The Great Trainwreck deconstructed


On the railway gauge the 2004 election result for Labor was not a trainwreck, nor was it nearly as bad as 1975, 1977 or 1996. But it was pretty bad – a massive derailment with some loss of life. Labor lost by a margin few expected and accordingly the party finds itself once again at a crossroads. Major soul searching is required at all levels – leadership, policy, strategy, tactics, marketing, campaign technology and candidate selection. Most experienced observers – from both sides of politics – expected Howard to be returned, but narrowly, with most tipping a small net gain in seats and votes for Labor.

That this did not occur was a big surprise to the campaign professionals on both sides. Despite a lack-lustre start and an off-message finish, Labor actually did better than the Liberals in the traditional nuts and bolts of the campaign. On my reckoning Labor ‘won’ the commercial news broadcasts, its imaging was better, it was on-message more than the Liberals in four of the six weeks and its leader outperformed the prime minister in the debate and on the hustings.

But all of this did not count for a hill of beans in the final analysis. Labor ‘won’ the sort of campaign it was running but it was a campaign based on the wrong architecture: it won the paraphernalia and missed the key voter message. In short, Howard won because of perceptions about economic management and he increased his majority because of Labor’s politically suicidal Tasmanian forestry policy.

Labor’s biggest problem was the widespread perception that Latham was not ready for the prime ministership. Labor tried to counter this in campaign terms (ads, rhetoric, imagery). But it was not enough. The ‘not ready’ theme goes much deeper than age, experience, even gravitas. This voter perception is founded on distrust of Labor’s economic management credentials. Ever since Paul Keating lost office Labor has failed to address the fundamental problem of how the electorate views its ability to manage the economy. High interest rates dominate voter perception of Labor combined with memories of the ‘recession we had to have’ and an expectation of decisions for special interest groups. This perception was papered over during Kim Beazley’s leadership but then allowed to develop as a gaping wound during Simon Crean’s brief reign. It lay in wait for the inexperienced Mark Latham who allowed himself and others to believe it could be ignored by the camouflage of values. Latham, inexplicably, made his task even harder by putting Simon Crean into the shadow treasurer’s job.

The single most powerful image of the campaign was the L-Plate Latham theme which the Liberals used to considerable effect. This, coupled with the interest rate scare, was difficult for Labor to counter because Latham did not address the problem from day one of his leadership. He should have. It is a major failing of Labor that in 2004 the federal ALP economic image as held by the politically disengaged (ie the majority of the electorate) is so ill-informed. It does not involve numerous economic successes, the floating of the dollar, lauded microeconomic and industrial reforms, a decade of growth or the foundations of today’s prosperity. Rather in 2004, Labor stands for recession and high interest rates.

Changing perceptions of Labor’s economic credentials is an achievable communications task because the facts largely favour Labor’s case. But this task needed to be addressed early by Mark Latham. He still needs to do it. Until Labor restores its economic credibility in the electorate (as Bill Hayden did in the late 1970s), Labor will always be vulnerable to a scare campaign and Latham will always ‘not be ready’.

Latham must learn from 2004 that the main item in the suburban voter’s aspiration list is the home; not education, occupation or lifestyle ambition. In my view, this explained why Labor was going to fall just a few seats short, once the Liberals proved so effective with the interest rates scare. But it does not explain why Labor did much worse than fall a few seats short. Late in the campaign the Tasmanian forestry decision and getting into bed so snugly with the Greens was the difference between a narrow loss and the actual result.

Bob Brown and the Greens have succeeded in the biggest con job in recent Australian politics. There is no significant electoral move to the Greens. In 2001 the Greens and Democrats attracted some 10.5 percent of the House of Reps vote. With the virtual disappearance of the Democrats and the significance of such emotive issues as Iraq, kids overboard and Howard’s lies, the Greens should have charged ahead. And with Mark Latham taking Labor distinctly further right, the Greens, as the broad based party it claims to be, should be attracting at least this 10.5 percent achieved at the last election and then some. There is a 12-15 percent gap in contemporary Australian politics for a genuine broad based party of the left. For such a party to have won only a 7 percent share of the Reps vote in 2004 is a distinctly underwhelming result.

And Bob Brown, despite the fawning media treatment he usually receives, has singularly failed to increase ‘the environment’ as an issue on the mainstream voter agenda in recent years. On the salience measure in the electorate, ‘the environment’ has been steadily declining at the same time as Bob Brown has been so dominant in the non-Murdoch media.

In this context, Tasmanian forestry, a concern largely in the inner city electorates and among some of those unkindly referred to as doctor’s wives, is simply not a mainstream issue. For Labor, in the last week of the campaign to invest so much attention (and dollars) into Tasmanian forest practices, was political madness.

The seats Labor had to win were mostly in the far outer suburbs of Melbourne and Brisbane and in diverse areas in regional Queensland and NSW. Green issues in general and Tasmanian old growth forests in particular, cut little ice in these seats. Labor wedged itself in the 2004 campaign. In return for significant vote loss both in Tasmania and on the mainland, precious few new votes were gained – either as first or second preference. Those marginals with any sort of working class base saw this decision as reminiscent of the special-interest decision making that created Howard’s battlers. These battlers, having been so carefully won back to Labor over several years, were cast adrift in a decision that, in the short time available, could never be anything than a net vote loser for Labor.

The result has clouded things for Labor. All through the Kim Beazley years Labor’s main problem was that it did not stand for anything. Simon Crean’s brief stay did nothing to clarify the situation for ordinary voters. Mark Latham burst onto the scene and within weeks, Labor suddenly stood for something different and appealing – an opportunity society which rewarded aspiration but which nonetheless had strong Labor fairness traditions. Getting so close to the Greens and their narrow appeal has put a big question mark on Mark Latham and added a new contradiction for an electorate trying hard to understand what makes the fellow tick.

It will be necessary for Latham and Labor to redefine what he and the party stands for. The Tasmanian forestry decision was the reason that Labor lost badly rather than narrowly. If it was such good policy, this is one area that should have been argued and won in the broader electorate over many months. It was simply political suicide to introduce the policy in the final week.

All of this is not to suggest that Mark Latham may not end up as a fine prime minister. He is a dynamic and quixotic individual. He will have learnt that health and education will not win elections on their own. He will have learnt that a values approach can beat John Howard – but only if Labor is not vulnerable on the most important consideration in modern Australian politics. Most importantly, he will have learnt that one of his mentors, the Clinton strategist Dick Morris, was only half right: Morris’ ‘third way’ will work only when economic management credibility is defused as an overriding negative for Labor.

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