“Look at that, the house’s timbers clenching right there in wild daylight. There’s no wind, no subsidence in the ground, nothing to resist, but every joint bleats there for a moment as if the place is bracing for a sneeze or expel or smother”. Tim Winton, cloudstreet
In Tim Winton’s cloudstreet, the events are centred on a house that carries a legacy of pain and history. The house expresses that pain throughout the novel, and acts a character that reflects the mood of the story and events in that house. Most of the characters don’t listen to the house, except Fish and characters at their more sensitive moments.
For the ALP in this campaign, it seemed that all they could see was the wild daylight ahead. No listening to be done. The light on the hill, the promise of a new government to change the narrative of the discordant Rudd – Gillard – Rudd years. That wild daylight was caused by the chaos and in-fighting that happened to the Coalition in Canberra.
They were so consumed by this daylight that even their policies seemed to be created with the whiff of them already being in government. “Yes, some will experience pain, but it’s for the greater good” was the theme of their signature revenue strategies, negative gearing / CGT reform and franking credits reform.
This wild daylight future was the theme of the coverage as well. How could they lose this election? was the question to a media who focused on Canberra and the results of election polling.
Quite easily, as it turned out. That’s because Labor and the media were not listening to the people.
In 1993, I was a passionate Liberal supporter. Mum was a dyed in the wool Liberal who was once invited to a party at the home of Billy McMahon – apparently me as a small child was at that party, playing with his children. Dad was a small businessman who generally supported the Liberals, but was not pleased at the idea that he could become a tax collector via the GST. By 1993, I was someone who went to one of Hewson’s notorious rallies, attempting to explain the complexities of Fightback.
At the time, I was angry with the campaign of Keating and the ALP. They promised little, but ran a comprehensive scare campaign that combined hyperbole with a sprinkling of truth here and there. I was amazed at the time that the media all called it the “unlosable election”, because it wasn’t at all. Hewson was proposing a comprehensive change to the way tax and revenue would be collected and used. The election showed that Australian voters are resistant to change, especially in regards to money and taxation.
The architects of that Labor campaign knew something about the Australian voting public – it is like Winton’s house in the wild daylight, clenching and bleating even when there’s no subsidence in the ground.
That clenching and bleating of the house timbers was stirred again this time around. We again saw an astounding barrage of negative advertising about the “retiree tax” and other scares about things that weren’t even Labor (or Greens) policy, such as an inheritance tax. That campaign was successful because Labor were suggesting changes, and that got the house – the voters in less established parts of Australia – nervous and shaking.
The story of the campaign can be told simply and clearly through the excellent map created by Ben Raue at The Tally Room. I want to highlight, as usual, Western Sydney and this time the Central Coast. The areas were largely ignored during the campaign by media articles – we heard a lot more about Kooyong, Warringah and Dickson than we did about Robertson, Lindsay and Macquarie. Even in the post election wash-up, online fury was directed at Queensland with its 4 – 5% swings. Yet in western Sydney and the Central Coast, there were swings of the same magnitude.
Robertson swung harder towards the Liberals, Lindsay went back, and Macquarie is another possibility. The only one of these outcomes that were predicted before the election was the loss of Lindsay, and the media focus put that largely down to the losing of Emma Husar via internal battles and accusations. Yet to look at these numbers, there does not seem to be an especially large swing in Lindsay, but more a trend that spread in Chifley and McMahon to its east and north to the Hawkesbury booths in Macquarie. We also see the same trend in Robertson.
But what does it all mean? It’s all about listening to the house, listening to the way it clenches and bleats.
When looking at the media coverage on Twitter, there was a lot of criticism of the ScoMo With Caps act. It’s an easy act to mock. Yet that really is the simple key to how Morrison has an appeal to the outer suburban voter that Malcolm Turnbull could never have. Turnbull was a wealthy, inner city ex-banker who embraced socially progressive issues rather than focus on appearing as if he was listening to outer suburban and regional voters. Truth was, Turnbull looked bored and disengaged in the 16 election, especially when away from the cities.
Morrison, however, appeared like he was listening, even though it is a well thought out act. Something was telling me whenever I saw Morrison out and about with his caps and beers (against the near consensus on Twitter) that Morrison did have more of an appeal to people in outer suburban areas than Turnbull. Morrison managed to capture something of the blokey charm of Abbott, but without the aggressive edge – more like a younger version of John Howard, but one who actually lives away from the inner city.
