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Andrew Robb: The 1993 Federal Election

This is the text of the National Press Club Address by Liberal Party Federal Director Andrew Robb on the outcome of the 1993 Federal Election.

Transcript of Andrew Robb’s Address to the National Press Club.

I suspect this address would have been a touch easier if we’d got over the line two and a half weeks ago.

It wasn’t to be, and I can assure you there is no comfort in having elegant regret.

But everyone ought to recognise that over 5 million people voted against Mr Keating and the Labor Party and the enthusiasm of support for change among our supporters this time was unusually strong.

If 1500 people had changed their mind in certain seats today we would be implementing the Liberal plan. In all of our re-assessment our people must not lose sight of this fact.

Yet, we now face the difficult task of learning the lessons, regrouping and gettingback on the front foot. We must be an effective Opposition, before we can be an effective Government.

Notwithstanding our defeat it was important to take up your kind invitation to address you today to ensure that our campaign and our motives were explained at first hand by us and not just left to others, especially our opponents. History has a habit of being re-written very quickly in the post-election period, usually by the winners.

I’d like to firstly congratulate Bob Hogg and the Labor Party on their success.

For me and others in the Coalition, it is a very hard loss to swallow not least because the hopes of millions of Australians were riding on us on the 13th March.

We had a programme which I am convinced would have, in time, unleashed a new era of confidence, energy and excitement around the country – a programme which would have given individual mums and dads, our young people, the elderly, small business people and our ethnic community some ‘blue sky’ to aim for, as well as real concern for the freedom, opportunities and care of the individual.

For the sake of all Australians I can only hope that the Government doesn’t see their victory as a mandate for continuing mediocrity.

Let me go back to where our campaign began some three years ago.

John Hewson didn’t exactly hide his intentions from his colleagues, or anyone else for that matter.

The Party collectively got behind his programme and his strategy. It was always risky politics, as has been borne out -but it was a team commitment.

Strategically our principal objective from the start was to achieve unity and discipline. The notion that “if you can’t govern yourselves, you can’t govern the country” had plagued us for several elections, and cost us government. John and his colleagues very effectively achieved this objective, and I think it was also a hallmark of our campaign.

If we are to be truly competitive in 1996, this hard won feature of the Liberal Partyand the Coalition must be protected as we go through this term in Opposition.

The second arm to strategy was directed at achieving credibility -another missing link in many of our efforts during the previous decade.

Let ire quote John Hewson and Tim Fischer from the introduction of the original Fightback! document:

“Our reforms defy the conventional wisdom that Oppositions should let Governments lose elections…

We believe that there needs to be a generational change in the direction of public policy, in the role that governments play in people’s lives and in community attitudes. To “surprise” the Australian people with our policies after the next election would not only be dishonest, but it would also jeopardise public acceptance of the changes that Australia desperately needs.”

At the time, the release of Fightback! did greatly enhance the Coalition’s credibility,it brought down a very popular and successful Prime Minister, and yet, the Coalition still wasn’t able to defy conventional wisdom.

They say in politics nothing moves unless it’s pushed. I suspect we’ve learned the hard way not to give it one almighty shove – at least from Opposition.

In the end we just opened up too many fronts on which to fight. The GST, in particular, provided our opponents with too many opportunities to exploit the deepseated anxiety prevailing in our community – anxiety borne out of existing financial and personal stress, insecurity, guilt and despair, especially among women.

Many people are operating on a short fuse, and in the end a lot of them took what looked to them to be the “least risk” approach.

We were aware of the challenge presented by the policy package, especially the GST. If you look back through the public polls over two and a half years every time there was a protracted debate on the GST the polls narrowed, closed or crossed as was the case in November 1992.

There were endless comments about the need to better ‘sell’ or explain the GST and the rest of Fightback!. I’m forever grateful to the 97 advertising agencies, each of whom offered the “one and only” solution, for a modest fee of course.

Notwithstanding the very serious budget constraints faced by political parties these days I suspect there has never been such an effort put in by Members and Senators of a political Party over such a period of time to communicate their policy platforms.

Over the last 18 months to 2 years we have seen them involved in thousands of meetings, press and media interviews, endless talk-back radio (sometimes on the midnight to dawn shift), street stalls and literally millions of contacts by mail and information sheets. 1 thought they put in a fantastic effort.

Sadly, the bottom line was that the more information that people were given about the Fightback! plan, the more questions it raised, the more apprehensive they became and the more susceptible to Labor’s scare campaign.

This conclusion was confirmed in feedback from Parliamentarians and their staff at the coalface, as well as by our qualitative research, and it drove much of the campaign strategy and our approach to paid media.

This apprehension, combined with the despair confronting millions of Australians demanded we go back and look again at the human dimension of our policies in November / December of last year.

The resultant changes to Fightback!, especially the exclusion of food from the GST and the removal of our policy to scrap the dole for some after 9 months, halted both a serious slide in our political stocks and a fall in John Hewson’s personal standing.

John Hewson never looked back after December, and his strong and improving personal standing from then on also became an important part of our campaign strategy.

The Government’s curious decision to have a politics free Christmas and to leave the GST alone until virtually the second week of the campaign helped rebuild our political position to a level which very nearly gave us the buffer we needed to head off their final scare campaign.

Our campaign had 3 strategic objectives. Firstly, to reinforce Labor’s key weakness, poor economic management, and the implications of another 3 years of Labor. The notion that Labor had had 10 years and had no solutions was a powerful one. And it still is.

The second objective was to convey a sense of hope, trust and security. The notion that John Hewson has a plan, its fair and he’s a person you can trust.

Finally, we sought to satisfy the anticipated insatiable demand for information about the GST and the rest of Fightback!, and to head off the scare campaign, through an unprecedented programme of direct mail and other material to be provided at a grassroots and electorate level.

