Opinion

Chris Wallace
Can Labor win the election?

This time next year Australia will be well into the Albanese government’s first term or the Morrison government’s third. If you had to bet your house on it now, which would you predict?

The atmosphere is eerily reminiscent of the run-up to the previous federal election. The rational brains of many Labor people say the opposition is probably doing well enough to win, while their lizard brains fear a fourth successive loss.

This may be the grim dividend of a political run that has conditioned them to disappointment, especially after narrow election losses in 2016 and 2019 under Bill Shorten’s leadership. Or it could be the visceral but nevertheless well-based foreboding of another loss ahead.

So, has Albanese Labor done enough to win?

There are clear signs pointing to a Labor victory. Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese knows every election is there for the winning and is personally convinced he will win. People have underestimated him before and he’s shown them to be wrong, and will do so again, he says privately.

This is the same kind of self-belief that drove Prime Minister Scott Morrison to achieve his “miracle” win at the 2019 election, even as colleagues universally wrote off the Coalition’s chance of victory – many so convinced of an impending loss that they retired from politics.

Current polling supports Albanese’s conviction. Labor is ahead after the notional distribution of preferences, whichever poll you look at. Public opinion favours action on climate change, one of the critical issues of our time. The latest Guardian Essential Poll shows overwhelming support for stronger and faster action on net-zero carbon emission targets for Australia, even among Coalition voters. That can only be a plus for parties such as Labor supporting more decisive climate change action than the government wants to or will ever deliver.

The polling also shows that Albanese is more popular than his predecessor as opposition leader – another plus. Further, his strategy to ensure Labor does not become the issue, to keep the focus on the government and fight the election on its performance in office, has been largely effective.

Albanese has seen off the vote-losing policies Labor took to the previous election and ensured new policies create winners, not losers. That’s smart politics. From opposition it makes Labor much more electable, and he is to be applauded for it.

The Labor frontbench, with Albanese improving the fit of key frontbenchers with critical portfolios, looks good and performs better than in Shorten’s time.

Labor has a surfeit of material to work with. The government has provided an endless parade of policy disasters, ethical failures and hick incompetence, of which virtually any single instance would normally ensure regime change come election time.

The weight of the cumulative policy and integrity failures should surely topple a government that looks rotten from the top down. Voters can see that and will surely punish it, the argument goes.

Still, Labor people are uneasy. There’s a pervasive feeling that Labor could get pipped at the post once more – a sullen concern they’re going to get dudded again.

No one, even many caucus members, senses a political momentum poised to inexorably sweep Albanese Labor into government.

There are several reasons for this. They are why Labor people’s lizard brains may be giving them a better read on the situation than their rational ones.

Central is the fact that Albanese’s cast-iron self-belief is met and matched by Morrison’s, in whom it is undiminished despite the rolling debacle his government has constituted since the “miracle” of 2019.

Having pulled it off once, Morrison is convinced he can do it again. Only one of them will turn out to be right, but who’s to say it won’t be Morrison, especially given the alacrity with which he saw off Shorten in those five weeks of Daggy Dad-dom?

The other reason for caution is in the fact that the polls were wrong across the board last time and could be again. It’s true that reputable polling firms recognised this and rejigged their models in light of their 2019 failure. However, the test of whether those tweaks have actually improved accuracy won’t come until election day, when election-eve polling can be compared with the actual result – too late to help get an accurate fix on the parties’ relative positions now.

Even accurate polling between elections is merely a progress score. As sports fans know, the result at the end of the game can be quite different to the likely outcome suggested by the progress score, right up to the siren. Labor people know this better than anyone after Shorten Labor led every Newspoll between the 2016 and 2019 elections and still lost.

So the polls are at best suggestive. Objectively, up against the worst Australian government of our lifetimes, Labor’s 53-47 lead over the Coalition in the Newspoll two-party preferred is underwhelming.

A further reason for caution is that on climate policy Labor is still perceived to be straddling the same barbed-wire fence Shorten did at the previous election, with such damaging effect in rural and regional Queensland and Western Australia last time. Why should it expect different results there this time?

Albanese Labor has failed to communicate a substantive “just transition” plan that satisfies both the environmentally motivated voters, and the mining-minded rural and regional voters it needs to win office.

Nor has it sold the vote-winning story arising from its refusal to join government attempts to subsidise coal- and gas-fired power, as the Coalition tries to keep carbon-based energy in the mix beyond what is justified by current technology and price signals. With appeal to city and country voters alike, that vote-winning slogan would be “Labor: lower electricity bills for all.”

Wrapping fine words around good policies doesn’t mean you’re actually reaching voters. It’s the beginning of political communication, not the end. Across the board, Labor is failing to communicate its key offerings the way it needs for a compelling win.

Opposition frontbenchers express enormous frustration when these interrelated political failures are raised. “But I said this, and said that,” is the anguished reply. Following up and reading or listening to the speeches they point to is often rewarding, but most voters don’t have time.

There are various ways Labor could encapsulate the essence of its offering and put it on high rotation. “Cheaper electricity, better climate, more secure jobs for all” is one example. “Childcare, climate and cheaper electricity” is even better.

Whatever the slugline, Labor needs one and fast. They need something for candidates to muster behind and repeat ad nauseam between now and election day.

Even in its own rank and file, members are struggling to divine, from the thicket of words offered by their parliamentary team, what Labor’s unique selling points (USP) are to be shared with others.

This is an easily solved problem and someone should do it. That someone would be the leader. If Albanese doesn’t, leading frontbenchers should.

The short, sharp USP should be pumped hard through Labor branches, through social media, and directly, daily, by frontbenchers themselves. At every opportunity, at every level, on every platform, frontload the slugline – in lights, in bold capitals, underlined, repeated for good measure so no one misses it. Then follow up with as many other worthy words as you like.

Tony Abbott showed how with “Stop the boats,” “Axe the tax”, “Repay the debt”. The fact people remember them eight years later shows just how effective good political sluglines repeated endlessly can be.

If Labor could learn and apply this lesson, it would unnecessarily lose elections less often. It could help it win even despite shortcomings in other aspects of its communication efforts, notably the paucity of visual thinking in the team.

The final reason for caution about a likely Labor win concerns the leader. It’s true that Anthony Albanese is more popular than Bill Shorten was last time round. But Scott Morrison, despite everything, is more popular than Albanese.

The latest Newspoll for Morrison had “approve” 48 (+2), “disapprove” 49 (-1), for a net approval rating of -1. The same poll had for Albanese “approve” 37 (0), “disapprove” 47 (-1), for a net approval rating of -10. Sobering.

The more popular leader doesn’t always win the election. However, the last four times government changed hands in Australia – in 1983, 1996, 2007 and 2013 – the more popular leader prevailed.

So, to win the next election Albanese, less popular than Morrison, will have to buck history. If he does, he’ll be a hero. If he doesn’t, Labor people will rue not having put a more appealing leader in place sooner.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 16, 2021 as "Can Labor win the election?".

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Chris Wallace is associate professor at the 50/50 by 2030 Foundation, Faculty of Business Government and Law, University of Canberra.