Opinion

Chris Wallace
Labor’s election chances

It is two years this week since Labor’s shock federal election loss, and the consequences are increasingly serious.

Falling wages for Australian workers are a conscious part of the Morrison government’s 2021 budget strategy – quite a feat given $100 billion in new spending creating an extraordinary trillion-dollar debt ahead.

Quarantine and the vaccination rollout continue to be such a debacle that borders will be closed and Australians grounded until at least winter 2022.

Economically irrational government investments in the environmentally damaging oil and gas sector continue apace.

Help for universities, crucial to the nation and one of our biggest export industries, remains denied, despite quarantine and vaccination policy failures cutting off the very foreign student revenue government funding cuts have forced them to rely on for years.

And it’s not only voters on the progressive side of politics concerned about Australia’s direction under the Morrison government.

Some rusted-on Liberal and National Party voters are questioning how Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Treasurer Josh Frydenberg can spend quite so much money, and rack up such an astonishing debt, without creating anything of enduring benefit to the nation.

They are agog at the “junk” spending, and mystified Frydenberg went along with Morrison’s “money spray” pre-election budget strategy given he will wear the trillion-dollar debt tag for the rest of his political life.

Against this alarming backdrop, one significant question is being asked about the Albanese opposition: Is it capable of winning the election that’s due some time in the next year?

Last year in my book How to Win an Election I analysed Shorten Labor’s loss in 2019, to work out why the party that had won every Newspoll between that election and the previous one failed at the finishing post.

Something crucial emerged in my research. Over the past 50 years about a third of federal elections were won with majorities of just a handful of seats.

So federal elections in Australia are often incredibly close, including Shorten’s loss in 2019. Morrison won with a majority of just two seats.

In the immediate aftermath of an election, most people – even political professionals – instinctively settle on one or at most two reasons to explain the outcome. The leader, the policies and/or the media are the usual culprits identified. Given their importance, they are usually part of the reason a party loses.

But are there others? And in that one-third of federal elections that come down to a handful of seats, how could the result have been changed?

I set out to answer these questions through the prism of the 2019 election. Two years on, as the next federal election looms, it is worth thinking about how the Albanese opposition is going compared with the Shorten opposition at the same stage of the political cycle.

The answer is, pretty much the same.

The latest Newspoll has Labor ahead 51 per cent to the Coalition 49 per cent after the notional distribution of preferences. So Labor is ahead on a two party-preferred basis, but not by much.

Labor’s primary vote is 36 per cent, well behind the LNP’s 41 per cent. Combining it with the Greens’ 12 per cent primary vote only gets the “progressive” vote to an underwhelming 48 per cent.

These figures are often dismissed – particularly after Newspoll’s credibility, and that of pollsters generally, took a deserved hit at the 2019 election.

Nevertheless, the Guardian Essential poll and Nine newspapers’ Resolve poll are broadly in line with Newspoll.

Putting aside the actual numbers and looking at the relationship between those numbers instead, the message is that Labor’s polling is okay but not great. Like the Shorten opposition at the same stage of the cycle, Labor is in the race but without compelling momentum.

The low primary vote would be the biggest concern to those in the party.

Since Federation, Labor has never formed majority government with less than 39.4 per cent – the primary vote the Hawke government got at the 1990 election. Even the minority Gillard government in 2010 got 38 per cent of the primary vote.

Albanese Labor’s 36 per cent is short of the mark.

Critics will point to the margin of error and while it is true that the primary vote may be some percentage points bigger, it could also be some percentage points lower.

Behind the scenes some Labor analysts point to the fact that the Morrison government got no poll bounce at all from Australia’s biggest-spending budget to show how solid Labor’s underlying position is. They argue Morrison switching to pandemic border issues so quickly after the budget confirmed that the cash splash has flubbed.

Other Labor analysts, however, expect some budget bounce to show up for the government in the next Newspoll, once the public has had time to process.

Polling is not the be-all and end-all, as Morrison’s 2019 election win and Paul Keating’s defeat of the John Hewson-led opposition at the Coalition’s so-called “unlosable election” in 1993 show.

Indeed, one of the major conclusions from my research is that every election is winnable. This is as true for Albanese at the next election as it is for Morrison.

So how is Albanese Labor doing compared with Shorten Labor at the same point in the cycle?

I argue that winning leaders have to be able to do both the substance and the theatre of politics to maximise their chance of winning – and that if you can’t do the theatre, no one is going to bother to open their ears to your message. Morrison besting Shorten in the theatre of politics was critical to his 2019 victory.

Albanese has eliminated the “bad theatre” dimension of Labor’s previous leadership regime. The opposition optics are not weighed down by baggy T-shirted, jogging footage – a relief all round. Albanese’s suits are good and fit properly. He cannot be faulted for trying.

The inescapable picture, however, is of a bloke past his prime.

Labor has backed in behind the slogan “On your side”, but Albanese’s visible wear and tear raises the latent question about what someone who appears to have so many kilometres on the tyres could actually deliver.

This is especially the case for the many voters who still don’t know who Albanese is. The compare and contrast with the bustling, bullish energy of Morrison – just five years younger but projecting a lot more life force – is much in the prime minister’s favour.

This shows up unmistakably in their relative approval ratings. The latest Newspoll has Morrison on a +20 net approval rating and Albanese on a -7 net approval rating, and other polls show a similar picture.

It is true the most popular leader does not always win the election. The Australian National University’s “Australian Election Study” figures for the past dozen elections show that three out of 12 polls were won by the less popular leader.

On each occasion government actually changed hands, however, the winner was more popular than the incumbent they dislodged – not a good portent for Albanese.

Electorally, Shorten and Albanese are pretty much on the same footing at this stage of the cycle.

Could an alternative leader bring more to the table?

While there are several aspirants, their unwillingness to unite behind one person who could be more of a vote magnet than Albanese is, or Shorten was, has so far prevented change.

Most contenders are positioning themselves to succeed Albanese after the next election, hoping to gain his and his supporters’ votes in the next Labor leadership contest.

Still traumatised by the Rudd–Gillard–Rudd wars, Labor MPs are now also deeply conditioned against action, even if it would optimise the party’s election chances. Never mind that the Coalition has been successful at three elections in a row with three different leaders, all of whom came to the Liberal leadership with blood on their hands.

In a couple of respects, Albanese is clearly doing better than Shorten. He is making better use of his best frontbench talent in key portfolios. He is also avoiding the policy blizzard problem that made Shorten Labor an easy Coalition disinformation target.

Like Shorten, however, Albanese has not crafted or communicated a short, sharp message supporters can use in water cooler conversations at work, or to neighbours over the back fence, encapsulating a compelling reason to switch their vote to Labor.

Rank-and-file Labor members are demoralised by the lack of clarity. Observers are mystified about why the opposition’s message remains so nebulous. These problems are fixable but there is not much time left.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 22, 2021 as "Whither Labor?".

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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.