Geoff Walsh: 2001 Federal Election Analysis

The ALP’s National Secretary, Geoff Walsh, has addressed the National Press Club on the outcome of the 2001 federal election.

Walsh said he had never experienced an election “quite so strange as the 2001 election”.

He summed up the ALP’s defeat as: “What looked a sure thing for Labor in February had turned, by mid-year, to a battle. After Tampa it was a possible rout and in the end a return to the status quo.”

Text of address to the National Press Club by the National Secretary of the ALP, Geoff Walsh

Geoff Walsh, ALP National SecretaryLabor’s Challenge

Elections are always dramatic events in this country.

Even the increasingly rare elections where margins are great and the result never in doubt.

But in my years in and around the business of politics there has never been one quite so strange as the 2001 election.

What looked a sure thing for Labor in February had turned, by mid-year, to a battle. After Tampa it was a possible rout and in the end a return to the status quo.

So, what I would like to do in this address is examine the events leading to this election, look at the forces which shaped the outcome, review our campaign and raise some of the issues Labor must confront.

Those of us who work in politics see it in greater relief than our fellow Australians who enjoy more regular walks and ways of life.

We are only too aware of the human dimension.

We know the cost of three years of effort and immeasurable hope lost in a few hours of live television counting.

We know the people and the drama and the tension behind the stark figures posted in seats that many have never heard of.

We also feel the loss of opportunity for better leadership and government for our nation.

One of the attractions of politics is that it gives us all – not least the media – a chance to advance views about attitudes and behaviour.

Thousands of column centimetres and hundreds of hours of radio and television time are devoted to these things.

Almost two weeks ago my opposite number used this forum to try to spin a yarn.

He tried to dignify a strategy that was so crude and base that it’s even become an embarrassment to the Liberal Party.

Now the Liberals are trying to re-write the campaign.

Trouble is, it’s one thing to run a campaign based on fear and insecurity, it’s another to try to pretend you didn’t.

He tried to use the platform of victory to sell a tale as tall as those that regularly did the rounds in the old non-Members.

He also forgot, I suspect, the old adages about fooling the people.

Much better for him to have smugly pocketed the win and made off into the night with a slightly rueful look.

Then again, perhaps he could have just sent you all an SMS message spinning his bizarre analysis.

At least that way it could have been simply erased.

Before I put this election in context and analyse some of the major factors, I want to make it plain we are not indulging in self-delusion about this result.

We lost this election. That is the harsh reality that the ALP now has to come to terms with.

So, this is not an attempt to try to explain away or rationalise the loss.

Rather it is an attempt to try to analyse in a clear-minded way the factors that contributed to that loss.

Elections are not isolated, discrete events.

They take place in a social, economic and political context and that context develops over time.

By any measure, even my opponent’s, the 2001 election was not just a campaign of 35 days.

In order to get it into proper perspective let me take you back to the end of 2000 when some of the media had written off Kim Beazley and Labor.

Within a few short weeks, however, by the early part of this year, Kim Beazley and Labor had gone from being un-electable to being the party that had an unlosable election in its grasp.

The new analysis was driven by the party’s victories in the WA and Queensland elections.

And then along came Ryan – an extraordinary by-election with an extraordinary result.

We had a crackerjack candidate, an exceptional run of luck, an unpopular retiring local member and an unstoppable Peter Beattie.

Ryan was conducted against the background of anger over high petrol prices, the botched introduction of the GST with its harsh burden on small business and a growing realisation that people were worse off under the new tax system.

The overwhelming perception of the government was – as Shane Stone so famously and accurately described it – that it was “mean, tricky and out-of-touch”.

On top of this, the national accounts went negative and our dollar dived below 50 cents.

Post-Ryan, any proper account of events has to acknowledge that:

  • the economy returned to a growth path;
  • the government began spending like crazy on the interest groups it had alienated;
  • the government launched a massive taxpayer-funded advertising campaign, costing $170 million over the year, to shore up its deficiencies; and
  • John Howard started working hard to hide his spots.

The Budget was exhibit A in this strategy to try to buy back the votes that had been lost by a lazy and complacent government.

Much of this has now been overshadowed by more dramatic events and much has been forgotten.

But a clear recollection is essential for a proper reading of the political landscape.

