party. To paraphrase a certain Labor icon, it was the election they had to have.

If the party learns these lessons, and there is every indication that under Albo's leadership it will, then it will return to the golden age that was so celebrated after the death of Bob Hawke just one week ago - an event that perhaps underscored in the public's mind just how wide the chasm had become between what was then and what it is now.

Under Hawke and Keating the Labor Party were regarded as Australia's natural party of government. If it can listen to the will of the silent majority that was voiced last Saturday and ignore the snobbish social media class that so shamelessly sneered at those Australians, then it can be so again.


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