Oppositions Do Win Elections: Gartrell Analyses ALP Election Victory

Tim Gartrell, National Secretary of the ALPThe ALP has disproved the notion that oppositions don’t win elections, governments lose them, according to Tim Gartrell, National Secretary of the ALP.

Addressing the National Press Club in Canberra, Gartrell argued that Labor won the election campaign outright and that the election of Kevin Rudd as leader of the ALP exactly one year ago was when the momentum began. Gartrell argued that “the momentum Labor built through 2007 was not confined to the return of one single group. It goes comprehensively deeper and wider than that. It was a wave that swept up Australians in almost every demographic – at either end of the spectrum and in the middle. The under 30s and the over 60s. Manual trades workers and the university educated. Mums at home and families with both parents working.”

Gartrell claimed a wide-ranging swing for the ALP: “This was self-evidently not a swing confined to narrow, sectional groups. This was a swing that on election day would deliver seats to Labor in Far North Queensland, on the Central Coast of New South Wales, in western Sydney and the suburbs of Brisbane and in John Howard’s own backyard – Bennelong.”

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This is the text of Tim Gartrell’s Speech to the National Press Club. The audio file above also contains his responses to questions.

Thanks Ken and the National Press Club Board for the opportunity to be here today. Thanks also to the National Australia Bank for sponsoring this event.

Since 1996 it’s been a great Press Club tradition to invite the campaign directors to speak in the aftermath of an election.

I first became part of that tradition in 2004. And I want to say right now, that I’ll happily continue the tradition today but note that it is in far more congenial circumstances than those of three years ago.

Or as my Dad said in one of the papers on Sunday – it’s better than the ‘kick up the arse’ I got last time!

INTRODUCTION

History is made during the tumultuous weeks of an election campaign. In the weeks immediately afterwards, history is written. And sometimes, as you all know, it is comprehensively re-written.

It is now just over a week since polling day and already there’s been a lot of discussion about what it all means. What went right and what went wrong. It is, and I say this from experience, an unforgiving process.

Today I want to contribute my two bobs worth to the analysis of the 2007 election. And I want to begin by exploding the notion that oppositions don’t win elections but that governments, for whatever reason, lose them.

In 2007, this is an argument that cannot be supported or sustained. Kevin Rudd and Labor won this campaign outright – with a clear message about new leadership and a long term plan for Australia’s future.

It was never a case of sitting back waiting for victory to fall in our laps. It was a tough fight every step of the way up against opponents who would do anything, say anything and spend whatever it took and more, to get themselves elected.

Never before has incumbency been so powerful or so outrageously bank-rolled. Billions of taxpayer dollars squandered on government advertising; a shameless spending spree on regional pork barreling.

This campaign, as our new Prime Minister reminded us daily and sometimes more than once a day, was like climbing Mount Everest. And what drove us to get to the summit first was our single-minded determination to make Australia a better and fairer place.

Labor prevailed because we looked forward to the future with enthusiasm and hope and energy and we took the Australian people with us. Labor’s voice was heard because, while John Howard harked back endlessly to the past, we saw the future – saw what had to be done and laid out a plan to do it.

Rudd Labor stared down the challenges ahead with policies to sustain economic prosperity beyond the mining boom, to keep downward pressure on interest rates, to tackle climate change, water and skills shortages. To start an education revolution; to return fairness to our workplaces; and a national plan to fix our hospitals.

MOMENTUM

In the wash-up of the campaign, I’ve frequently been asked to pick the turning point in Labor’s march to victory – the one seismic moment when the dynamic changed forever.

In truth, there wasn’t one single moment. There were many.

The spectacle of a Prime Minister who’d lost touch debating Kevin Rudd’s plan for the future; John Howard’s blatant bribe for votes at his campaign launch and Kevin Rudd’s claim that this sort of reckless spending must stop.

These were two pivotal moments. But really the story of Labor’s win is a chronicle of momentum.

From experience, I can tell you that igniting and fuelling political momentum is an elusive challenge. It doesn’t just happen. And in Australian politics it doesn’t happen often.

This is historic. This is only the third time that Labor has won from opposition in the post-war era.

The momentum Labor built through 2007 was not confined to the return of one single group. It goes comprehensively deeper and wider than that. It was a wave that swept up Australians in almost every demographic – at either end of the spectrum and in the middle.

The under 30s and the over 60s. Manual trades workers and the university educated. Mums at home and families with both parents working.