We sought to drive these strategic objectives with different elements of the campaign. For example, the attack on Labor was principally carried out through our paid media, along with some rebuttal of the scare campaign.

The $4.6 million media spend was largely on television because of the weight we needed to put behind the ads if we were to cut through with a modest budget. We had a reasonable radio presence and very little newspaper. This compared with a $6 million media spend by Labor, plus a further $1 million by the unions on television.

Apart from the 20 minute launch documentary and the 2 minute ABC free time spots we did not seek to use television to explain the GST for the reasons mentioned earlier. Despite several months of testing material developed by our agency, as well as suggested from others, we found no 30 second solution which didn’t raise more questions and make people more vulnerable to Labor’s scare campaign.

As well, GST was the campaign issue they were predictably using against us. For every penny I could have spent on putting GST on the screens I would have been raising their issue.

Along with the launch we sought to use the Leader’s programme and through him the TV news, radio and print coverage, to carry much of the positive message of our campaign. It was a big ask and I thought he campaigned extremely well. In particular, it was critical for people to get to know him much better, to see that he could mix and relate to people whatever their circumstance.

Given that we had a complex policy package that would not be fully understood, especially by the vast number of undecided and soft voters, it was very important that they had trust in the Leader that he would introduce the changes in a way which would be sympathetic to how it would affect individuals, no matter what their circumstance.

The ‘take it to the people’ approach from John Hewson through public meetings,street walks, rallies and other events proved to be a successful element of our campaign, especially during the first three to four weeks.

At the start of the campaign John Hewson had a net popularity of around zero with Mr Keating’s at -10. They were roughly equal on preferred Prime Minister.

By the end of the campaign John Hewson had a net approval of around +10 compared with Mr Keadng at -20 and John Hewson was 5 or 6 points ahead as preferred Prime Minister during the last 10 days and even in published exit polls had a 3 or 4 point lead as preferred Prime Minister.

The third major arm of the campaign -the provision of information on Fightback! – resulted in nearly 12 million pieces of literature being distributed, of which 6 million pieces went into the 25 most marginal seats. The launch documentary reached 1 .8 million viewers.

As well, I thought the media did a very fair job with television and newspapers broadcasting and publishing extensive ‘service’ items on GST which were balanced and informative.

There is one bone I do want to pick with the media. You spent several weeks reporting Mr Keating’s supposed views on GST. Since the election we now find Mr Keating says that he spent the whole campaign talking about Australian values. You missed it and I must say so did I. It is probably news to Bob Hogg too!

The debates and respective party launches were cornerstones of the campaign.

I thought the Willesee debate followed by the Mulroney resignation proved to be critical factors in focussing attention on the GST.

In the Willesee debate Mr Keating sacrificed considerable popularity and standing, which he never recovered, in order to get the GST scare up. This was subsequently locked in by the Mulroney resignation.

The last 2 weeks was a roller-coaster. Our launch, the Laws programme and cake episodes, the Melbourne night-time ‘town’ meeting and the Adelaide rally made for an up and down then up second last week.

The worm caught up with us in the last debate.

As well, we had mixed fortunes with the rallies.

The rallies were deigned to convey a sense of momentum and public support for our complex plan and again to show John Hewson among the people. 30,000 people turned out in the last 8 days.

The early rallies were successful . However, the pictures from the last couple of rallies played into Labor’s last week theme. In hindsight I allowed Labor too much notice of these later rallies and they were well organised to cause extensive and premeditated violent disruption at these rallies. Who was warning against division all the while?

The undecideds started to make up their mind from the last Tuesday. A large proportion were women 25-49 years of age.

The undecided voters broke 42/58 against the Coalition in the last few days. A 45/55 break-up would have ensured a Coalition victory.

Of those undecideds who voted for Labor 65% of them voted Labor because of Coalition policies. Of these people nearly 70% were principally concerned about the GST.

Other factors influenced the final result. Medicare, industrial relations, the unions and other third party mobilisation against us, the collapse of the Democrat vote and the further decline of the National Party vote.

However, there is no question that the GST was overwhelmingly the reason why Labor won the 1993 election.

None of this should give the Government much comfort in terms of its mandate.

Of those undecideds who voted Labor less than one in 5 did so because of support for Mr Keating or Labor policies.

The only mandate Mr Keating has got is not to introduce a GST.

The result is a huge disappointment. The work and commitment of so many was unprecedented, yet goes totally unrewarded. There are no second places in this business.

I am very grateful for the great support I got from my staff, the State Directors, our agency, George Patterson’s, our Parliamentarians and their staff and Ashley Goldsworthy during my first campaign.

I sincerely thank John Hewson for his trust, and record my admiration for the courage, commitment and campaigning skills john displayed throughout a long 3 years. And Carolyn is a great part of the team.

We have learnt from the result, and we’ll use it to prompt necessary changesthroughout the Party and begin to put maximum pressure on the Government.

Among other things, the changes must seek to breathe new life into the Organisation, to make the participation of many of our members far more relevant. Providing an opportunity for the Party Organisation to more effectively influence the policy of the Parliamentary Party is one important element.

To this end I believe we should look at formally instituting a national convention at least once in every Parliamentary term involving all our Federal Members and Senators as very active participants, along with 200 or 300 rank and file delegates from around Australia. While the Parliamentary Party should still ultimately determine policy, such a convention should allow wide ranging debate on issues of national importance and in the process give the Party members some ownership of the ultimate direction and policy of the Parliamentary Party.

This and other suggestions for change will begin to be considered at a Federal Executive meeting next week.

In conclusion, the job is ahead of us but with only a small 0.7% swing needed next time, we can ensure that if we keep our nerve, 13 years of Labor will be long enough.

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Malcolm Farnsworth
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