Karl Bitar Analyses Result Of 2010 Federal Election (Sort Of…)

Leaks and Mark Latham were primarily responsible for the ALP’s near-miss in the 2010 election, according to the ALP National Secretary, Karl Bitar.

Addressing the National Press Club in Canberra, Bitar said a belief that Labor would win the election, combined with disillusionment about the government’s performance, also contributed to the ALP’s campaign problems.

ALP National Secretary Karl Bitar at the National Press Club

ALP National Secretary Karl Bitar at the National Press Club

The government did not receive credit from the electorate for its handling of the global financial crisis, Bitar said.

Bitar said polling showed the ALP would lose 22 seats in Queensland and NSW alone, following the leaks and Mark Latham’s intervention in the early part of the campaign.

The government entered the election campaign “with a few political problems,” Bitar said, including the replacement of an incumbent prime minister.

Bitar said the Liberals succeeded in making Tony Abbott a “small target” and the election became “a referendum on the government’s performance and disunity”.

Bitar claimed that many voters who defected to the Greens in protest will return to the ALP “if Labor demonstrates good government”.

  • Listen to Karl Bitar’s at the National Press Club (61m)

This is the text of Karl Bitar’s Address to the National Press Club:

INTRODUCTION

My thanks to you Ken and to the National Press Club for the invitation to join you today.

I’m here today to contribute to the election campaign that never ends……. 3 weeks to get a result….. and weeks and months of analysis, reviews, interviews, speeches and now even book launches.

Today I’d like to first provide an insider’s overview of the campaign based on my own post campaign analysis, and second, to constructively look at some of the challenges facing Labor now and into the future.

THE CAMPAIGN

Expectation that Labor would win

As with all elections, many factors, both positive and negative play a part in determining the result, but let me start with one of the biggest factors in this election, and that was the overwhelming expectation that Labor would win.

This expectation existed for our entire first term, through the campaign and right up until Election Day.

Unfortunately this expectation, especially during the 35 days, by most politicians, media, party supporters and the electorate, affected the campaign reporting, it affected the actual result and it affected the post election commentary and analysis.

Nearly every Party person, friend and journalist I spoke to during the 35 days expected us to win.

Every single bookmaker had Labor as clear favourites.

It didn’t matter how divided we looked as a Party and it didn’t matter how many leaks there were, there was an apparent blind faith that Labor would win.

Our final research track before the election showed that only 23 percent of voters thought the Coalition would win compared to 54 percent who thought Labor would win.

So only around half the people giving their primary vote to the Coalition thought they were a chance of winning.

High expectations had 2 main effects

This expectation of a Labor win had 2 main effects.

First it increased people’s potential to register a protest vote against the Government.

And second it meant people were not judging Tony Abbott or his policies as critically, because they didn’t think he would actually win.

So while we were out there saying “Tony Abbott is a risk to our economy and he’ll cut important services”, voters were saying “yes we believe you, but we’re not that worried because he’s not going to win.”

Reasons for high expectations:

We did a fair amount of research into the reason behind people’s expectations and we found the main reasons were as follows:

First term governments don’t lose

First, there was ongoing reporting over the last 3 years that a first term government hadn’t lost since 1931.

Our handling of the GFC

Second, while the Government’s actions in dealing with the GFC weren’t directly translating into votes for us, there was still a perception amongst many politicians and media, that voters would ultimately reward us for our GFC response.

National Polls

Last but not least, we were up against national polls, which almost consistently had us ahead. Over the 3-year term, only once did Newspoll have us behind on the 2PP.

This highlights the problem with the national polls. During the 35 day campaign these polls accurately reflected the national vote but they ignored the huge variation on a state by state and seat by seat basis.

So unfortunately, a Labor 2PP of 52 percent was reported as a victory for us, while in fact it was not delivering us the 76 seats we needed.

Why high expectations were a problem

The reason why high expectations were such a problem, was because while voters by a comfortable majority preferred Prime Minister Gillard over Tony Abbott, there was still a high level of dissatisfaction with our first term.

All of this boiled down to the perfect recipe for a high protest vote: That is, a high level of government dissatisfaction and a high percentage of people thinking we would definitely win.

People who desperately didn’t want Tony Abbott as Prime Minister felt free to vote for the Greens, an independent or even for the opposition because they were convinced we’d win.
That conviction ate away at our primary vote and gave us the Parliament we have today.
People wanted the Government back but didn’t want to reward us for our performance. They wanted Labor back, but they wanted more…..they wanted us to do better.

