Everything is not okay

Labor’s campaign review makes 60 findings. It says they can be condensed to three: the party had a weak campaign strategy, was not adaptable, and was held back by an unpopular leader.

The review’s contents page flattens the election into a series of sad phrases. Together they seem to say how little it was about: “Early Labor stumbles… Bob Brown’s Adani convoy… Death tax… Bill Shorten’s mother… Bob Hawke’s death…”

Labor had no agreed plan for the election and no committee to settle one. It was difficult to give feedback. Some policies were decided on the fly. Announcements crowded each other. There was no clear narrative.

According to the review, swings came from poorer couples in outer-urban and regional seats. They were anxious that Labor’s policies “would crash the economy and risk their jobs”. In key electorates, Labor lost Chinese–Australian voters. Christians were hesitant, too: “On the whole, people of faith did not desert Labor, but Labor lost some support among Christian voters – particularly devout, first-generation migrant Christians.”

Among other things, the review’s authors proved a sentence need not be elegant to be true. Two important and upsetting points are hidden in this tangle: “Paradoxically, many of the people for whom Labor’s policy agenda was designed to benefit voted against the Party and those adversely affected by Labor’s tax policies swung to Labor, while the openness intended by promoting a detailed policy agenda caused fear rather than trust.”

Labor says its core values didn’t cost it the election. It says it must act on climate change. It is caught in a situation where the unequal won’t vote for their own equality, or not enough of them will. The magnanimous rich are too few and they do not win elections.

The review says Labor has been “mobilised to address the political grievances of a vast and disparate constituency”. Instead of seeing this as a good, which it is, the review characterises it as a grievance-based approach that moves from one issue to another and produces policies for too broad a range of concerns. “Care needs to be taken,” it says, “to avoid Labor becoming a grievance-based organisation.”

The review says Shorten was unpopular, but it doesn’t attempt to say why. Its best effort is to say that opposition is long and wearing and that the word “shifty” stuck: “A sustained campaign of attacks by the Coalition on Shorten’s personal credibility had taken its toll. Attempts by the Party to develop a strategy that lifted Shorten’s personal standing prior to the campaign were inadequate and unsuccessful.”

Labor’s campaign was flawed but its policies were right. Its failure came in acknowledging that the country needs to change. More than anything, Australians want a prime minister who covers for their shortcomings – who says not to worry, and that most of you will be okay.

Bill Shorten said almost the opposite – there’s a lot to worry about, but together we can fix it. He said it with insecurity and sometimes frustration. Twice he said it through tears. He scared the country by being honest. Scott Morrison did not make the same mistake.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 9, 2019 as "Everything is not okay".

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