This can provide part of the explanation (but not all of it) as to why the areas that swung away from Turnbull in 2016 swung just as aggressively back to the Liberals this time around. The Canberra chaos that caused the switch to Morrison holds little to interest to the largely politically disinterested people in those areas, especially if the emergent leader is more palatable than the one replaced.
In contrast, Shorten did not appear as though he was listening to the concerns – real or confected – of people from these same swinging areas. He had spent a long time listening as opposition leader, but now he and Chris Bowen were explaining. A lot. Just as Hewson was in 1993. That was their problem – they were attempting to explain complicated taxation policies to people who more readily accepted that they were just “taxes” being taken away. Critics were dismissed as selfish and grasping – which they may well have been – yet those same critics marched to the polling places on Saturday and weren’t ready to accept these poorly explained changes.
This whirlpool of explanation just exposed how the strategy of making complicated taxation policy being at the centre of a campaign was one of the main problems for Labor. They needed to instead target just those who were perceived to be wealthy, rather than target an entire sector of people. That would have meant a shift in their policy and the way it was targeted. That would have meant:
- Allowing people to have 1 or 2 investment properties – suggest that more than that is greedy
- Allowing franking credits at a certain level, but cutting them off above a particular “greedy” level
- Most importantly, sell the things that would be paid for by the revenue more aggressively, and focus less on how it would be paid for.
- Be more specific in advertising what would be built – this was attempted in seats like Lindsay and Macquarie in the latter stages, but it was too piecemeal and didn’t link to the television advertising, which was too negative
There would be some around that would suggest that this is fundamentally flawed, that people shouldn’t be allowed point blank to continue to have franking credits, people shouldn’t be allowed to make money from negative gearing and capital gains tax concessions – those old Howard Costello bribes. While this is a fine argument in principle, it’s not a useful strategy to just discount the concerns of people at the lower end of benefitting from these concessions whose finances would be affected by such changes.
This reminds me once of an argument I had with the late John Kaye of the NSW Greens on the floor of a State Delegates’ Council, who wanted the NSW Greens to have a policy of defunding all non government schools. I argued that they needed instead to target the higher fee paying schools – still talk about the amounts of money poured into Cranbrook, Knox, Kings, etc – but that to target every single school – even the low fee paying Islamic, ASPECT and alternative education schools was to make an electoral mistake. To be unilateral in such a way is to alienate voters who send their children to low fee paying independent schools but still want to vote for climate change action and environmental protection. The strategy forces parents to choose between security of their children’s education and voting for a party on principle. In such a decision, their children will always win. He argued forcefully – and with no more detail – that such a distinction would “destroy the policy completely”. I was about to provide a counter argument with facts about those schools, but the NSW Greens being as they were, I was shut down by his allies on one of their arcane points of procedure. That room was in no mood to listen to a divergent view. I can understand why they acted in such a way – I understood the reasons and principles behind such a policy. My argument was about whether such policies can be accepted by the voting public – and still is.
The Labor Party seems to have approached this election in the same unilateral and principles first way, pushing ahead with a policy whilst shutting down people who might have had an issue with the way it was approached, packaged and sold. It forced people in the seats that swung to the Liberals into making a choice between supporting a party that offers a better nation or protecting their financial position – or at least, perceived financial position. Anthony Albanese seems to have already flagged such an approach, to provide compromises and limits that would act as ways of raising revenues, but not to give their opposition a chance to whip up a scare campaign.
There is also a lesson to be learned from the coverage of the election. There was little to no focus on these areas – again – other than when the ScoMo or Bill bus blew in and out of town. That’s why the result was such a shock to media outlets as well as those following the election closely on Twitter. It proved – once again – that there needs to be more listening to the areas frequently ignored by journalists and politicians, these swing seats. Emma Husar showed in her two campaigns for the Penrith area – 2015 and 2016 – that door-knocking, listening and being a bit of a loose cannon rather than a machine politician was a successful strategy. Labor squandered all of that good will and listening. Maybe now they need to return to that, going back to the communities, listen to their concerns, rather than depending on Canberra activity to carry them through.