Protest votes are becoming a greater issue

Protest votes are becoming a much greater issue for political parties because voters are feeling much more empowered.

There was a time when people thought their vote didn’t count and that they couldn’t affect the result. Those days are gone and a large enough proportion of voters now think they can make a difference to the result, especially in marginal seats.

Spend a week in a marginal seat campaign office and see how many phone calls you get from individuals and organisations threatening that if you don’t support them then they’ll vote against you and they will tell all their friends, family and neighbours to vote against you, and they will cost you your seat.

The base cannot be taken for granted

The other challenge for political parties in the future is that they can no longer just rely on their base and attack the undecided voters, because their base won’t be taken for granted anymore.

So the major parties must earn every vote.

The base vote of both major political parties is shrinking and they are refusing to be taken for granted. They are right to refuse to be taken for granted.

This is a pretty dramatic and central change in Australian politics and those who miss this will be swept away.

Labor tried to inoculate against a protest vote.

Well before the election was called, Labor identified the risk of high expectations and a protest vote and we tried hard to downplay those expectations in our campaign messaging and our advertising, but unfortunately we were unsuccessful.

There were 2 main reasons why we didn’t succeed:

Victims of regular national polls

First, as mentioned earlier, while we were out there trying to argue that we could lose, there were independent published polls almost daily which showed that Labor would win.

Victims of underdog status spin

The other problem we had in convincing people that we were the underdogs was just a lack of credibility.

The constant attempt by all political parties for the underdog status has made the media and the public more cynical of politicians or political parties trying to claim that status.

I knew we had a problem when 2 days out from Election Day, one of the TV networks reported on leaked Labor polling that showed we could lose, and most of the staff in Labor’s Campaign Headquarters were shocked about it.

At that moment, I thought, if we haven’t been able to convince the people in Campaign Headquarters that we could lose then we have no hope of convincing the public by Saturday.

Expectations of Tony Abbott very low

The other big challenge we had was expectations of Tony Abbott amongst the media and the public were so low, that he was being judged against a very low standard. All he had to do was get through a day without putting his foot in his mouth and people were marking him up because they were expecting him to be worse.

Tony Abbott was given constant credit for not being as bad as people thought he would be.
In contrast expectations of Prime Minister Gillard were so high that if she had an average day she was being marked down.

So there were 2 clear standards of judgment.

This isn’t too dissimilar to the way expectations play a part in most other fields including sports. If Ricky Ponting has an average game then he cops a hammering by commentators and supporters, but if a below average player gets through the game demonstrating determination and without many errors he is said to have had a good game.

CONDITIONS GOING INTO THE 35 DAY CAMPAIGN

While the 35 day campaign is important, it’s very simplistic and an insult to the electorate to assume people base their voting intention only on the 35 days.

So let’s look at the conditions we faced going into the campaign.

Very small margin

First, contrary to popular belief, we only held government by a very small margin of 1.7 percent on the pendulum.

Because we got such a large swing in 2007 it’s amazing how many people actually thought we had a huge margin going into this election.

The thumping election win of 2007 did not deliver a thumping election majority.

What many forget is that we needed a large swing, just to get over the line in 2007 because we were destroyed in 2004.

High dissatisfaction

The second issue we had to contend with going into the campaign was pretty high dissatisfaction with the Government’s performance in the first term.

I’d like to quickly cover some of the reasons for government dissatisfaction.

PROBLEMS WITH THE FIRST TERM

High and unrealistic expectations in 2007

First, people were dissatisfied with the Government because we didn’t meet the expectations they had of us when we won in 2007.

To win in 2007 we had to offer people hope but unfortunately people’s expectations were well beyond what any Government could possibly meet.

This is often a problem for progressive parties that come into office after a long spell of conservative government.

It was a problem for Bill Clinton and Tony Blair in their first terms and it’s part of the problem President Obama has in the US at the moment.

Good achievements but no recall

The next problem we had was just an inability and failure to communicate our achievements.

You can criticise our first term for a lot but one thing you can’t say is that we didn’t achieve anything.

Whether it was health, education, the environment or the economy, our achievements in each of these areas dwarfed anything Prime Minister Howard had done during any of his terms in office.

