Ex­pos­ing the ALP’s elec­tion ‘epiphany’

Find­ing rea­sons for the elec­tion loss was easy; but the ALP must adapt if it is to re­claim power

The Australian - - FRONT PAGE - SI­MON BEN­SON NA­TIONAL AF­FAIRS ED­I­TOR

Buried within the orgy of self­ind­ul­gence that is La­bor’s elec­tion re­view lies the fun­da­men­tal prob­lem at the heart of the party’s cri­sis.

It has lit­tle to do with the cam­paign that failed so stun­ningly on May 18, yet it ex­plains the prob­lem that un­der­pins it.

The party went to the polls with an un­pop­u­lar leader, a truck­load of taxes and a cam­paign ma­chine that, de­spite all this, be­lieved so much in its own ge­nius that there was no prospect of los­ing. It fell for its own hype.

‘Care needs to be taken to avoid La­bor be­com­ing a griev­ance-fo­cused or­gan­i­sa­tion’

CRAIG EMER­SON AND JAY WEATHER­ILL

LA­BOR ELEC­TION RE­VIEW

Buried within the orgy of self-in­dul­gence that is La­bor’s elec­tion re­view lies the fun­da­men­tal prob­lem at the heart of the party’s cri­sis.

It has lit­tle to do with the cam­paign that failed so stun­ningly on May 18 yet it ex­plains the prob­lem that un­der­pins it.

La­bor hardly needs a re­view to work out how it lost the elec­tion this year. It needs a re­view that ex­plains why.

The party went to the polls with an un­pop­u­lar leader, a truck­load of taxes and a cam­paign ma­chine that, de­spite all this, be­lieved so much in its own ge­nius that there was no prospect of los­ing. It fell for its own hype, driven by a mis­guided sense of its pur­pose and a mis­in­ter­pre­ta­tion that Aus­tralians felt it was “time for change”.

None of this is rev­e­la­tory but the me­chan­ics of the cam­paign oc­cu­pies most of the 92-page re­view by for­mer trade min­is­ter Craig Emer­son and for­mer South Aus­tralian pre­mier Jay Weather­ill.

Just 705 words were de­voted to the longer-term struc­tural frac­tur­ing of La­bor’s base, which not only threat­ens the party’s abil­ity to win polls but also ques­tions its iden­tity.

The sec­tion on La­bor’s cul­ture iden­ti­fies the ex­is­ten­tial dilemma for left-of-cen­tre par­ties more gen­er­ally. This is the why.

La­bor is now a move­ment whose mem­ber­ship is split be­tween two vi­o­lently di­ver­gent con­stituen­cies.

This was vividly ev­i­dent in the “coal v cli­mate change” bat­tle that lost La­bor votes in Queens­land but won it sup­port in pock­ets of Vic­to­ria — but not in the outer sub­urbs. And while cli­mate change may have been totemic, the po­lar­i­sa­tion ex­tends into the be­d­rooms, lounge rooms and class­rooms of or­di­nary Aus­tralians, in­clud­ing those who vote La­bor. Or at least once did.

It is a dilemma the re­port con­cedes will not be one eas­ily ad­dressed for La­bor. Ab­sent from the re­port was how to ad­dress it.

“La­bor has broad­ened its po­lit­i­cal con­stituency to re­flect the grow­ing di­ver­sity of so­ci­ety,” the re­port says on page 38.

“The La­bor Party has be­come the nat­u­ral home for these di­verse in­ter­ests and con­cerns in­clud­ing gen­der equal­ity, the LGBTQI+ com­mu­nity, racial equal­ity and en­vi­ron­men­tal­ism.”

Some of the re­port’s find­ings were ex­tra­or­di­nary. La­bor’s once for­mi­da­ble cam­paign ma­chine col­lapsed un­der the weight of its own hubris. It failed to rec­on­cile its own in­ter­nal track­ing show­ing a se­ri­ous prob­lem with its pri­mary vote and that of the pub­lished polls sug­gest­ing a con­fi­dent vic­tory. None of this was com­mu­ni­cated to

Bill Shorten’s team, which was con­vinced up un­til polling day that it was headed for a size­able vic­tory.

Clive Palmer’s $50m in­ter­ven­tion took La­bor by sur­prise. For the first time its union dol­lars were matched.

