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Labor pain and uncertainty



The Labor Party's dismal performance this year has been bookended by May's election loss and this month's campaign review report. Yet soon after the loss and before the campaign report, before any mature reflection on leadership, the party chose its new federal leader for the next three years, Anthony Albanese. As it reflects publicly on the devastating election loss, discussion has also begun among Labor supporters about whether it has chosen the right leader for the future in Albanese.

Anthony Albanese addresses the media at a press conference at Henson Park Oval in Sydney on 22 May 2019. (Photo by Brook Mitchell/Getty Images)The review is an impressive document, the equal of anything that outsiders have produced over the past six months and as good as any previous Labor review. Labor loses so regularly and is such an open party that there have been many such reviews over the years. Headed by Dr Craig Emerson and Jay Weatherill, this review conducted 120 interviews, received 800 submissions and then made 60 findings and 26 recommendations.

Anyone interested in Australian politics, not just Labor supporters, should read it because it canvasses the context, the run-up, the campaign highlights, the voting, the swings, advertising and digital campaigns, and the campaign 'on the ground'. If I was running another party or was thinking about getting active in politics I'd put it top of my 'must read' list.

The report includes a 500 word executive summary which begins: 'Labor lost the election because of a weak strategy that could not adapt to the change in Liberal leadership, a cluttered policy agenda that looked risky and an unpopular leader.' Other matters highlighted include Clive Palmer's outrageous anti-Labor campaign.

It argues that no one thing was decisive but that together they explain the 'massively disappointing' result. There are some omissions, such as any mention of the negative role of the News Corporation papers. It is also quiet on the role of the union movement. It doesn't discuss in detail what the Coalition did well other than by implicit comparison with what Labor did badly.

Any election review after a loss makes the mistake of having too many matters in the negative column. The list is enormous, covering most aspects of the campaign. Yet the loss was a close one, so if only some matters can be addressed Labor will be in with a strong chance in 2022.

In the end the report concludes correctly that those voters who shifted against Labor outnumbered those who shifted to Labor. Labor lost in Queensland, among outer-metropolitan, provincial and rural Australians, among economically insecure, low-income voters in outer-metropolitan and regional Australia, among some groups of self-declared Christians and among Chinese Australians in strongly contested seats.


"Many Labor supporters who recall his persona six years ago thought Albanese would be more fiery and adversarial. Instead he seems to be a bit washed out."


This is a bit of a shopping list and each of these groups' voting patterns needs further investigation. Some of them are much bigger numerically than others. Media reporting sometimes doesn't do the detail of this report justice.

For instance, media reports conflate the category 'Christians' into one undifferentiated group as they often do. That isn't accurate or helpful. The report argues as follows: 'On the whole people of faith did not desert Labor, but Labor lost some support among Christian voters — particularly devout, first generation migrant Christians. Other religious denominations did not swing decisively one way or the other.'

The groups which swung towards Labor included young voters and affluent voters in urban areas concerned about climate change, voters in inner-metropolitan areas, and tertiary educated, high income Australians. Some of these groups are large and growing. Voting patterns are not all bad news for Labor.

The report is not entirely negative about Shorten, who remains on Labor's front bench. While it gives prominence to his unpopularity it concludes: 'Despite some early slips, Labor leader Bill Shorten performed solidly during the campaign, including bettering his rival in three debates.' It also notes that he led a united and stable team and performed 'brilliantly' on Q&A.

This may be damning with faint praise, but it does set the bar for Albanese. A solid performance alone may not bring victory next time. What the report doesn't do, though, is examine the ingredients that make up a winning leader.

Albanese has begun slowly and has done little to challenge the government directly. Many Labor supporters who recall his persona six years ago when he lost the leadership contest to Shorten, but won the members' vote, thought he would be more fiery and adversarial. Instead he seems to be a bit washed out.

He says this slow start is all about strategy and playing the long-game and has now begun a series of vision statements to reframe Labor in a way that will connect more with its traditional base rather than just new-style progressives. Ultimately, while Shorten was just one factor in the Labor loss, Albanese must catch fire with the electorate if Labor is to win next time.



John Warhurst John Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University.

Main image: Anthony Albanese addresses the media at a press conference at Henson Park Oval in Sydney on 22 May 2019. (Photo by Brook Mitchell/Getty Images)

Topic tags: John Warhurst, Anthony Albanese, Labor



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Existing comments

Perhaps Labor no longer boasts a 'traditional' base. Which may not be a handicap. It can not be denied that Shorten was an unpopular leader, despite a united Labor team and despite some thoughtful policies. Albanese lacks the charisma and fire of Keating and the gravitas of Gough however he now has the opportunity to reveal what he can deliver for the Australian people. I would venture that politics in this country is in desperate need of a major party leader who takes the electorate seriously. Maybe he's the one.

Pam | 11 November 2019  

They lost votes due to lack of social welfare decency and the ongoing abuse and torture of refugees - the rise in the Greens vote, the Indies and Wilkie show that integrity and care wins votes.