Reasons for not being able to communicate achievements

Let’s now look at the two main reasons why we failed to sell our achievements.

Too much too quickly

First we were doing too much too quickly so before the public could absorb our first announcement we were moving onto our next challenge. While that’s what good governments do, it comes at a cost and the cost is not giving the public enough time to fully absorb what you’re doing.

The 15 minute news cycle

Second, the new media environment, what I call the 15-minute news cycle, is another factor which works against a government’s ability to sell or explain its policies or achievements.

Due to the internet, 24 hour live TV and social media tools like Twitter and Facebook, the news now has no durability whatsoever.

Prime Minister Gillard has alluded to this. A government can announce a major policy and within minutes, journalists will report the announcement on Twitter and upload it on their websites. They will then have a conversation about it, discuss its merits and flaws and pass judgment on it within the hour.

So within an hour, the announcement is old news and the media are looking for a new story.

The problem with this rapidly changing news cycle is it keeps people who are engaged in politics and news well informed, but for people, in particular swinging voters, who don’t have time to engage in politics around the clock, they miss out on vital information about policies and the leaders.

This is no criticism of new technologies, it’s just an issue, which governments and political parties around the world are grappling with.

Achievement – action on GFC but only small electoral benefit

The most significant achievement of our first term was acting decisively to keep Australia out of recession, but while this was a great achievement, and I’m sure history will record it was one of Labor’s greatest achievements, you’d be wrong to assume there were huge electoral benefits.

Most people didn’t appreciate how dangerous the crisis had been and consequently how significant the Government’s policy success was.

It was a great and important achievement because it demonstrated real economic credibility but at the same time it wasn’t affecting peoples voting intention because it was abstract and not tangible.

It was truly a political conundrum – to demonstrate how bad an alternate reality would have been!!

We protected people’s job which they didn’t lose and we kept Australia out of a recession we didn’t feel the impact of.

You can’t help but take for granted crises or problems which don’t affect you.

Overseas commentators shocked

Political commentators overseas were shocked to believe that the Government was under pressure in 2010 given how well our economy got through the GFC.

I saw an interview on CNN 2 days before the election, where Richard Quest was talking to David Koch and Quest said:

‘If we look at the economy, viewed from up here in the Northern Hemisphere, you have never had it so good. You’re getting stronger as it goes. It seems almost perverse the way this election is turning out. Is the Australian electorate just a little ungrateful, perhaps, at the largess that has been dumped at their door?’

Koch’s response was good, he said: ‘Look, I’m not sure ungrateful is the right term. I think the thing is they haven’t seen the hardship of the rest of the world. They haven’t had to experience it.’

Threat of GFC seemed very long ago

The other challenge we had was that the further we moved into 2010, the longer ago the threat of the GFC felt for people. So they needed real prompting to remember our actions.

Still GFC was an important part of our Campaign Strategy

Still our GFC response was still a very important part of our campaign strategy because economic management was a core part of our re-election strategy.

Other political problems leading into the campaign

Finally leading into the campaign we were contending with a lot of problem issues:

• Asylum seekers
• Interest rates increasing
• Massive increases in cost of living pressures
• Issues with the BER & Insulation
• The CPRS and then the delaying of the CPRS
• The internet filter
• Increasing the smoking tax
• The resources tax and the campaign against it
• And an incumbent PM was replaced.

So we entered the campaign with a few political problems and only a very small margin.

LABOR’S STRATEGY

Gillard Forward – Abbott Backwards

Our strategy in the campaign was to make the election a clear contest between Prime Minister Gillard’s positive plan to move Australia forward and Tony Abbott who would take Australia backwards.

It was to be a choice between Prime Minister Gillard who was smart, experienced and had a positive plan to strengthen our economy and invest in better health and education services.

And Tony Abbott who was erratic, had no idea about economics and would take Australia backwards to the worst of WorkChoices and service cuts.

Despite any criticism of the narrative and message, we knew it was effective and that it would actually move voters our way during the campaign.

The strength of our narrative was demonstrated in our research track in the first few days of the campaign when our vote picked up significantly and voters were already starting to define the campaign on our terrain.

So it was a promising start….promising enough to conclude that had the campaign had the normal ‘leak free discipline of a Labor campaign’, our majority would have been protected.… the campaign however was not to provide this opportunity.

So we had a solid and strong frame about moving Australia forward. A good canvas that needed a solid 35 day paint job……… this of course became impossible because of leaks and Latham.