The ALP as­sumed a re­peat of 2016 and didn’t ac­count for a Lib­eral Party ma­chine headed by An­drew Hirst that smashed La­bor’s mes­sag­ing out of the park with re­ac­tive dig­i­tal cam­paign­ing and the sim­ple and ef­fec­tive de­mon­is­ing of Shorten and his tax poli­cies.

None of this can be an ex­cuse for La­bor. It must as­sume it will face an equally well-fi­nanced and for­mi­da­ble Lib­eral cam­paign ma­chine in 2022.

The point is whether La­bor is pre­pared to learn from and em­brace the lessons of the past and ad­dress the real prob­lem.

The fan­fare around the pub­lic re­lease of an elec­tion re­view, many of which in the past have sim­ply been shoved out the back door, demon­strates how blinded La­bor re­mains to the elec­toral re­al­i­ties that the re­port pur­ports to ad­dress.

One of the sharpest po­lit­i­cal doc­u­ments writ­ten af­ter an elec­tion de­feat was the Bromp­ton re­port com­mis­sioned by Michael O’Con­nor, now CFMEU na­tional sec­re­tary, fol­low­ing La­bor’s 2004 loss un­der Mark Latham.

“There was a time when our un­am­bigu­ous de­fence of work­ers’ jobs and their liveli­hoods was seen as pro­gres­sive, ad­mired and re­spected,” that re­port said.

“What has changed over this pe­riod is the peo­ple run­ning the La­bor Party ma­chine — the ap­pa­ratchiks, ad­vis­ers and politi­cians — are no longer at­tuned to the ba­sic as­pi­ra­tions of hon­est work­ing men and women but sing to a com­pletely mis­guided (and elec­torally wrong) tune that seeks to ap­pease the un­ap­peasable.

“They place their faith … in the shal­low and cheap pro­pa­ganda of a wealthy, in­ner-city elite which has a barely con­cealed con­tempt for a bunch of work­ers from the bush or outer sub­urbs.”

It added: “Un­til such time as the La­bor Party ma­chine re­alises that they have a fun­da­men­tal dis­con­nec­tion with large sec­tions of main­stream Aus­tralia, they will con­tinue to face elec­toral iso­la­tion. If they do not ad­dress this prob­lem, La­bor could face a pe­riod of op­po­si­tion equiv­a­lent to the lost years of the 1950s and 60s.”

This should have been La­bor’s Ten Com­mand­ments.

This year’s re­view is hon­est about the ALP’s fun­da­men­tal prob­lems, even if the as­sess­ment is per­func­tory. In its sum­mary, the re­port iden­ti­fies the re­lease of 250 poli­cies and $100bn in spend­ing as a dis­as­trous er­ror that scared vot­ers and con­fused the mes­sage.

In the few para­graphs de­voted to the core chal­lenge, the re­port warns of La­bor’s in­dul­gence of iden­tity pol­i­tics. “The mo­bil­i­sa­tion of the La­bor Party to ad­dress the po­lit­i­cal griev­ances of this vast and dis­parate con­stituency has ac­cel­er­ated at the same time as many peo­ple who would have been re­garded as tra­di­tional La­bor vot­ers have looked to La­bor for an­swers to their prob­lems,” it says. “Work­ing peo­ple ex­pe­ri­enc­ing the dis­lo­ca­tion caused by new tech­nolo­gies and glob­al­i­sa­tion could lose faith in La­bor if they do not be­lieve La­bor is re­spond­ing to their is­sues but is fo­cus­ing on is­sues not of con­cern to them or, in some cases, are ac­tively against their in­ter­ests.

“Care needs to be taken to avoid La­bor be­com­ing a griev­ance-fo­cused or­gan­i­sa­tion. This ap­proach leads to a cul­ture of mov­ing from one is­sue to the next, lead­ing to the for­mu­la­tion of myr­iad poli­cies that re­spond to a broad range of griev­ances.

“This dilemma is not lim­ited to the Aus­tralian La­bor Party but is faced in sim­i­lar form by left-of­cen­tre par­ties around the world ... it can­not be re­solved sim­ply by choos­ing one con­stituency over an­other. La­bor can­not aban­don its com­mit­ment to so­cial jus­tice but it must re­con­nect with low-in­come vot­ers in the outer sub­urbs and re­gions.”

The chal­lenge can be met only if the party ad­mits the prob­lem ex­ists in the first place, the re­port finds.

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