The net effect was to shift the Coalition from a desperate position to one where it was back in the fight.

But that momentum stalled.

In June, we were receiving 2PP swings of 4-6 per cent in outer- metropolitan marginal seats.

More importantly, we were picking up a devastating drop in the Coalition’s primary vote. A drop of 7.7 per cent across four frontline marginal seats.

At this time, we were hearing that senior Liberal strategists were deeply worried about their ‘sick’ primary vote.

And in August – on the weekend the Tampa arrived – we were comfortably ahead in Paterson, Longman and Stirling.

Across these three seats, we recorded a 7.6 per cent drop in the Coalition’s primary vote.

So much for John Howard’s self-proclaimed, post-Aston revival.

So, the notion that we were hurtling towards defeat was not reflected in our internal polling.

In August, I distinctly recall Gary Morgan predicting on ABC radio that Labor would win the election.

When the announcer quizzed such a clear call, so early, Gary’s response was that only something “like a war” could change the outcome.

Then, as some have put it, John Howard’s boat came in.

The 213th boatload of asylum seekers arrived in circumstances, which would allow him to demonstrate his credentials on this explosive issue.

Most importantly, it allowed John Howard to win back One Nation votes without ever having to publicly broker a deal with Pauline Hanson.

Now, whatever analysis people want to advance for the November 10 result, the impact and intensity of the Tampa issue cannot be denied

By mid-September we were looking at swings against us of more than 3 per cent in marginal seats.

We saw an 8-point turn-about in voting intention on a two party preferred basis.

And what about that sick Coalition primary vote that had now switched to swings ranging from 1 to 5.5 per cent to the Coalition, across two extensive studies?

In other words, Tampa restored a massive 10 per cent to the Liberal Party primary vote.

And the great bulk of these votes came from One Nation and right wing independents.

From a point in late August, where swinging voters believed by a margin of around two to one that the government had run out of steam and that it was time for a change, Tampa drove an almost complete switch in these numbers.
Similarly, expectations about who would win the election.

Mid-year the issue agenda had been health, education, jobs, the economy and GST. By mid-September it had shifted to health, education, refugees, defence and jobs.

By this point, the September 11 terrorist attacks had also played into the debate.

But it was Tampa that remained the reference point and driver for voters switching to the Coalition.

There were three major elements in this shift.

First, the issue itself and the mixture of fear and resentment about the continuing arrival of asylum seekers.

Second, the Government’s response was popular and regarded as ‘strong’.

Third, Labor was seen as “playing politics” on the issue when we could not support the Government on the first Border Protection Bill.

Those in any doubt about the impact of the issue should talk to Labor MPs.

Political veterans say they have never seen an issue like Tampa.

Tampa effectively knee-capped One Nation and anointed John Howard.

Three-quarters of the One Nation vote loss went straight to the Coalition.

A shorthand way to read the November 10 outcome is to look through the seats with high One Nation votes in 1998.

What you find is a reasonable guide to the seats where this election was won and lost.

For example, our difficulties in Newcastle early in the campaign reflected a seat where One Nation had received 16 per cent of the vote in 1998.

In Lindsay, the vote was almost 10 per cent, in Longman more than 18 per cent and in Herbert 14 per cent.

Pre-Tampa, many of these voters were intending to vote Labor or at least direct preferences to us.

They were voters in outer suburban and regional areas who were under financial pressure and were unhappy about the GST and the erosion of health and education services.

Another simple way to track the Tampa impact is to look at John Howard’s positive-negative ratings.

In early May he was at 42/50, by late August it was 47/46 and in early September 60/34.

Tampa remade John Howard’s image. Before Tampa he was seen as tired, out-of-touch and the architect of an unpopular tax.

So, let’s put an end to this nonsense that the Coalition won this election on any other issue or that their campaign was built around any other issue.

Let me turn now to the election campaign proper.

As you know the election was called on Friday October 5.

Within three days it was smothered by the US assault on Afghanistan.

No sooner did those dramatic events recede than the “children overboard” issue erupted.

And so it continued for the next 30-odd days.

The front pages of the Daily Telegraph over the election campaign are a stark illustration of what was making news – and it certainly wasn’t domestic politics.

