Following an election, it’s become standard operating procedure for parties to invite eminent figures to review the performance of their campaigns.
The exercise is obviously of greatest interest when the campaign didn’t go according to plan, a particularly memorable case in point being federal Labor’s shambolic bid for re-election in 2010.
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That led to a fine-tooth comb being run through the party’s affairs by Labor luminaries Bob Carr, Steve Bracks and John Faulkner, who offered a wide range of recommendations for reform that have mostly found their way into the too-hard basket.
More recently, a new benchmark for campaign disaster was set by the Liberal National Party in Queensland, which completed a dramatic transition from rooster to feather duster with its defeat at the state election on January 31.
With a seemingly limitless supply of blame to go around, the task of apportioning it out fell to Rob Borbidge and Joan Sheldon, who were respectively premier and deputy premier in the conservatives’ previous one-term stint in office from 1996 to 1998, and thus representative of the National and Liberal arms of the since-merged party.
The Borbidge-Sheldon report, which was published on the party website earlier this week, strains to emphasise that it’s not in the business of pointing the finger. But it’s not for no reason that media reportage has painted it as an extended critique of Campbell Newman — so much so that Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk has touchingly jumped to his defence, albeit with the clear motivation of seeing that Newman’s surviving parliamentary colleagues are not let off the hook.
In sizing up the Newman government’s first and final term in office, the report offers the semi-charitable view that its failings largely flowed from “a lack of corporate history in the conduct of parliament and the party room”, owing to the unusual circumstance of “a huge influx of inexperienced new MPs”.
Of course, that influx included Newman himself, who leapt directly from the lord mayoralty of Brisbane to the premiership via his all-or-nothing assault on the Labor-held seat of Ashgrove at the 2012 election.
With Newman’s parliamentary inexperience came a naive optimism about his capacity to finesse bruising public service job cuts pursued in defiance of election campaign commitments, together with inevitably unpopular privatisation measures.
Nor will students of Newman’s style be surprised to hear him being faulted for “the alienation of key stakeholders” — not the least of which was his own party organisation. In particular, it is suggested that the government might have been dissuaded from destructive courses of action if only party committees had not been frozen out of its policymaking processes.
Newman is at least given credit for “addressing the state’s economic crisis”, which he might well see as praise for the omelette amid blame for the breaking of eggs.
But there can be little doubt that he was a tough product to market by the time of the election campaign, and that it was grand folly under the circumstances to build that campaign — at least in its early stages — around a reboot of the “can-do Campbell” act that had swept him into office three years earlier.
Borbidge and Sheldon argue that the party would have done much better to have shunted him to the sidelines in favour of a more negative approach. Relatedly, the report includes sore-loser talk about the damage inflicted by a “fierce and ruthless union-led guerrilla war”, by way of recognising that the party faced a better-mobilised opponent with a smarter social media strategy.
Curiously, no effort is made to draw comparisons with the New South Wales election two months later, at which a government that was in so many ways similarly placed to Newman’s achieved an eminently satisfactory result.
For example, it is noted that the Newman government had a “fixation” with securing a mandate for privatisation policies in its second term as a strategy to pay down debt and emphasise Labor’s profligacy. But this was equally a feature of Mike Baird’s campaign in New South Wales, notwithstanding that he sought to soften the blow by leasing rather than selling the targeted assets.
While polling made it clear that Baird’s policy was unpopular in its own right, it plainly did little to limit his electoral appeal. One could well draw the lesson a softer image leaves a leader better placed to sell a hard-edged policy.
Another distinction that passes unremarked in the Borbidge-Shelton report, perhaps out of politeness to the offending party, is the role played by the Prince Philip knighthood in torpedoing the final week of the LNP campaign.
Aggregation of federal polling records that Abbott government reached its nadir in the week after Australia Day, which perfectly coincided with the timing of the Queensland election. The federal Coalition’s two-party deficit at that time was 55-45, whereas it had recovered to around 52.5-47.5 by the time New South Wales went to the polls eight weeks later.
But perhaps the report’s most striking omission is the extraordinary circumstance of Newman’s losing battle in his seat of Ashgrove.
With all the polling from the electorate in the last week of the campaign pointing in the same direction, the LNP found itself in the position of being unable to guarantee the product it was purporting to sell, tarnished though it may have been.
For all his noted deficiencies on the policy front, Newman’s most confounding act of hubris was in seeking to defend a naturally marginal seat that had borne the brunt of his government’s public service cutbacks, when he could so easily have swallowed his pride and sought a safer berth elsewhere.