Leaks and disunity

This is where I’d like to talk a bit about how the leaks dominated the campaign and the impact of the leaks on our vote.

I think much of the commentary post election day totally underestimated the impact of the leaks on the final result and just treated them as one issue which came and went during the campaign.

The leaks had two effects: they sucked up oxygen and worse, they portrayed disunity.

Despite opening up a decent lead in the first week of the campaign, after a week of leaks and just 3 weeks out from the election day we were facing a 2PP swing against us of 9 percent in our Queensland marginals and a 6 percent swing against us in our NSW marginals.

These swings translated in the two states would have cost us 13 seats in Queensland and 9 seats in NSW. That’s a loss of 22 seats in NSW and QLD alone, not including any of the other states.

For those days of leaks it didn’t matter what we did, it would have made no difference. Prime Minister Gillard and Mr Abbott could have gone to Hawaii on holidays for the week and it wouldn’t have changed a thing.

Latham

Another significant factor, which sucked up our oxygen and reinforced a sense of disunity on our side was Latham.

I remember watching the news on Saturday the 7th of August which had Latham confronting Prime Minister Gillard, thinking it was the worst night of news for the Labor Party in a campaign I’d ever seen.

Media monitoring reports

Media monitoring reports for the campaign show that the issues of leaks, Latham and disunity dominated any other issues.

Disunity research

In our final research track we asked the question: “Thinking about the election campaign, which party is more united”: 54 percent of respondents said the Coalition and only 22 percent said Labor. That demonstrates the impact of the leaks and Latham on Election Day.

Division most damaging during a campaign

No political party can afford to have disunity in the weeks leading up to an election.

Most voters don’t focus on politics except during the campaign, and just when they were switching on, all they saw and heard was division.

Disunity is death.

I knew we had a problem the day after Latham confronted Julia when my wife who has been a member of the ALP for over 18 years, worked for the ALP for years and is the daughter of a former Federal Labor MP and State Labor Minister told me “if it wasn’t for me she’d be voting for the Greens.”

This was coming from someone who admires Julia Gillard, detests Tony Abbott and doesn’t care much for the Greens either.

I came into the office that morning and told a Cabinet Minister about my wife’s comments and he told me his wife had said something similar to him a few days earlier as well.

People will not vote for a Party which is not united and the fact that we were still in the race despite all the disunity is a real indication of how people preferred Prime Minister Julia Gillard over Tony Abbott, and how unelectable Mr Abbott was.

Those responsible for the leaks and for the disunity did their job well. So well they almost brought down a Labor Government.

MISTAKES DURING THE 35 DAYS

Labor made some obvious political mistake during the campaign.

Amongst them the announcement of the Citizen’s Assembly, the way the ‘Real Julia’ story ran and the Epping to Parramatta rail announcement. All mistakes to be fair….but equally, no worse than the mistakes Tony Abbott made.

His stumble over whether WorkChoices was or wasn’t cremated. His comments about the parliament wasting time discussing disability issues and ‘no not meaning no’ and not even understanding his own Broadband Policy.

But again because of expectations, our mistakes were constantly derided, while his mistakes evaporated very quickly with the rapid media cycle.

LIBERAL CAMPAIGN SUCCESSES

If I was to give an objective analysis of the Coalition campaign I’d say their greatest success was keeping Tony Abbott under control.

To their credit they ran a very disciplined campaign, which aimed to limit or hide his attributes that concern voters.

Even Mr Abbott admitted to Laurie Oakes two weeks out that he was working hard to keep himself under control.

While we were trying to make the election a referendum between Prime Minister Gillard and Tony Abbott, by making Tony Abbott a small target, the Liberals managed to make the election more of a referendum on the Government’s performance and disunity on our side. This was their strategic victory and I give Brian and his team credit for it.

THE GREENS PARTY

Before I conclude this section about the campaign I’d like to say a few things about the Greens Party.

The Greens did have a successful campaign by picking up two thirds of the swing against Labor, but some of the analysis surrounding their rise is I believe inaccurate.

Our analysis shows that the swing to the Greens is accounted for by two major factors.

First there is definitely a long term structural shift to the Greens in inner city areas like Sydney and Melbourne and this will require a great deal of analysis and effort by the Party. But the other more important factor, was the Greens benefited from a large and I believe short term protest vote against Labor.