Of the 30 page one stories, 2 were headlines on Labor’s agenda, 2 covered the Liberal domestic agenda, 3 covered the Melbourne Cup and 23 were devoted to the war against terrorism, asylum seekers, anthrax, Jihads and a couple about the Kangaroos rugby league tour.

Of course, in any campaign you are something of a hostage to the news cycle.

In 1983, the tragic bushfires during the campaign took over from the election debates.

And I’m not complaining about the Melbourne Cup focus.

But a campaign depends on four elements working well.

The first is the Leader’s performance.

The second is free media coverage.

The third is advertising.

And the fourth is the local campaigning.

In this election we missed out on, to a very significant degree, the second element in the campaign.

And given how grim our position was at the start of the campaign, this was a serious setback.

Facing swings like those in Newcastle, in the circumstances I have described, this was character-building stuff.

We debated at length how to try to manage the news cycle and dodge the competition from these other events.

In the end we decided to stick with our strategy and with tested campaign techniques.

Unlike the Liberals – who had to ditch the funeral director strategy – we did have a firm campaign plan.

Let me examine each of these campaign elements in a little more depth.

Regardless of what some may think about it, elections in this country are now more Presidential than ever.

The Leaders carry the focus for the whole campaign period.

People talked about the election as a choice between Howard and Beazley.

In this regard, Labor was very well served by Kim Beazley.

His performance was strong, clear and courageous.

Unlike John Howard, Kim Beazley had agenda for government and a plan for the nation’s future.

Against difficult odds, he carried our message superbly.

In each of the campaign set pieces, he patently outpointed John Howard.

His performance in the debate – set by the Liberals so absurdly early – essentially ignited the campaign as a contest.

There is no dispute that Kim secured a big win in this test of leadership.

Kim’s campaign launch was another superior performance – marked by energy and ideas.

And his National Press Club speech was another clear win.

Kim’s day-by-day campaigning was strong and effective and can be measured by the substantial turnaround in his approval ratings over the course of the campaign.

Turning to the media coverage, I think on balance we did reasonably well.

We needed, however, to do exceptionally well.

The constant intrusion of disturbing external issues blunted our attacks on the government and consistently diverted media attention from the campaign.

The third element, the advertising, worked very effectively.

Our research confirmed the view that it was more effective overall than the Coalition material.

We won plaudits for our flexibility and tactical agility.

Our response to the “tough decisions” ad had the effect of spiking that phase of our opponent’s advertising and effectively disrupting their message.

And we crafted good local ads that supported our candidates on the ground.

In a campaign where it was so difficult to get messages across in the media, the advertising became even more important

Given the ground we made up in the campaign, the objective evidence demonstrates conclusively that the advertising worked.

The final element – our local campaigns – also performed well.

In the uncertain times of the 2001 election campaign incumbency enjoyed a critical potency. And there’s no denying these were uncertain times.

During the campaign, the Prime Minister referred to difficult and uncertain times on 79 occasions – including nine times during the Leaders’ debate.

The impact of marginal campaigning combined with the effects of incumbency resulted in the ALP being able to hold many of its marginal seats.

Overall, there was a 2.0% 2PP swing to the Government.

The ALP had eight seats with margins around or below that 2.0 % mark – ranging from 2.1% in Chisholm to 0.1% in Bass.

Yet we lost only lost three of these seats – Dickson, Macarthur and Canning.

Canning had turned into a vastly different seat due to a redistribution and the sitting MP had been ill for a year.

Macarthur was a seat that had no incumbent. And Dickson was subjected to a Coalition onslaught of unusual proportions.

The performance in our marginal and target seats was, on the whole, better than the State wide swings.

For example, in NSW there was a State-wide swing of -3.68% 2PP.

However, in our target seats, the average swing was only -1.26% or 2.42% better than the State wide swing.

In Victoria there was a State wide swing of -1.42% 2PP.

However in our target seats, the average swing was -0.06% or 1.33% better than the State wide swing.

With the exception of Queensland, a similar pattern occurred in the other States.

In seats where the ALP ran long term and effective campaigns, the overall swing away from the ALP was noticeably less than in other seats.

All these elements of the campaign come together to sell, or communicate, our policies.

Over the course of the campaign these strategies and the policies they supported worked.

Anyone who saw Kim on the nightly news saw the simple message – “Jobs.Health.Education”.

And our polling confirmed that voters saw Labor as the superior party to handle health, education and to look after ordinary Australian families.