This was self-evidently not a swing confined to narrow, sectional groups. This was a swing that on election day would deliver seats to Labor in Far North Queensland, on the Central Coast of New South Wales, in western Sydney and the suburbs of Brisbane and in John Howard’s own backyard – Bennelong.

The momentum started a year ago from this day when Kevin Rudd took over the leadership. The published polling revealed voters across the board were intrigued. Interested in what he was saying. Here was a new leader with something to offer.

For the first time in a long time, people were listening to an Opposition and considering changing their vote. And there’s no underestimating the significance of this. Of the last 18 State and Federal elections, this was the first time that there’s been a change of government.

As approval ratings for Kevin Rudd steadily climbed, some commentators and all our opponents were quick to dismiss them as “unrealistic”. An argument that wore thin over coming months as the polls climbed inexorably higher and Kevin Rudd cemented himself as a strong, capable leader – more than a match for John Howard. After Budget week, Newspoll had Kevin Rudd at a satisfaction rating of 68 – a net approval of 52.

The Budget in May was one of the many turning points in 2007. John Howard and Peter Costello resorting to their favourite pre-election strategy – rolling out the familiar pork barrel. In contrast, Kevin Rudd, staked his claim on economic conservatism with a modern, sensible, conservative and achievable agenda – trades in schools and small business reform.

By now the Australian people were seriously taking notice. Across a broad cross-section of the population, Kevin Rudd and Labor were now being judged as a strong and responsible alternative.

Part of this was the recognition that Labor was changing – positioned at the centre of Australian politics. That Kevin Rudd was the leader of a modern, forward-thinking Labor Party with a plan for the future.

Our research was telling us that people thought Kevin Rudd was different to the old Labor Party; a new style of Labor leader with an agenda that connected with people. Our benchmark studies reflected this sentiment with a substantial movement across all demographics. The minor party protest vote evaporated while at the same time around five per cent of the population shifted away from the Coalition directly to Labor.

The size of this movement demonstrates that it was not just one group moving to Labor. This was a wholesale movement to Labor.

Our research showed that we were making up critical ground with female voters (traditionally the subject of a gender gap against Labor), young people, mortgage holders, families with kids in childcare, TAFE and trades qualified men and women, seniors and pensioners. By September, our research showed that we led the Coalition in what they misguidedly regarded as their heartland – the over 60s demographic.

Labor’s strong performance among younger voters, the under 30s, was identified early but now we were making inroads among older voters. Positive messages on climate change, education and health as well as WorkChoices were attracting very large numbers of voters in the 45-65 age band who had previously voted for the Coalition.

Again Labor’s messages about WorkChoices and industrial relations and ending the blame game in health crossed all demographic boundaries.

Post-election there’s been much discussion about Labor winning when the economy is growing. Some important points need to be made about this. First of all, our research was showing us right from the start that, despite the economic management claims of the Howard Government, people wanted a “change in direction”.

Again this wasn’t confined to any particular group. From February onwards, our research was showing that more than half of the population wanted Australia to head in a different direction. While only a third wanted to keep going in the same direction.

So it was obvious that, despite a robust economy, the increasing disenchantment with the Government agenda could not be papered over with claims of economic competence.

What the Government didn’t understand was what Kevin Rudd knew – that people are doing it tough; particularly in outer-metropolitan and regional areas where our feedback was that family finances were tightening significantly. That’s why the Howard/Costello negative attacks on Labor’s competence to manage the economy fell on deaf ears.

This shift across every demographic delivered us a patchwork of seats. Seats like Forde, Hasluck and Kingston where our focus on cost of living and responsible spending struck a chord with mortgage holders. In fact, people with mortgage repayments of between $1400 and $1600 a month, just above the average repayment, stood out as one group that moved solidly to Labor.

The swing was on too in the outer metropolitan and provincial electorates like Corangamite, Dobell and Macquarie, where there are higher proportions of TAFE-qualified workers and trades workers.

And in the inner metropolitan electorates like Moreton and Bennelong, where there are higher proportions of young people, voters with a degree and professional workers.

In terms of household income, Labor also performed well in a broad base of seats. The seats of Bass, Braddon, Wakefield and Page are in the top 25 seats for households with low incomes but Labor also polled well in seats like Lindsay, Bonner and Solomon where household incomes are above the average.

Labor won seats with a high proportions of labourers – seats like Blair, Braddon, Flynn, Page and Wakefield but also in seats with high proportions of blue collar workers, including technicians and trades people, machinery operators and drivers.

