Gary Gray: The 1996 Federal Election

This is the text of the speech given by the ALP National Secretary, Gary Gray, to the National Press Club on the outcome of the 1996 Federal Election.

Address by ALP National Secretary Gary Gray to the National Press Club.

The ALP did not lose Government on 2 March.

We lost it by mid 1995.

That is one of the central messages which I gave to my colleagues on the National Executive this week.

We need to accept that as we go through the process of coming to terms with our disappointment, and making sure that we thoroughly understand – and act on – what the Australian electorate was really saying.

It is critical that we understand, right from now, that the Hawke – Keating continuum of Government – all 13 years of it – was not repudiated by Australia’s voters on March 2.

This is not the time to analyse and evaluate the significant achievements of the Keating Government, and I am not the person to do it.

Paul was a great Prime Minister and a great Labor leader.

Paul put his life into the service of the Australian people through the Australian Labor Party. He built a better Labor Party and through that delivered good and courageous Government.

We are indebted to him.

Others – many others – will assess our government in the years to come.

I’m here today to talk about perceptions, because those perceptions are what caused a good government to lose it’s majority, and to lose it clearly and unambiguously – through an overall 6 per cent swing – losing 32 seats.

Let’s get some basic facts straight now; and let’s start where things went so right for us that we started to go wrong in our own political agenda.

In 1993 Paul Keating delivered something very important to the Labor Party and our constituency.

He defeated Fightback, and – in one swift and complete stroke – he led Australia away from following other nations down the dry, dusty and extreme road of doctrinaire right wing economics.

In one election, Paul Keating demolished the conservative agenda and he established Labor’s reform agenda as the norm.

Our response was, of course, euphoric. ‘The true believers’ partied and rejoiced.

We hardheads knew that we won in ’93 because Australia rejected Fightback and all its consequences.

We also consciously suspended our disbelief in the facts and figures, to celebrate the victory too.

We forgot some fundamental political rules or forgot that those rules still applied to the Labor Party.

Analysis is at the core of good organisational behaviour. In our victory we forgot to analyse.

We forgot what we had learnt from past victories and losses.

Let me explain what I mean.

In 1975 we maintained our rage at the conservative conspiracy until we lost in 1977.

And then we realised that there may have been a conspiracy but there was more to our losses than that.

We had to learn the hardest political lesson, how to see ourselves as the voters see us.

Two years after losing office in 1975 we realised that people thought we were not up to running the economy.

We learned the importance of economic management.

Yesterday Australia completed an unprecedented four and a half years of sustained growth, low inflation, unemployment trending down through sustainable jobs creation.

These facts are undeniable achievements, and they are totally unprecedented in Australian history.

The figures prove the Labor Government had its economic policy settings right. But the five Hawke and Keating Governments were not just about delivering growth and over 2 million additional jobs.

They were about managing the transition of a national economy from isolation to internationalism, and about protecting the most vulnerable Australians from as much of the cost of that adjustment as possible.

They were about keeping people in work and promoting social justice.

They were about renewing Australia and about preparing us for the demands of globalisation and competition.

My guess is that historians will attribute the great cultural change which Australia has undergone in the last thirteen years to the huge amount of money, energy and time the Labor Government put into building up Australia’s human capital.

That created better jobs and a more productive economy.

I won’t go on to issues like Mabo or the Republic – except to say that these issues are now alive in the national debate, instead of being swept under the carpet.

They are issues the Coalition will not be able to dismiss and ignore again.

The question I have to answer today to you is; why, given the massive and undeniable achievements, did the ALP lose?

I think I can tell you. More surprisingly, perhaps, I’m willing to tell you.

There were four perceptible steps along the road to March 1996.

  1. As a government and as a Party we became poor political communicators.

    By poor communicators I do not mean lazy, our Government was hard working!

    We thought we had a magic formula, because the people voted for us in 1990 when interest rates were sky high and again in 1993, the very time when the pain and strain was written in neon.

    By 1994-95 we knew that the recovery was clear.

    In the economy things were starting to improve, we knew that the gain was about to start easing the pain.

    Against all the odds, Australia was going to enjoy the fruits of a tough and comprehensive programme of change.

    Even if we did not acknowledge the pain felt by some.

    Labor was going to be in Government to see and benefit from a decade of reform – a bold assumption.

    That assumption led to a poor understanding of what was required of us.

  2. We stopped talking to the people.

    To the millions of Australians who shared the journey with us, and who, we thought, would automatically credit us with the electoral benefits.

    Instead Australians stopped listening to us.

    But we stopped talking to them first.

    And you the press gallery stopped reporting us. You got bored with reporting the good news:

    Eighteen quarters is a lot of times to write the same story of economic growth and success, and as for us, we had proved our case – to ourselves.

    We thought the connection between achievement and policy was established, we thought it was obvious, because the people endorsed us in 1983, 84, 87, 90 and 1993, so:

  3. Administration replaced politics.

    We confused the role of government and administration. We became bureaucrats, because we were administering policies which had become effectively natural laws rather than contentious issues.

    We forgot the critical interdependence of policy and politics;

    We’d taken our product to the market but we forgot to sell it – we also forgot to provide any after sales service.

