Martin Salter - working hard for Reading West

Campaign Lesson from Abroad

Having recently retired as a Labour politician after 25 years in public life and escaped the horrors of a hung parliament in Britain to enjoy a sabbatical in sunny Sydney, I have had plenty of time to observe this great Australian contest at close quarters. What a drab, joyless, uninspiring spectacle it turned out to be.

Australians are a great people and I can’t help feeling that they deserve better than most of the politics and some of the politicians who were on offer last week.

Julia Gillard is a pretty impressive politician, a good (if slightly monotonous) communicator and, apparently, an excellent minister always on top of her brief. It seemed to me Australia, by and large, liked the lady.

They may have voted for her in greater numbers if she had spent longer in the top job spelling out a vision and allowing memories of the defenestration of Kevin Rudd to fade a little more.

On the other side was Tony Abbott, who some of my ALP friends assured me was an unelectable, half-crazed former president and founder of the Flat Earth Society whose gaffe-prone style would never survive the pressure and scrutiny of a full-on election campaign. They may have been half right, but it is now clear he proved himself a formidable and disciplined campaigner capable of staying on message for at least five weeks. Mind you, the ability to hide your true feelings from the people you are seeking to lead is hardly the finest pre-requisite for becoming prime minister.

The Coalition campaign was negative, disciplined and effective. They managed to turn the contest into a referendum on Labor’s fitness to govern, rather presenting themselves as a clear choice on who was best able to deliver a better future for Australia.

Stage one in the campaign manual for administrations facing re-election is: choice not referendum, future not the past. The Labor strategy came nowhere near achieving this, with its relentless focus on yesterday and lack of forward vision. For parties of the left in particular, the vision thing is crucial. With the exception of the national broadband network, I struggled to discern much mention of the sunlit uplands into which Labor would lead the nation. Where was Ben Chifley’s ”light on the hill”? Barack Obama’s ”yes we can”? Or even Tony Blair’s more utilitarian ”A lot done - a lot left to do” that saw Blair romp to a second successive landslide in 2001.

Worse, there appeared little sign of inter-linking narrative or punchy messages to cut through the fog of confusion that assaults the voters in any fiercely fought campaign. Abbott’s war cry of stopping waste, boats and new taxes may not stand serious scrutiny, but it was brutally short and easily memorable.

The home insulation program, schools investment overspends and emissions trading scheme fed the Coalition narrative of Labor waste and incompetence and masked the good story to tell on the economy.

Australian national debt, at 6 per cent of gross domestic product, compared to 76 per cent in Britain and 72 per cent in the US, should hardly have been an issue. By failing to put both the strength and future of the economy at the centre of its campaign message, Labor threw away its strongest card and allowed the opposition to set the agenda.

Almost unbelievable was that a confessed climate change denialist like Abbott could land any blows in a nation with regions on the very margins of habitability. Gillard’s ridiculous citizens assembly hardly made the government look credible on the very issue said to have triggered Rudd’s slide into unpopularity.

The Coalition and Abbott were policy-lite and still carried damaging baggage from the Howard era and, more recently, their inept response to the global financial crisis, yet they turned the contest into a referendum on the government rather than the clear choice Labor needed it to be.

Abbott made two big mistakes at his otherwise impressive campaign launch. The ”worst government in history” jibe invited much tougher response than Labor provided. It created the opportunity for the government to accuse him of talking down Australia - always a problem for opposition leaders.

Second, his debt reduction task force should have been rebranded ”Abbott’s schools and hospitals reduction plan” by Labor. He had form in cutting health when in government and Gillard has a record of expansion in education. Abbott’s fitness to be prime minister was always a strong card for Labor, but it was poorly played.

There needed to be more focus on achievements, rather than endless announcements which, after a while, seemed meaningless or invited cynicism. We should have heard more about hospital waiting list cuts, improving school results, more apprenticeships, more new jobs and Australia’s strong economic position.

And where was the big forward offer? A pledge in three years’ time on how Australians could not only look forward to greater prosperity, but to a range of public service guarantees for them and their families to build a fairer society. A Charter for Australia?

I reckon most people wanted to give Gillard a fair go. More may have come on her side if a Labor campaign had helped rather than hindered her cause.

first published by the Sydney Morning Herald, 24 August 2010.