Kevin Rudd’s empathy with working families and cost of living pressures had broad appeal among women working full-time and part-time. At the same time, we improved our position significantly among stay at home mums.

Today, Labor holds seats across the full spectrum of Australian society. And our priorities in Government will not be defined by any single group. As Kevin Rudd said on election night, Labor will govern for all Australians – whether they’re paying off mortgages, entering retirement or just starting out. Whether they live in the cities, the regions, country towns or the suburbs.

CHRONOLOGICAL NARRATIVE

The campaign to shift the country back to Labor is an unfolding narrative of gathering momentum. It began almost a year ago to the day when the parliamentary Labor Party elected a new leader.

From that day, the agenda was set: A plan for the future. A plan to tackle climate change, housing affordability, child care shortages; a plan to fix our hospitals, to get rid of WorkChoices, to take the pressure off working families and start an education revolution.

What sparked the interest of the electorate was the huge difference between what Labor was offering for the future and the gaping hole that was the Government’s lack of vision for the years ahead. Demonstrating that difference began from day one.

It continued relentlessly through 2007 with the release of the first chapter of the education revolution which became the platform for our first campaign advertising, kicking off on Australia Day.

For Labor the campaign began right back then – putting paid to the notion that the Howard/Costello juggernaut would flatten us come the campaign proper. We highjacked the campaign kick-off and then we highjacked the policy agenda.

Kevin Rudd seized the policy initiative and ran with it, from that day until election day.

Labor assumed the role of government laying out policy after policy.

  • On the environment – ratifying Kyoto, implementing a 60 per cent carbon target, establishing an emissions trading scheme; a renewable energy target of 20 per cent by 2020.
  • On education – an early learning program for all four year olds; trade training centres in every secondary school; halving HECS fees for maths and science students; and the education tax refund.
  • Labor’s $2 billion national health and hospitals reform plan; GP super clinics in local communities; a Commonwealth Dental Health Program; a massive national investment in cancer research.
  • Making housing more affordable by reducing infrastructure costs and charges and through Labor’s First Home Saver Accounts and a National Rental Affordability Scheme.
  • Tackling cost of living pressures by strengthening the role of the ACCC to monitor supermarket prices and appointing a Petrol Commissioner to make sure motorists get a fair go.
  • High speed broadband and an additional 2,000 aged care beds.

Critically, during the winter break when I know from experience Opposition’s typically lose momentum, Kevin Rudd continued to drive the agenda.

Taking his plans directly to the Australian people, he campaigned across the country and listened to what people were saying: They were under financial pressure. They were worried about WorkChoices. They were worried about their kids’ future.

GOVERNMENT’S NEGATIVE CAMPAIGN

Of course we didn’t operate in a vacuum through the year or through the campaign. While Labor set out its plan for the future, John Howard remained steadfastly anchored in the past and addicted to negativity.

From us a plan for the future. From them a voice from the past – obsessed with the past. Refusing to acknowledge, let alone address, the challenges of the future. A Government that neither knew nor cared what mattered in the lives of Australian families. A Government that won absolute power in 2004, and used this power to impose WorkChoices on working families.

So what we had was John Howard who had lost touch; Peter Costello who had never been in touch. A Prime Minister with so little understanding of what was going on in the real world, that he lectured the Australian people – skiting in Parliament in March that “working families in Australia have never been better off.

The Treasurer, Peter Costello, who insisted right to the end that there was no housing affordability crisis; obdurately refusing to acknowledge the impact of six interest rate rises after they’d promised to keep interest rates at record lows. Nothing to do with him, he shrugged, that families with average mortgages were now paying around $3000 more a year.

After eleven and a half years in power, this Government had moved into another zone – completely estranged from the Australian people. It had no idea what was going on out there in the nation’s cities, suburbs and regions. And it wasn’t interested in finding out.

THE CAMPAIGN

We came into this campaign taking nothing for granted. We went into those six weeks knowing every single day had to be a good day. No room for error. A gaffe-free zone.

I don’t have to tell any of you that, presented with the choice between the serious policy story and the gaffe on the nightly news, the gaffe wins hands down. So from day one we were determined to run a campaign distinguished by its discipline – in every sphere of our operation. And there was no-one more disciplined than Kevin Rudd and his team.

And I pay tribute here to all those people who had no life for the best part of a year. Because I can tell you that campaigning Kevin-style is no picnic. Stimulating, demanding, exhausting and full of surprises – Yes. Relaxed and comfortable – Never.