That is one of the major reasons we managed to turn around the potential loss of 20-30 seats.

And that is the reason we were back in this election with a real chance in the last week.

A significant outcome of the election is that we are not looking to the next election as a rebuilding exercise, but as a real chance to win Government.

The Coalition now has a dozen seats under a margin of 2 per cent and we have none to defend under 1 per cent.

So, the opportunity we face is not changed greatly from the situation before November 10.

What is in front of our new leader, our new frontbench and the parliamentary and party team is the challenge of getting us again into a winning position.

An essential element in getting us into that winning position is improving our primary vote.

There is no doubting the fact that most of the swing to us pre-Tampa was on preferences. This meant that our position was not as solid as we would have liked.

A fair amount of the post-election discussion inside the ALP will focus on the critical task of lifting the primary vote.

Simon Crean has sent some very clear signals about his determination to tackle this.

Building a stronger base of support will require the development and articulation of an agenda that appeals to a wide range of Australians.

Our country has become, in the past decade or so, less homogenous than it was.

Differences in economic character, income, employment opportunities and lifestyle mean the issues agenda has distinct regional variation.

But before too many judgements about the election become rooted in folklore, I would caution against the judgement that this election was lost in Western Sydney.

We continue to hold a number of seats in Western Sydney.

Our failure to win new seats in Western Sydney was in electorates that have always been battlegrounds.

We need to look for answers there, but we also need to look at our performance in other cities and regions.

An important element in this broadening and strengthening of our support base is the discussion of changes in the way the ALP functions.

In particular, the relationship with the trade union movement, attracting and endorsing the best- possible candidates and reforming the culture of the Labor Party have been put on the table as issues needing examination.

All of these matters and more should be part of the debate.

Successful modern organisations are not static.

They are dynamic, self-critical and driven by people with clear views about where the organisation should be heading.

The sense that is around the party now is that we do need change, we do need to move forward.

The evidence is there in the new faces on our frontbench. It’s there in the review of policy that Jenny Macklin will oversee and the party’s willingness to analyse the November 10 outcome in an honest and comprehensive manner.

Losing an election can often be a debilitating experience for a party.

Certainly, there is often a premature rush to make judgements.

Some of you may recall – may even have made – predictions after the 1993 election about the future for the Liberal Party.

But the disappointment around the ALP is being replaced with a sense of opportunity and a determination to get our campaign for the next election underway.

Before we do that I would like to record my thanks and the Labor Party’s thanks to the people who worked so hard in this tough and difficult campaign.

Modern elections cost an enormous amount of money and make incredible demands on the stamina of many people.

First, to Kim Beazley who gave more than five years of sterling service as Leader.

In the first instance doing the slog of rebuilding from the ’96 defeat and then putting us in a position to win on November 10.

Kim has given his working life to politics and leaves the leadership with the immense respect, affection and gratitude of his party and his colleagues.

So, too, do his key staff members – Michael Costello, Mike Pezzullo and Greg Turnbull – who worked so hard, for so long and who have been so unfairly criticised in some quarters.

The Shadow Ministers, Members and Senators worked tirelessly and responded without question to all that was asked of them.

Our candidates gave their all and for some the sacrifices have been substantial

Our national president, Greg Sword, and the national executive gave me great support in organising and running this campaign.

For that I thank them.

We are a national organisation and the campaign would have not got to square one without the tremendous co-operation and professionalism of the State and territory Secretaries.

In particular, Eric Roozendaal, David Feeney and Cameron Milner played a critical part in the planning and execution of the campaign.

Our researchers led by John Utting and our advertising team of Luke Dunkerley and Bill Shannon and Bob McMullan were brilliant and effective.

From the national office our whole team, led by Tim Gartrell, Melissa Horne and Sandy Rippingale, threw their heart and soul into the job.

To Shayne and Louisa who endured much more than 35 days of the campaign, nothing I say can adequately thank them.

We are Australia’s oldest political party, and the largest, and our loyal members contributed their legendary, selfless service to the cause.

Although politics is sometimes described as a winner-takes-all business, we have not come out of this campaign empty-handed.

We have learnt some lessons, we will now regroup and recommit ourselves.

We will be back and we will give this government the fight of its life over the next three years and at the next election.

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