As mentioned earlier in the speech, many people dissatisfied with our performance thought they could vote for the Greens and still have a Labor Government. They didn’t want to reward us and couldn’t bring themselves to vote for Tony Abbott.

We cannot be complacent, and we cannot take our base for granted, but if Labor demonstrates good government then the vast majority of these voters will come back.

And so this is my evaluation of the campaign and the basis of my submission to the review being undertaken by Bob Carr, Steve Bracks and John Faulkner.

PARTY REFORM

I now turn to the issue of where to for Labor and the ongoing need for Party reform.

I offer this with a positive outlook. That is, two things strike me about the Coalition.

Unlike Labor they do not seem interested in the issue of renewal of policy agendas and structures. They seem content in the false assessment that they actually stand for something, but if you look at what Tony Abbott has really done for the Coalition it is this:

He has defined the Coalition not by what they are for, but by what they are against.

Therefore, I am far more optimistic about Labor’s capacity to present as a modern party with fresh ideas and revitalised structures.

At least we are diagnosing our problems. The Coalition by contrast is basking in a fool’s paradise.

And so I don’t accept the premature judgment by our enemies and some internal critics that Labor as a Party is in decline. But at the same time there are three things we need to do to sustain and strengthen our Party for the future.

Reforming our structure

First we need national reforms to our Party structure to offer members and supporters new ways to participate in the Party.

The ALP, as an organisation, has unfortunately failed to keep up with the changes in our society.

People who’ve known me for a while know that Party reform has always been a passion of mine.
I’ve often said, the problem with the Labor Party is that we’re a 21st century Party with a branch structure from the 1890s.

People join the Party because they want to change the world and we send them off to boring branch meetings where they end up discussing the number of pot holes in the local street.

There are many changes we must make to our branch structure to encourage more participation but one of the best ways to increase participation for supporters in this day and age is online.

The Party over the last few years has invested heavily in online infrastructure and while it is starting to pay dividends, there is so much more we can and must do in that area.

Encouraging debate

Our second challenge is to set up structures and processes, which encourage the debate of ideas and policies.

This requires both structural and cultural reform.

As a Party, we’ve become afraid to have any serious debates because we fear the media will portray it as division.

At the last National Conference, over 2 and a half days, we did not have one debate on the floor, not one.

Even within the Left and Right factions, debate is now discouraged and any person who challenges the status quo is portrayed as a troublemaker.

Listening to our supporters

And finally we need to make sure the ideas and suggestions of our supporters, are considered, and not just ignored or taken for granted.

We can put in place the best structures and processes to encourage members to participate and debate ideas, but if our Party Officials and our MPs don’t listen to those ideas then none of the above will succeed.

At the moment, while our membership shrinks, it also becomes less representative of our supporters and society. The less representative our membership, the less likely politicians are to pay any attention to them, and the less politicians pay any attention to them, the more our membership will continue to shrink.

So we have this spiraling effect, which can only be stopped by the Party and our elected representatives starting to take notice of our members and supporters again.

I’m sure the Party Review will address some of these issues, but to ensure we get significant and ongoing reform, the Party must set up a standing committee on Party Reform which reports directly and regularly to the National Executive and the National Conference.

It must be a standing committee so that Party Reform is an ongoing issue and not just something the Party talks about when times are tough.

THANKS

Ladies and Gentlemen:

In concluding my address, I want to take this opportunity to thank Prime Minister Julia Gillard for her strength and tenacity to fight back in a very difficult campaign.

I thank the PM’s staff and all the staff who worked at Campaign Headquarters including Nick Martin, David Fredericks, Sandy Rippingale and Peter Bentley.

It really was house to house and hand to hand combat, with incoming mortar rounds from in front and behind.

But we ran a professional campaign in the most difficult of circumstances.

I thank the State Branches, the affiliated trade unions and thousands of party members whose work on the ground helped us hold onto those critical seats.

Our research and advertising teams also deserve congratulations. They’ve unfairly copped criticism in some shallow post election analysis, but we know based on our own detailed analysis that the work they did kept us in the race and in Government.

Ladies and Gentlemen:

The challenge for the Government is to use the next 3 years to deliver honest, competent government, a strong economy and progressive policies to prepare Australia for a stronger future.

The challenge for the Party is to modernise in a real and practical way.

I believe both are up to the test.

Thank you for your time.

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