On the other side of the ledger, the Coalition’s campaign was characterised by disunity, negativity and mixed and confusing messages. The economy’s in great shape crowed John Howard; but there’s a tsunami on the horizon cried Peter Costello.

The backdrops that changed daily. ‘Go for Growth’ the confident proclamation at the start, dropped in favour of the stylised Australian flag and then the desperate return to the negative – ‘Don’t trust Labor with the economy’ – and on some days all three.

It was a campaign that was 95 per cent negative. This was reflected in everything they did and said and all their advertising – and the Australian people didn’t wear it.

It was there in almost every word spoken by John Howard. They tried every negative attack they could think of. They attempted to denigrate Labor’s team and failed spectacularly. They demonised unionists – even going as far as claiming businesses would have their front doors kicked in and their premises torn apart by union thugs. They even claimed a Rudd Government would mean more graffiti and carhooning in your street.

This was a campaign of fear-mongering and slur culminating in the racist pamphlets distributed by the Liberal campaign in Lindsay. A classic case of the Liberal Party being consumed by its own ideology. But the result tells us they were the only ones listening.

COALITION DISARRAY

Of course, since November 24 the Liberals and the Nationals have been busy rewriting history; frantically and shamelessly re-inventing themselves and recasting their role in the demise of the Howard Government.

Shedding their skins like summer cicadas; trying desperately to throw off their old dry shells and their old dead ideas. Here we are, just a week after the election loss and they’re all at it.

Falling over one another in their rush to dump policy after policy. Sacred, decade-old tenets and traditions of the Liberal Party unceremoniously trashed as Nelson, Turnbull and Bishop lead the stampede from ground zero. Trampling everything in their way.

WorkChoices – gone. An aberration that mysteriously now has neither author, supporter or enforcer. It was once the Liberals’ only vision of Australia’s future prosperity. For this new Liberal triumvirate – desperately trying to re-invent themselves – it’s as if it never was.

This is not, of course, what Brendan Nelson thought when he went on Channel Nine’s Sunday program in March. Back then he said:

“… the WorkChoices legislation is about Australia’s future.”

And don’t forget he voted 20 times in favour of WorkChoices – voted to strip away overtime, penalty rates and holiday pay. Now he wants us to think he’d just ducked out of the Cabinet room when the decision was made.

Brendan Nelson whose contribution to the climate change debate was to claim that:

“Australia had rightly refused to sign the Kyoto protocol.”

And whose vision for Australia’s energy future was the assertion that it was:

“now time to consider in the longer term the most obvious power source – nuclear energy.”

Whose view, as Education Minister, on low Year 12 retention rates was quote:

“Some young people are salmon and they want to get to the top of the waterfall but there are many young people who want to find a quiet pond in the world.”

Well, I say this to the Opposition Leader. You haven’t changed your spots and you aren’t fooling anyone – least of all the Australian people. You were a senior minister in the Howard Government. You backed in the polices of the Howard era and you backed WorkChoices. Now you want us to believe that you’re a new breed of ideology-free Liberals; warm and cuddly.

Well either you stood for what you did in Cabinet or you don’t. And if you don’t, then you don’t stand for anything. It’s the same with Malcolm Turnbull – who says one thing to the electorate in his campaign materials and another in the Cabinet room.

And though all this deconstruction and reconstruction, lurking around the edges the man with those unique people skills – Tony Abbott. He’s signalled that it’s game on – he’ll be making future leadership bids so watch out Brendan. And note that’s in the plural – if he doesn’t succeed the first time he won’t be calling it quits.

So there you have it. A party desperately trying to deny its past – all the time circled and hunted by its own – now moving further and further to the right.

CONCLUSION AND THANK YOUS

Well it was a long and hard 42 day campaign – a long campaign designed to wear us down but which broke them. It was also a huge team effort. I’d now like to take a few minutes to thank some of the people who played a big role in this campaign and who I relied on heavily through the fog of long hours of sleep deprivation and stress.

I can’t name everyone but let me start with two Senators-elect. David Feeney, the Assistant National Secretary not only had to sweat if out in the notoriously precarious number 3 spot on Labor’s Senate ticket in Victoria – he played a crucial role in leading Labor’s target seats effort.

To the other Senator-elect, Mark Arbib, the outgoing NSW General Secretary I owe an enormous debt of gratitude. Federal Labor wins when the NSW Branch and the National office work together and this campaign was the culmination of three years dedicated to achieving that goal.

