federal election 2019 labor
Bill Shorten at the 2018 Labor Party National Conference (Image: AAP/Lukas Coch)

After getting over its bewilderment about how it lost an election it was universally expected to win, Labor will undertake a detailed post-mortem about what went wrong that may never be made public, unless someone decides to leak it to settle an internal score.

There will also be a number of theories advanced by Labor people, some designed less to explain than obscure where responsibility might lie.

One current theory is that Clive Palmer badly undermined Labor by acting as, in Wayne Swan’s words “a preference-recycling scheme for the Liberal and National Party”. Palmer himself has backed that by claiming responsibility for Morrison’s win. It’s true that the significant fall in Labor’s vote appears to have at least partly gone to the LNP via first preference votes for Palmer. And Palmer’s constant advertising against Labor and Bill Shorten would have also hurt.

There are two big problems, though.

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First, while spending barely a cent compared to Palmer’s tens of millions, Pauline Hanson managed to get more than twice Palmer’s vote in Queensland and three times his vote in Western Australia — not to mention a frightening 22% in the NSW seat of Hunter. Second, if Labor voters can be tempted away by some advertising to vote for a discredited figure like Palmer, then Labor has more serious problems than a rogue billionaire.

There is something profoundly wrong in a political system when right-wing fringe elements attract a growing share of votes, and suggests that the main opposition party has failed to exploit what is an evident disaffection within the electorate.

As Crikey noted last week, the Coalition was running hard on a last-minute scare campaign around Labor’s negative gearing changes, targeting both homeowners and renters despite the fact that neither would ever be affected by the changes. Strangely, this campaign has been overlooked in the immediate aftermath of the election, with the commentariat focusing instead on Labor’s proposal to end the franking credit rort and how Morrison’s campaign against the “retiree tax” was what delivered for him.

That in itself says something about Labor: when you can’t work out which scare campaign was the most effective, then your overall program might be the issue, not specific elements. Remember, too, the franking credits rort is enjoyed almost entirely by wealthy retirees who wouldn’t vote Labor at gunpoint, and it doesn’t explain why Labor did particularly badly in Queensland and Western Australia, or why wealthy retirees decided to vote for One Nation and Palmer rather than the Coalition.

If there is a consensus in the washup from Saturday, it’s that Labor’s reform agenda was too big and too scary. That perception is likely to cruel the immediate leadership hopes of Chris Bowen, who was hands-down Labor’s best performer in the campaign but who is closely associated with the reform package.

The issue may not have been the size and complexity of Labor’s reform agenda but the focussing of its message. US Democrat and union pollster Vic Fingerhut nailed this last week in a piece in Crikey: “with the exception of a few references to ‘a fair go’, there wasn’t a simple, compelling overriding message.” Fingerhut presciently compared this campaign to 2004 (people forget that many expected Mark Latham to win even late in that campaign), which he examined after he worked with Labor in 2005.

The electorate preferred the ALP on the overwhelming number of specific issues, but the Coalition was still winning — as it had won in the four previous elections. The problem today, as it was then, is that we are pushing too many issues for folks to absorb, particularly among the undecided swinging voters.

Labor needed to simplify the question for voters, Fingerhut argued. “Establish a basic question for the final days and final vote choice… Which party is more likely to stand up for regular working families in Australia, and not just the big corporations or the very rich?”

It’s clear that Labor didn’t do that. It spent much of the campaign bogged down in detail around the costing of its policies and how they would work and talking about its fiscal strategy. It also devoted about half of the campaign to talking virtually exclusively about health — an important issue, to be sure, but the sheer range of announcements and focus on cancer seemed to cloud the basic issue. People don’t plan to get cancer. They tell themselves they’ll never get it and hope they’re proven right. But everyone knows they’ll use a hospital or a doctor or some other health professional at some point.

A sharper, simpler, more effective message might have also headed off the government’s scare campaigns around specific policies. But then again, if Labor was getting the same polling data as we saw in the published polls, it’s possible it had no idea that voters were turning away in Queensland and WA.

It’s dead easy to make the wrong call when you’re getting wrong information.

Did Labor fail in its messaging to voters, or was there something else at play? Drop us a line at boss@crikey.com.au with your thoughts. Please include your full name if you would like to be considered for publication.