When outgoing Victorian ALP state secretary Nick Reece took to the podium at the Melbourne Press Club yesterday to explain his campaign failure, but didn’t actually admit to any mistakes, the ripples of discontent could be heard across the party’s disillusioned and dwindling membership.
Reece, described by several party sources as “shell-shocked” in the wake of November’s disastrous defeat, staunchly defended his strategy, repeating his former boss and close friend John Brumby’s election night mantra that the “it’s time” factor had been the main culprit.
“We knew that if the election came down to a referendum on Labor’s 11 years in office that we were toast,” Reece argued unconvincingly.
But this seemed like a cop-out. The one-time Australian Financial Review scribe had been hand-picked by the former premier to safeguard his personal legacy a year before the campaign began, perhaps with the tacit promise that a Labor triumph would be rewarded with preselection in a safe seat. His assistant, Noah Carroll — the Right’s real choice for state secretary — would then take the reins in a Collingwood-style succession plan.
Under questioning, he mentioned that electorates abutting the Lilydale and Frankston lines weren’t happy hunting grounds, but it was perhaps Brumby’s failure to build a new Rowville line dissecting those spokes that was more emblematic of the ALP’s woes.
It’s not as if the writing wasn’t already on the wall. Over the last two years sages have noted four examples of Labor premiers and prime ministers surrounding themselves with yes men, centralising power and refusing to countenance conflicting advice. In one famous Treasury Place incident, repeated in sentiment right up to polling day, Brumby responded to negative assessments with blunt disbelief.
One insider relayed this morning: “The internal party pollsters [UMR] would come in and say: ‘John, the public perceive you as arrogant.’ And John would simply respond: ‘No they don’t.'”
Since last month’s nightmare, critics are beginning to ask whether the Reece strategy was stillborn from the start, despite an edict from impressive opposition leader Daniel Andrews banning public post-mortems. If the former journo has refused to detail even retrospective failures, others have been more forthcoming.
They talk not of failures of implementation, but failures in the strategy — centred on massaging public opinion in favour of the Brumby brand — where a focus on Labor’s natural advantages in service provision could have better sandbagged sentiment. A rehash of the negative ads that tried to paint Baillieu as a class enemy through ancient real estate dealings also failed to bite, and not just because they’d been aired several times before.
“The negs never stuck; if you asked the average Victorian voter what’s wrong with Ted Baillieu they couldn’t give you an answer,” said one source close to the campaign.
And if “it’s time” was in play, it applied equally to the internal workings of the campaign, as a cabal of jaded b-teamers from the premier’s private office tried, and failed, to step up to the plate.
But another player charged with executing the campaign defended Reece, slamming the recent intervention of Labor Right kingmaker George Droutsas as “ill informed”.
“There is this Droutsas formula, which is to say ‘the Liberals closed schools, we opened them’. But that’s sort of what we did. There’s this idea that you cannot have a referendum on the government, but after 11 years of course it’s a referendum on you,” they told Crikey.
The decision to make Brumby the core focus was staunchly defended: “We put Brumby front and centre. South Australia took a different model which was highlighting the local members and basically hiding Mike Rann.
“To be honest I don’t think that’s how that local campaigning really works. When people go to vote they vote on the basis of the leaders and the brand. Is there any evidence for that? “Swinging voters … they’re not that engaged you know.
“I still think we ran the right campaign, even though we lost.”
But there was still some regret over Labor’s ceding of its policy birthright to the Tories: “When you look at the campaign Ted Baillieu ran, he basically ran a state Labor campaign. It’d be like Labor is spending $42 billion on transport, we’re just going to do that a little bit more.”
Back at the Press Club, the lack of detail might have also been explained by the tantalising prospect of a looming job for Reece in Victoria’s second safest lower house seat — the one that Labor’s leadership group has jealously guarded since the 1960s and that John Brumby has held for the last 17 years. As one cynic noted: “The speech was not that of a retiring state secretary but that of an aspiring MP. This was a candidate launch for the Broadmeadows by-election. Nothing else.”