But it was more than that. Mark was my co-conspirator on strategy, advertising and tactics.

I also want to thank our campaign spokesperson and now Cabinet Minister Penny Wong who took on some of the toughest guys on the other side and came out on top.

To all those who slaved away at the Campaign Headquarters for 42 long days (and the weeks and weeks before) – I say thanks – you helped make history. And all the staff at the National Secretariat for their years of dedication during the tough years of Opposition.

To those poor souls who toiled for the Campaign Director Unit – that’s me – among them our research director Nick Martin, one of Labor’s rising stars; the indefatigable Sandy Rippingale who has given eleven and half years of her life to winning government; the wonderful Bernie Shaw and the brilliant and tireless Alex Cramb. Couldn’t have done it without you guys.

Thanks to the state branches for their discipline and unity. I’d like to especially thank John Bird from the Queensland Branch for his contribution. I’d like to thank our advertising team – from our agency STW, our producers at Cutting Edge and our media buyers IKON – the advertising in this campaign was first rate from creative conception to production to that arm wrestle to secure the best TV spots – our team won hands down.

In particular I want to thank Neil Lawrence and Tanya Jones. Neil not just for great creative work but for his sound understanding and appreciation of political strategy and Tanya for making sure all these great ideas happened.

Much has been said about the market researchers used by our opponents – always about their crucial roles in victories, never defeats. I want to thank our researchers for finally besting the other side.

Tony Mitchelmore’s one man band toured Australia talking with hundreds of swinging voters. His insights were invaluable and helped steer us through the complexities of popular opinion. John Utting, Stephen Mills, Liz Kirby and the team at UMR provided first class quantitative research – and, despite last minute nervousness courtesy of some wobbly published polls, they got it spot on.

To Kevin Rudd and his staff – I want to extend my thanks. Every bit of credit Kevin gets for this election he deserves – and then some. This is his victory – a tribute to his incredible discipline, his capacity for hard work and his strong intellect. He will be one of Australia’s great Prime Ministers.

I’d also like to acknowledge the big part played by Julia Gillard and Wayne Swan. As they say, the Deputy PM and the Treasurer each played a blinder. Kevin has the best team in Australian politics. I’d like to thank them all and acknowledge two.

David Epstein – who has always, always done the hard yards for Labor – in good times and bad. Yet again he threw himself into this campaign with complete dedication. Alister Jordan – another rising star has been there for most of Kevin’s journey to the Labor leadership and now the Prime Minister’s office. To quote an old phrase he is tough as nails and smart as paint and I’ve never seen such personal commitment day after day, week after week.

On the road with them the ever cheery ALP National President, Senator John Faulkner – another major contributor to this victory – a critical link between the party, the Campaign HQ, the caucus and the leader’s operation.

Finally, some personal thank yous. I’d like to thank all of those who put their faith in me during these difficult opposition years. I’d especially like to thank all of those who rallied around us following the last campaign – in particular my then Deputy Mike Kaiser and Mark Arbib who encouraged me to hang in, tough it out and backed me to the hilt.

Despite Labor’s reputation as the hardest party in the business, I was given incredible support after the 2004 loss from the National Executive and the Party and I hope this result is my way of paying that back.

It’s not a fashionable view but I’m a passionate believer in the importance of our political parties as crucial institutions in our democracy. You only have to visit the US to see the flaws in a democracy where big money consultants finance and run campaigns. We should continue to strengthen and improve our parties and support and train the next generation of party officials and campaign directors.

I was lucky to receive such support. Anthony Albanese who’s here today gave me the opportunity, when I was in my early twenties, to develop my passion for politics and campaigning. Gary Gray who, against advice from some in the party, brought me in as a campaign organiser for the 1998 election. Geoff Walsh who mentored me as his deputy and then supported me when I stood for this position. Geoff’s advice and support has been constant and has got me through some pretty tough times and for that I will always be grateful.

Most importantly I’d like to thank my family – Kerry my wonderful partner of more than 16 years and our gorgeous daughter Rose – for putting up with the inevitable disruption to our lives that years of politics brings and the late night arrivals and pre-dawn departures for 42 days of the campaign!

Finally, I want to pay tribute to all the people who can’t be named here today because there are far too many of them. The thousands and thousands of Australians who never gave up on the Labor Party and what we stand for.

Who, despite more than a decade of loss and disappointment, never lost heart, never lost faith and never lost hope. Whose shoulders we stood on to build this victory. Thank you.

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