Marilyn | 11 November 2019  

What I found amusing about the "report" is it didn't poll voters (unless you accept the usual suspects deemed "expert" as voters, too); so as some sort of introspective it's just more navel-gazing rather than informed on a wider basis. The wet fish wake up slap of the election loss has been attributed to the lamest reasons; even that pre-polling was inaccurate because the (expert) organizations didn't cater for phone polls being to mobiles out of electorates; really? And you want to be paid for this? So now Labour have a document that identifies who to blame for the loss but it protects the interests of those silent power brokers who'll remain on the payroll; the framing to "reconnect" with Labours traditional base won't help unless they are confident there are enough of these voters to win an election. I have to give them full marks for damage control but they'll be in opposition for a while with their thinking.

Ray | 11 November 2019  

The Review is remarkably unoriginal in what it says: it canvases comments espoused by taxi drivers days after the election loss. But before the topic turns to Albo's ability to deliver an election knock out blow, there is a ALP malady slowly surfacing into ineluctable recognition. Now, the party exists in name, only: it is no longer one but a coalition of groups inspired in different degrees by working class activism, a modified grasp of socialism, climate campaigners and identity issue politics. This loose amalgam is best illustrated at ALP National Conferences where exhaustive energies are expended in presenting a show of unity: image takes precedence over real debate and honed policy positions. And it is this plurality of purposes which will ensure the LNP coalition contined success.

carey burke | 11 November 2019  

Looking forward, 'wage theft" is emerging as a major issue across the economy. It represent an opportunity for Labour to take the lead in restoring dignity, integrity and trust in the workplace.

Michael Taouk | 12 November 2019  

Albo started well in distancing himself from the mad left and anti-women Setka and having him thrown out of the party, but aside from that, he is too waffly like Beazley was. The interview on Insiders on Sunday demonstrated that weakness. Why couldn't he dismiss the failed franking credits and dividend imputation policy straight away, given he was so critical of it at his National Press Club speech? He said it was too difficult to explain, yet won't dismiss it for the future!

angela | 12 November 2019  

Perhaps the ALP needs to realise that some 60% or thereabouts of their members of parliament are ex trade union hacks who represent only 18% of the workforce which equates to a mere 6% of the population. With their commitment to proportional representation espoused in relation to gender where they claim the desirability of a 50/50 male/female parliamentary representation, surely they should also realise that their trade union membership in parliament should be a mere 6% or 1/10 of the representation in the last parliament.

john frawley | 12 November 2019  

Labor's loss in the recent national election reminds me very much of the way England lost to South Africa in the recent Rugby World Cup. Politics and sport are very similar, they are both highly competitive and played to win. On the day Rassie Erasmus' team won just like Scott Morrison's did. They were better led and more ruthless than their opposition. Mentally fitter and harder. One disaster for Labor in Queensland was the idiotic, counterproductive and narcissistic caravan led by Bob Brown: it was like five penalties five metres from and directly in front of the posts. Only an absolutely awful kicker could miss them all. It was the gift which kept on giving. The Greens, given their recent statements on the nationwide fires, are pure poison because ordinary people think that's where Labor get their environmental policies from. Labor need to set the Greens adrift. They are well past their use by date. If Labor doesn't ditch them this report will be like the fawning nonsense King Canute's courtiers gave him: it did not stop the waves.

Edward Fido | 12 November 2019  

After six years of virtually all the mainstream media misreporting Labor and Coalition achievements on the economy, that election outcome was inevitable. Few voters consider party leaders. They come and go. The last six prime ministerships have lasted an average of one year and 312 days. If electors voted for the leader, Paul Keating would not have won in 1993, and John Howard, Tony Abbott and Scott Morrison would never have become PM. Voters vote federally for the side they perceive will manage the economy better. Until the mainstream media reports this accurately the last three election outcomes will be repeated indefinitely. This ought be of profound concern to Christians who should put the highest priority on truth and falsehood.

Alan Austin | 12 November 2019  

Waleed Aly, on ABC RN’s “The Minefield” offered an important insight. He suggested Scott Morrison tapped into a desire for “contentment” on the part of many Australians. The PM told people things were going well; there were so many things about which the country could say, “How good is...?” while raising two appreciative thumbs. He positioned Labor as a threat to this pleasant situation. Enough “contented people” saw Labor’s vision for Australia as a threat to their own peace and quiet and returned the Coalition to government. Some of these contented people were, no doubt, once part of Labor’s ”traditional base.” A huge quandary has arisen for Labor. If contentment with the status quo is what most Australians want, when are they ever going to elect a party promising change? Unfortunately, probably only when the Emperor of Contentment is seen to have no clothes. He is already in that state of undress, with no idea of where to lead Australia, but, as yet, not enough Australians are seeing it, let alone saying it.

Gerard Hore | 13 November 2019  

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