    We had the voteless recovery.

    We thought everyone accepted the logic of what we were doing, and saw pain as a rite of passage to the future.

    We focused on the big picture and forgot that pain was in the detail.

    We were not sensitive to the anxiety of the voters, we missed the mood, we emphasised the future and forgot the present.

    So we come to 4……the Campaign.

  4. Labor spent over $15 million fighting the election.

    The reality of our campaign is that we did the best we could under the circumstances but it was not enough.

    An election campaign is about constructing an argument, a case for re-election.

    It was not possible to achieve as a campaign what we were not able to achieve as a Government.

    And there were the opinion polls.

    Polls which had screamed for a year “Labor’s Losing” were not heard even by you the press gallery – if they were reported it was usually in the context of Labor’s magical ability to campaign our way back.

    The Liberals told Australians that their poll lead was soft – this was their greatest success.

    Their lead was as soft as stainless steel.

    There was an inverse relationship between a voters propensity to vote Labor and their expectations of the election outcome.

    Voters were voting against us but expected us to win. That was good news for the Coalition.

That’s it in my view. As an analysis, it lacks drama, or “colour and movement” as Dame Edna would say.

But it’s true, and I think it’s fair.

Above all, I think it gives us a clear picture of what Labor now has to do – and how we have to act – to be an effective, credible and constructive opposition.

We are not going to fall apart in a bloodbath of recrimination and sacrificial scape-goating.

For us the task is now simple – work to rebuild, renew and reinvigorate – work to restore our support…. and win in 1999.

We go into Opposition united and experienced.

Government is not the arcane mystery it was to Gough Whitlam’s ministers or even to the class of ’83.

It is something we know how to do, and therefore something we are qualified and competent to judge.

It is something we like to do and, want to do again, in three years, not six.

But in the meantime, we have a crucial job to do in opposition. I don’t envy John Howard or his ministers: they have a large majority and a very small mandate.

They made themselves a small target in the campaign, in doing so they stripped away everything that might interfere with the “time for a change” sentiment.

They have to live with the consequences of that.

The Liberals took our political and policy differentiators – notably Medicare – and made them look like standard features.

The electorate believed – strange but true – that Medicare would have been a Liberal policy if only they’d been in government.

They swallowed John Howard’s story about being Mr ‘Small Business’ – even after he voted against our measures to protect small business against predatory corporations.

Australians trust John Howard to maintain the safety net and to protect wages – remember he said he will and he claims to be ‘Honest John’ – so he can claim no mandate to change either.

I could go on, but it’s more important to make the key point: The Coalition painted us into a corner for five weeks in the campaign, and did so very effectively.

But they have painted themselves into a corner for three years – and we have an unequivocal commitment to make sure they don’t stray outside it.

That’s our obligation as an effective Opposition.

The vote on 2 March was a strange beast.

It was fundamentally a conservative vote, in the sense that people rejected the long-term government which promised even more change.

More reform, in favour of an Opposition who offered a breathing space and a time to regroup.

If the Coalition fails to deliver the reassurance it has promised.

If it fails to engender a greater sense of comfort and security in the community.

If it goes hard into a 1996 revised standard version of Fightback – it will be a short-lived and widely unloved administration.

John Howard will have betrayed the trust which voters put in him … many of them our traditional voters.

The challenge and responsibility Labor faces as an Opposition is to walk a tight and disciplined line.

Enforcing good government and giving the Howard Government rope enough to hang itself, without putting at risk the social capital that thirteen years of Labor government has stockpiled.

We have to make absolutely sure that the new administration doesn’t forget that the one million Australians who changed their vote between 1993 and 1996 are exactly the same one million Australians who gave Fightback its marching orders.

Those voters didn’t ask Peter Costello to look so gleeful at the prospect of axing $8 billion worth of programmes, or give him a mandate to make the youth unemployment figures look better by raising overall unemployment.

They didn’t ask Peter Reith to take their sick leave or their universal superannuation.

These are the things that the Labor Opposition, under the leadership of Kim Beazley, has to remind all Australians about.

They are also issues for the ACTU, which has to deal with the fact of a conservative government.

The Accord is over, and we would be willfully and wishfully blind to pretend that it isn’t.

So the ALP must now maintain and extend our special relationship with our union affiliates with whom we share much in common.

It is with our affiliates and not the ACTU that we will regroup.

The ALP must now return to politics.

To stop, listen and converse with the community – to reconnect with the people we forgot.

They are the people we have to be there for; we are the ones who have to re-establish a mutual, trust based relationship with them; and we can only do it by showing them – not telling them – that we are worthy of their trust.

Politics played the Australian way is robust, the responsibilities of winning are great, the pain of losing is horrible, but above all the most important thing is the integrity of our democratic process.

I wish we had learned our lessons earlier.

But then perhaps in our kind of democracy that’s not on, renewal in office may not be possible.

An election defeat may be the only way to renew …. the electorate’s way of telling us to get our act together … and get in touch again.

Our work now is to show Australians that we got the message.

In a democracy such as ours you win or you lose.

Labor is in Opposition or in Government.

Provided we get our rebuilding right we will be asked to govern again.

Thank you.

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