You’ve got to hand it to Labor. The party whose leaders do concession speeches so well that you sometime suspect it is the true destination of the campaign has reflected on its 2019 effort and produced a review of that ghastly, disorganised, leaderless event that is — in argument, layout and presentation — a masterpiece of concision, directness and style.
There is something near-pathological about this: the crisp executive summary, the subheadings, the FAQs, the ice-blue colour of the headers font (how much time was spent choosing that, I wonder) all dedicated to a story that should make you angry enough if you merely voted for Labor, and incandescent with rage if you actually campaigned for them.
This review confirms everything one suspected — and either held one’s tongue over or expressed circumspectly — during those weeks, as Bill Shorten was pictured day after day giving a speech at a lectern like an undertaker recording his own video eulogy. Meanwhile Scomo shot down a Wet’n’Wild waterslide with an actual Weber barbecue, cooking snags as he went, singing the clean version of “Khe Sanh”. Or so it seemed.
To be fair, the review is as unsparing as Alcoholics Anonymous’ “full inventory of our failings” demands: Labor lost “because of a weak campaign that never found direction, a cluttered policy agenda, and an unpopular leader”. Ouch.
Bad times, but behind the scenes it was worse. Some of the revelations are extraordinary. As this writer noted repeatedly over past years, Shorten’s tendency to surround himself with cronies would put him in a situation where effective leadership was impossible. This came to pass exactly so. Here’s about half of the review’s key findings in two paragraphs:
Dear God, how is that level of disorganisation possible? Such chaos almost requires organisation and planning. And of course it has it: the party as a whole has simply taken on the form dictated by the collapse into microfactions which gave Shorten his path to power. Interlocking informal groups somehow move forward, their personnel chosen for loyalty and fealty rather than talent or application.
From that utterly unforgivable lack of basic organisation much of the rest followed, at least at a responsive, campaign level: absence of a simple narrative; failure to adjust to the change from Turnbull to Morrison; failure to attack the government’s failings hard enough; archaic imagery (the “top end of town”) unconvincing for a centre-left party. And on and on.
The review is honest enough to describe Shorten as an unpopular leader, but it ducks the fact that he should be blamed for not arresting organisational failure, nor acknowledge that by the end of the campaign he was not merely unpopular, but hated. People didn’t dislike Shorten at the start of the campaign, simply because they didn’t know him yet. The deadened style of his campaigning communicated not gravitas but presumption that the job was already his.
Beyond that, it’s the stuff everyone’s been talking about: Queensland, Adani, the UAP blitz, the declining primary among all but university graduates. Yet here the review wanders away from proximate causes of defeat, to the wider questions of its base and core purpose. Here it tries to do far too much — a social analysis of sorts that can never escape the marketing framework — and consequently decomposes into a set of imperatives as disconnected as the failed policy suite the review is supposed to be examining. Labor must retain its progressivism but appeal to the outer suburbs; it must stand for liberal rights, but reconnect to Christians, etc.
Thus, what looks courageous is actually still ducking the real challenge: that the progressive-mainstream split is not merely a division between two sets of ideas which must be synthesised — not wiggled a bit left. a bit right like a grab-the-furry-toy arcade game — but also runs neatly between the party elite and its voting base. Solving that (more of which we’ll look at later) will take more than a handsomely produced report.
But my it is beautiful. Labor do it so well, failure.
Next week: How does Labor solve its problems?