Australian politics, society & culture


Campaign 2016: And the lesson is ...

The Rorschach election result

Election results, if not politics in their entirety, are a type of Rorschach test. First, because any interpretation can be justified: it’s all subjective. Second, because you will likely learn far more about the person doing the interpretation than about the inkblot they are staring at.

I say this at the outset because I’m about to embark on a series of observations of my own, and after the disaster for conventional wisdom that was the 2016 election, I think you should be sceptical. A prevailing lesson from this campaign, the results of which are still unclear, has to be that nobody knows very much about anything, and perhaps the experts least of all.

The first point is that Malcolm Turnbull’s problems did not begin on Day 1 of the campaign. The destruction of his approval ratings and the Coalition’s drift backwards in the polls began long before that. Members of the Coalition have their own analyses, but this brings us back to inkblots: does anybody believe that Cory Bernardi’s conclusion that the Coalition’s campaign wasn’t conservative enough is about the campaign, and not about Bernardi’s own obsessions? Similarly, some progressive voters would love the lesson to be about marriage and the Republic.

I’d love that to be the lesson too, but I don’t think it is. Think back to the major political event of the past decade, Patient Zero of our leaders’ flawed decisions: Kevin Rudd’s desertion of an emissions trading scheme. You could argue that what Rudd and Turnbull have in common is walking away from action on climate change, but Julia Gillard had the opposite experience. My conclusion is broader, and not specific to a policy or ideology: voters expect leaders to remain true to themselves. That might sound stupidly idealistic, but it has its basis in a very pragmatic analysis of the electorate. Voters want their politicians to be basically consistent, and comprehensible. One of the reasons John Howard was so successful is that voters could guess what he would do in any situation. Howard chasing Rudd on climate change in 2007 was just confusing, as was Rudd in 2010, as was Turnbull this year.

And that is why Bernardi and co. are dead wrong. If Turnbull is to have any chance of success he will have to confront them directly.

The second lesson is that voters want something to vote for, as well as against. It’s true that the negative Medicare campaign played a huge role in this poll, and I’ll come back to that. But it must be acknowledged that Turnbull’s strategy was a disaster. And what was that strategy? It came down to repeating one word over and over and over: “stability”. Sometimes you had “economic plan” tacked on, but, as I complained on numerous occasions, this wasn’t so much a plan as a single company tax cut, which the PM slowly stopped mentioning. “Stability” was an empty box. It’s not that I think voters penalised the government for that: it’s that there was nothing to reward. Shorten could have offered more, but still he offered a lot more than the government, made himself a big target, and led the policy debate for months. If this is a conclusion both parties accept, this will be a great thing for Australia.

Third: yes, scare campaigns work. Using Bob Hawke was a masterstroke, a move that likely reached voters who otherwise would not have accepted the claim about Medicare privatisation. But there was much more to the campaign than that. One of Labor’s first big announcements during the campaign was the costly decision to end the Medicare rebate freeze. That set up much of what was to come. The Coalition had given Labor too many policies to hang their arguments from. Turnbull was caught in two places at once, denying the privatisation plans but defending other Coalition health policies. Reports on the last day that both sides would have bunting (banners etc.) focused on Medicare demonstrated how conclusively Labor had won that most important of contests, the battleground over battlegrounds. Bill Shorten, and ALP national secretary George Wright, had dragged the entire campaign onto Medicare. A combination of Labor and Liberal policy had allowed them to do so. (Criticisms of Wright in some quarters now look laughable – and that’s because they are.)

These factors have to be looked at in combination. Was Medicare Labor’s dominant weapon in the campaign? Yes, but imagine if Turnbull had gone into the campaign clearly ahead, as he might have had he not kowtowed to his party’s right wing. Or remember that another three or four seats would have changed everything, and that a few memorable policies might well have got him there.

Now, to the media, in which was expressed widespread expectations that the Coalition would win. These expectations began to appear almost three weeks out. Predictions are bunk, of course, but they are also unfortunately easy to justify in hindsight. “Well, it’s true the Coalition were ahead then, but then they fell back,” or “Labor’s costings announcement was devastating, and if it hadn’t happened they would have done even better.” And these things might be true.

The problem with coverage of this election was not predictions, per se, but an acceptance that Labor was likely finished, and the fact that this affected coverage to some extent. I am not innocent here. I made the point on numerous occasions that it was possible none of us knew anything, but to focus only on that would be cherry-picking in my own favour: I also was swung by the reporting of strategists on both sides briefing about marginal seats, and I expected the Coalition to do better than it did. I thought “stability” was smarter than it probably was.

This is, however, a tricky problem. The only evidence most of us had seen with our own eyes was the national public polling, and I could suggest that relying on assertions from strategists about their polling (mostly unseen) is problematic, and should be avoided. But that is not entirely realistic. Journalists have to scavenge information where they are able, and there is no problem reporting it as such. And so I come back to the above point: the main mistake was to allow those assertions to colour commentary – and questions to the leaders – as much as they did. Reminders of the many unknown variables in this campaign could have been much louder.

It must surely be clear now that Australian politics, like politics in the US and UK, has shifted. Conventional wisdoms must be re-examined. This questioning should be applied to many of the assumptions that were made during the campaign.

Some final thoughts on the period ahead.

First, we don’t know how the seats will shake out over the next week, and I am loath either to predict or trust others’ predictions.

Second, there is nothing wrong with a hung parliament. As a former colleague pointed out to me, the Australian people – and portions of the media – might have to learn to judge outcomes more, and processes less. The processes of the Gillard parliament appeared chaotic. The reality was that legislation was passed at record levels. Achievements aren’t all about numbers of pieces of legislation, but that list includes a price on carbon, previously impossible aged-care reform, a national disability insurance scheme, and the Gonski education plan. You might not like these yourself, but it’s hard to argue the parliament was useless.

The larger problem for Turnbull is that his conservative wing might not let him do anything. In this sense, there is perhaps not a huge difference between 74 seats and, say, 77. Both would be legitimate governments, but in either case the threat of a defection or two would be lethal. But of course it is still possible that Bill Shorten will be prime minister. We should keep that in mind over the next week or two. Let’s not make the same mistake twice.

Today’s links

Horse race analysis: Kristina Keneally says Shorten fought on policies. Chris Uhlmann on “voter rage”. Matthew Knott on Turnbull’s lazy days. Chris Kenny on the conservative dilemma. What went wrong for the government in western Sydney. Dennis Shanahan on Liberal complacency. Pamela Williams on the history of Mediscare.

Political aftermath: Shorten calls on Turnbull to quit. Witty sketch from Brigid Delaney of the Liberal election party. Phillip Coorey writes that Kelly O’Dwyer is in the firing line. Michael Gordon on Turnbull’s invidious future. Peter Hartcher says both major parties are narcissistic. Mark Kenny on Turnbull’s election night speech. Business groups have some fairly meaningless things to say. Paul Kelly on fragmented politics. Peter van Onselen on the Coalition’s pyrrhic victory.

Policy aftermath: Laura Tingle on policy adrift. What happens to the marriage plebiscite?

Future: The six eclectic MPs who may decide who forms government. Oh, Pauline

Barack Obama likes his time alone.

About the author Sean Kelly

Sean Kelly was an adviser to prime ministers Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard. He is the Monthly’s politics editor.