Opinion

Paul Bongiorno
Post-election blues all round

Never has it been more obvious: getting elected is one task, governing is another. While Labor tries to move on from its election loss review, delivered to the executive on Thursday, Scott Morrison is finding that running the country is harder than winning the unwinnable election.

A clue to the incumbents’ malaise ironically comes from Labor’s Tanya Plibersek. She was destined to be deputy prime minister in a Shorten government, until that project hit a Morrison brick wall in May. Still her party’s Education spokesperson, she says she doesn’t have people “in the street asking me how’s the Labor Party review going”. No – they ask her about their kids’ school or the chance their “son or daughter can get an apprenticeship”. The things that concern people are “decent jobs with good pay, secure conditions”.

On that score, in a week that saw the worst Australian retail figures since the early 1990s recession, the economy is struggling and the government is looking like a racehorse stuck in the starting gate. It is not being helped by the Reserve Bank holding the official cash rate at the emergency level of 0.75 per cent after its meeting on Melbourne Cup Day. The RBA doesn’t do that if it thinks the economy is finally beginning to perform better. Whatever way you try to spin it, nothing Morrison and his treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, promised would happen with their economic plan before the election has come to pass.

One thing about elections: winners look like political geniuses, and everything they said and did is credited with omniscience, except the reality could not be further from the truth. Analysis by The Sydney Morning Herald’s economics writer Shane Wright found that the promised $1080 low- and middle-income tax boost to nearly five million Australian taxpayers “has turned into a $420 bump barely noticed by the nation’s shopkeepers”. The treasurer counters that the figure is an average, by which he no doubt means to imply plenty of people must have got the top rate. Even if we concede his point, something dissuaded them from rushing out and shopping ’til they dropped.

It is not a stretch to posit this explanation: Australians are not feeling secure about their jobs, their wages aren’t keeping pace with the cost of living and they have chosen to begin paying down their contribution to Australia’s record household debt. Not many economists share the RBA governor’s view in Tuesday’s statement that “after a soft patch in the second half of last year, a gentle turning point appears to have been reached”.

An exception is Stephen Koukoulas of Market Economics, who admits to being a “glass-half-full man”. He says the tax cuts have pumped billions into the economy and will need more time to take effect. He’s forecasting an increase in private capital expenditure, government spending and household consumption next year. Even if he’s right, RBA governor Philip Lowe says it will take economic growth another two years to increase to a better but still comparatively weak 3 per cent with no significant wage growth. Koukoulas does agree with the consensus of economists that the government should apply more fiscal stimulus to drive the growth rate harder. And he says it can do it and still deliver a surplus, albeit a smaller one.

Guardian Australia’s Greg Jericho says the annual growth of retail trade has now fallen for 12 consecutive months – the worst run since the global financial crisis. He says it is “beyond clear that the economy is utterly stagnant”, and that “if the Morrison government wants to have any economic credibility, the midyear economic and fiscal outlook to be released next month must contain some fiscal stimulus measures”.

What is disturbing for many, especially in the aged-care sector, is that money isn’t being spent now. In response to Health Minister Greg Hunt being reluctant to announce an immediate $2.5 billion for home-care packages for the elderly last Sunday, Labor launched an “Aged Care, Act Now” campaign. Anthony Albanese said, “There is no excuse for Greg Hunt to have gone on the Insiders program … to not have an answer, but to say that they would wait weeks for a response.” Hunt admitted on the program that the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety “went further than we expected” in its scathing interim report. It certainly did, blaming this and previous governments for “neglect” and saying the aged-care sector is “a sad and shocking system that diminishes Australia as a nation”.

The reluctance to announce funding that is already provided for in the budget is another example of the government buying time or trying to work itself out as it goes. Albanese says the issue of seniors’ neglect is “too important … to kick it down the road for weeks to come. They have already had more than two years to respond. It is simply not good enough.” He says the government is “good at spin and marketing” when it comes to announcing inquiries and reports, but “what we don’t have often is responses to those reports”.

A case in point is the report of the Joint Agency Drought Taskforce, headed by Major-General Stephen Day. He handed his findings to the government seven months ago, before the election. Cabinet has taken until this week to thrash out a response, which again demanded “significant” spending and more emphasis on drought “preparedness”. Clearly the government’s lack of preparedness has left many in the bush unimpressed and has mightily unsettled the Liberals’ Coalition partners, the Nationals.

What all this demonstrates is that you don’t need to spell out a big agenda in precise detail to win an election. Labor’s election post-mortem concluded this is a recipe for defeat. It gives your opponents the chance to run “good old-fashioned scare campaigns”. That’s what happened to the Liberals’ John Hewson in the 1993 “unlosable election” and again this year to Labor’s Bill Shorten. It will be a long time before an opposition is as “crazy brave” as Shorten was this year with such a “big target” campaign.

One Labor insider characterised the report’s conclusion for the loss along the lines of “dud leader, dud policies and a dud campaign”. That summary has already found its way into much media commentary. But Anthony Albanese, in his formal response at Friday’s National Press Club, was keen to move on while acknowledging the identified lessons have been well learnt. He accepts that his job now is to heal the party’s wounds rather than to be involved in recrimination, and to begin in earnest to position the party for the next election, due in 2022. That may be easier said than done.

Party president Wayne Swan accepts that Labor didn’t do enough “to defend our vulnerabilities on taxes”. Like Shorten, he credits the effectiveness of the “ruthless demonisation” of these policies in the $60 million “spending spree by a single plutocrat, Clive Palmer – one of the biggest in the modern history of Western elections”. Labor was outspent six to one by its opponents.

But according to the findings of the review – conducted by former Labor premier Jay Weatherill and former Trade minister Craig Emerson – the real problem was Labor had too many policies and that they couldn’t be effectively communicated to the electorate. That made it easier for the Liberals to characterise the agenda as big-spending and big-taxing.

Swan says he firmly believes “we cannot retreat on either the shape or content of our agenda. But [the] size is another thing.” He says this means Labor must find a way of communicating its vision through a shortlist of high-profile, easily campaignable policies. And although Shorten has already accepted full responsibility for the loss, Swan has no doubt the leader played a significant part in his own defeat. He says, “We must also acknowledge that the agenda can only be as large as the voters’ trust in the leader and the party to deliver it.”

The years of Liberal brawling and undermining of Malcolm Turnbull masked the drag on Labor’s vote that was Shorten’s leadership. He consistently lagged not only in the preferred prime minister polls but also on measures of his performance. He was never popular, despite Labor’s consistent lead in the polls. Political analyst Peter Brent says Shorten’s “evasive persona” accentuated the negatives Labor suffers over its handling of the economy.

In a piece for Inside Story, Brent wrote that Labor confused the difference between being in government and being in opposition. He points out the great reforming Hawke and Keating governments didn’t flag their much-lauded reforms from opposition. And he says these policies were rarely taken to an election first. John Hewson failed to win government with his goods and services tax reforms. Despite saying “never ever” in opposition, John Howard took the GST to the 1998 election while in government; he lost 18 seats but managed to retain power.

Brent says Labor shouldn’t overthink its loss. “If people are ready to get rid of a government, don’t stand in their way, don’t be difficult to vote for,” he concludes. “Don’t needlessly annoy voters. And leave big, complicated policy announcements for when you’re in government.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 9, 2019 as "Post-election blues". Subscribe here.

Paul Bongiorno
is a columnist for The Saturday Paper and a 30-year veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery.