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Lynton Crosby: 2001 Federal Election Analysis

Lynton CrosbyIn an address to the National Press Club today, the Federal Director of the Liberal Party, Lynton Crosby, has taken issue with the general belief that the issue of asylum-seekers and refugees was crucial in determining the outcome of the recent election.

In what will be just the beginning of a long struggle to write the history of the election, Crosby argued that economic management was a more significant issue and cited polling which placed asylum-seekers as the sixth most important issue.

  • Listen to Lynton Crosby’s speech (65m)

Transcript of Lynton Crosby’s National Press Club Address.

It is always good to be at the Press Club following an election win!

Today I want to share my thoughts on the underlying influences on the election outcome and make some observations about the myriad of post-election commentary and analysis.

The Challenge

The 2001 federal election, we were frequently told, was near mathematically impossible for the Liberal Party to win.

According to the mathematics, a loss of just one seat per State would see us out of government.

According to the mathematics, the average two party preferred swing away from governments since 1987 was around 2% – a swing that would have cost us 15 seats.

And to underscore the mathematical difficulty, we had seven retiring members, and what’s more two of our seats were notionally Labor after redistribution.

Well, fortunately, I never was much good at mathematics.

Conventional wisdom also had it that it was virtually impossible to win three terms in a row. Since the war only three Prime Ministers had done so.

Defying mathematical probability and conventional wisdom, John Howard delivered the Coalition an historic win with at least a 10 seat majority over all other parties and independents.

The Liberal National Party primary swing was 3.6% and on a two party preferred basis the just over 2% swing was the largest to an incumbent Government since 1966.

To better understand where these movements occurred we conducted a post election polling study across 16 key seats. That study reveals two particularly interesting things. The first is that among women 18-34 there was a 14% lift in our two party preferred vote. The second is that there was a 13% improvement in our vote amongst pensioners – a group that Labor said had been ravaged by the GST.

Factors behind a Liberal victory

Any accurate view of history should record that our victory on November 10 was due to several important factors.

  • John Howard’s leadership;
  • The Government’s strong economic and financial management credentials;
  • The Government’s strong stand in Australia’s national interest to protect our borders;
  • The professionalism of the Liberal Party team, its members and candidates at every level;
  • A determination to focus on local issues of relevance;
  • A demonstrated track record in Government of doing the right thing; and
  • The certainty and stability that the Coalition offered in uncertain times.

More than anything else, the election was about leadership. John Howard had shown time and again that he had the strength and determination to stand up for what he knows to be right. Tampa provided further evidence of this leadership strength. It reinforced an existing perception rather than creating a new one.

People see John Howard as consistent and steady – always prepared to stand his ground if he thinks it is to Australia’s benefit.

In an era of political cynicism this is a gold-like quality.

Kim Beazley on the other hand was seen to be weak on issues – flip flopping on many – and voters were worried that he would not be able to stand up to others in his Party if pressure was applied. This concern about him existed on many issues – work for the dole, private health insurance, the undue influence of trade unions as well as illegal entrants.

On economic management voters considered that the government had done a good and responsible job. What’s more, given the uncertain international economic circumstances they felt that a steady hand on the economic levers was important.

On the other hand, they were worried that Labor could push Australia back into debt especially with the many promises that were being made. They worried where the money was coming from and the debate about costings only made them more suspicious.

Even Rollback concerned voters. On the one hand, Mr Beazley has talked it up for three years yet when it was released it was a damp squib. On the other hand, people were worried that if he was put under pressure he might Rollback even further, creating uncertainty and complexity at a time when small businesses and families had accepted that the GST was now, a part of life. Further still, Rollback was seen as a backward looking step at a time when, as a nation we needed to be looking to the future.

Finally, John Howard and his government represented safe hands. To quote one voter “John Howard is in there at the moment, he’s done a good job with all the big international and management issues. With a lot of uncertainty at the moment and a lot of things in the pipeline, we’re better off sticking with Howard.”

Dispelling some myths

Much has been written about our victory. Some myths are already developing.

Sadly, many commentators are falling for the ALP’s line that our victory was due only to the MV Tampa and the issue of illegal immigrants.

This is wrong. It denies the Government’s position in successive public opinion polls prior to the Tampa and it flies in the face of yesterday’s special Newspoll that showed that more than 40% of voters made their mind up months before Tampa arrived.

An analysis of Newspoll for this year shows that the Government’s vote had been trending upwards well prior to August 27 the date that Tampa appeared off Christmas Island.

Consider this: according to the Newspoll taken on 9-11 March the Coalition’s primary vote was just 35% with Labor holding a 13% primary lead over the Government. Two months later, after the Budget was brought down, the Government led by 1%, and within two weeks following the Aston by-election in July the Government led Labor by 4% on a primary basis.

Following Aston, the Liberal National Party primary vote hit 40 per cent and never fell below that critical threshold.

The Aston by-election demonstrated that we were in a competitive position. It was a reflection of an improved standing that can be traced back to decisions John Howard took at the time of the Ryan by-election and over the ensuing months, after listening to the legitimate concerns of the community.

Our mid-year recovery in the polls was also confirmed by Labor’s internal polling. Geoff Walsh was telling his colleagues about our comeback in the polls a few weeks before anyone had heard of the Tampa.

This view comes from within other Labor circles too – Mark Bailey, an ALP Brisbane City Councillor, wrote in the Courier Mail, last Friday –

“A myth has emerged that says Labor was a shoo-in before Tampa. We weren’t. We were on course to lose.”

He went on –

“We couldn’t manage a 4.2% swing in the Aston by-election four months before a federal poll. So what was Labor’s response? Amazingly, more of the same. What a depressing sight to see Kim Beazley traipse belatedly around the country after more than half a decade of leadership talking about “What I Stand For” only months before the election while announcing nothing new.”

Rather than propel a party behind in the polls to a lead in the polls, Tampa had the effect of reinforcing in the minds of the Australian people the existing qualitative differences between John Howard and his Government and the Opposition and Kim Beazley.

Labor have boasted for the best part of a decade that they have superior campaign skills. I was constantly bemused by the stories about the so-called strategists – Bob McMullan, John Faulkner, Stephen Smith and Wayne Swan.

Before, and during, the campaign they were happy to claim the credit for their crucial roles. Where are they now?

Since the loss they have run for cover. Ironically, their self-promotion only served to undermine their leader’s standing – reinforcing that he needed to be propped up and suggesting that he really wasn’t up to the task of leadership.

I note now that Labor are, as usual trying to rewrite history briefing that they were set to win on the Wednesday before polling day but then the boat people issue re-emerged to dominate the agenda. This is plain wrong.

Labor was stuck in a rut during the campaign. Their primary vote never exceeded 38% overall in any poll for the five weeks of the campaign in the 32 seats we polled.

In the Sydney Morning Herald last week Jennifer Hewett reported that during August Labor polling put them well ahead of the Government and that Labor’s Geoff Walsh believed it would be tough for the Government to catch up the four to five points they were consistently behind Labor in the marginals, “no matter what Howard did”. All I can say is that they must have been using Gary Morgan because our polling in 20 marginal Coalition held seats during August was nothing like this.

Labor’s strategy confounded me. They started by focussing on education and began making an impact. Then suddenly they switched to the GST. Their advertising was described by voters as negative and undergraduate. It was advertising of another era. It failed to reflect the context of the campaign.

Post September 11 we found that voters, uncertain and worried by events beyond their control, were looking for positive and reassuring messages from their political leaders. This extended to advertising where the harsh, negative retail advertising that Labor ran missed the mark. Any negative advertisements had to be low key, factually based and with little aggression. Labor’s were shrill, misleading and juvenile.

It has been claimed that our election material and advertising focussed on boat people to the exclusion of almost all domestic issues. This misses a key point. Of course the issue of illegal entrants was one of several key issues, but it was as much about leadership as the issue itself. Most of our advertising focussed on our achievements nationally and at a local level, our plans for the future and the strength of leadership needed to take the country forward.

Many media commentators do not see much of the real campaign these days – it does not take place on the TV, on the radio or even in newspapers – it is the local activity on the ground that really counts – letters to voters, postcards, newsletters, telephone canvassing, doorknocking. At this level the issue of illegal entrants was only one of several – key issues.

So what were the factors that influenced the way people voted?

Our post election polling study helps us separate reality from rhetoric.

When asked to give the number one reason why they voted for the Liberal Party:

  1. 29% of people who voted for the Party cited Party reasons (either a longstanding commitment to the Liberal Party or opposition to the Labor Party)
  2. 22% cited economic and financial management
  3. 18% cited John Howard’s leadership
  4. 14 % said they wanted the Government to continue along its current path (in effect endorsing its track record)
  5. 11% cited Kim Beazley’s leadership
  6. 10% cited illegal entrants / boat people

So yes, illegal entrants was a relevant issue and yes it was used in our advertising.

But it was not the exclusive issue of the campaign.

Leaving aside voters general attitudes towards the Party the most important specific reason cited by voters for voting Liberal was our strength of economic and financial management.

Next to economic management was the strength of leadership of John Howard. Mr Beazley’s capacity to be Prime Minister was underscored not by his performance in relatively benign or controlled environments, but by other occasions when the unexpected caught him out. An example of this prior to the campaign was the pressure he created for himself when he fudged the circumstances surrounding his daughter’s hospital treatment and Labor was forced to blame a post caucus briefing for the problem.

His responses in such circumstances found him wanting, and the public worried, about how he would handle real difficulties. Nowhere was this more evident during the campaign than his response when, tragically, hundreds drowned after a boat sank in Indonesian waters. His reference to “failure of policy” and his subsequent obfuscation told people that he did not have the judgement or composure needed of a leader in tough times.

Reading a prepared text at a campaign launch or practicing and repeating a few cut through lines provided by others is one thing, but a real leader needs to be able to handle the unexpected. Nothing voters saw during the campaign gave people the confidence that Beazley could. In John Howard on the other hand they saw a known quantity, who believed in things and held a strong set of values that guided his decision making.

The Australian community knew that John Howard would take a stand in the national interest – just as he had done in response to the Port Arthur tragedy together with East Timor and tax reform.

Little wonder then that our post election study revealed that for 57% of voters John Howard was preferred Prime Minister – a lead of 27% over Kim Beazley and three times his lead over Beazley at the 1998 election.

Coverage of the people smugglers and illegal entrants issue often missed the point. For the majority of Australians it was about our right to protect our borders, sending a clear message to people smugglers and having proper processes in place for processing refugees.

Far from setting one group of Australians against another as has been argued by some, the strong position of John Howard is supported across the Australian mainstream.

81% of voters from our election study believe that Labor should support the Government on the issue of illegal entrants – this includes 76% of Labor voters.

In using the term mainstream I include the overwhelming number of proud newer Australians who have endorsed the Prime Minister’s position.

Our post election study reveals that 73% of Australians of a non-English speaking background support the Government’s border protection policies.

80% of voters believe that Australia should welcome refugees from any country of origin provided they go through the right processes.

Our study also found that 79% of Australians of a non-English speaking background believe the Labor Party should support our position.

This speaks volumes for the Prime Minister’s ability to unite the country in these difficult and uncertain times.

This should also serve to remind all that border protection has never been an issue of race but one of national sovereignty.

What has become clear, especially over the past few years, is that there is a widening gulf between many who consider themselves the opinion makers and those people who actually have the opinions.

In the context of the election, 81% of voters thought the media seemed more interested in its own issues rather than the issues of importance to Australians generally.

There are some who believe in the earthquake theory of politics.

The earthquake theory argues that there is one defining event, one moment, which changes the political landscape forever. Issues and events are thrown upside down and nothing can ever be the same.

There are those who see Tampa as one such event. I do not. I have heard the emphatic claims before about how an event had reshaped politics.

I well remember when Cheryl Kernot defected to Labor.

The earthquake theorists were alive and well then.

Headlines blared “Cheryl for PM”.

One commentator said “Kernot’s party switch clearly changed the fundamentals of Australian politics”.

We all know what’s happened to Cheryl now.

We saw the same earthquake theory adopted early in the year at the time of the Ryan by-election.

One commentator said that the Ryan by-election “has so lengthened the odds about a Government victory in the federal election this year that it is fitting to start assessing Howard’s mixed and complex legacy”.

Another told us in May that “the Liberal Party, founded by Menzies and inspired by Deakin, is at a crossroads and potentially in crisis, contemplating one of its worst defeats and the risk that it will be reduced to a rump unless something is done now, and done boldly, to arrest the slide”. (Financial Review, Friday 11 May 2001)

Yes, we were in trouble earlier in the year. And had the election been held then it would have been very tough. But the election was not being held – and it never was going to be held then.

That is why I have always subscribed to the evolutionary theory of politics. It is that political outcomes are determined by a series of cumulative events. One event does not generally overwhelming an overall difference, rather it incrementally reshapes or reinforces views.

The Prime Minister alluded to this point himself back in March when he leant across the Chamber and told Kim Beazley that “it may be easy pickings today, but there will come a time when you actually have to tell the Australian people what you stand for.”

Politics is a marathon and Kim Beazley and Labor were found wanting when it mattered.

So what is the Labor Party’s response to their third successive federal election defeat?

Labor’s idea of generational change is to replace as their leader the 53 year old son of a former Whitlam Minister with the 52 year old son of a former Whitlam Minister. This same man once headed up the ACTU, along with Martin Ferguson and now Jenni George, he reinforces the absolute dominance the union movement has over the ALP.

My message to Mr Crean is a simple one that resonates deeply with the Australian community: you can not proclaim to represent all Australians when you are owned by a minority of them.

In our post election study 72% of all voters including 55% of Labor voters believe the Labor Party should reform itself and reduce trade union power. Further still 53% of voters believe a former ACTU head should not lead the Labor Party. And just for the record 70% of all voters believe that Labor should accept the GST is a part of life now and just move on.

85% of voters also believe that the Labor Party should release its policies earlier, not a few weeks before an election. The same number (85%) believes that the Labor Party needs to explain to the Australian people what it stands for.

When I addressed the Press Club after the 1998 election I made the point that political parties need to believe in something.

Having nothing substantive to offer, no concrete plan, no real policies, Labor turned to untruthful scare. Labor’s radio advertisements were lies, lies about the Government’s position on tax reform and lies about Telstra. They were deliberately run on radio because they would not have been allowed to appear on television.

And worse, Labor extensively push polled. They rang people in their homes and told them lies about the GST and about Telstra. We received hundreds of calls of complaint about this tactic.

To this end I believe radio commercials should be subject to the same criteria as television advertisements, and that fines should be imposed for parties, and companies, that engage in push polling.

We need to clarify whether the Trade Practices Act relating to misleading and deceptive conduct applies to broadcasting at a time when the Federation of Australian Commercial Television Stations believes that it does, while the ACCC thinks that it does not.

The Australian Democrats – a lost opportunity.

In the 2001 election the Australian Democrats fared poorly.

Our post election research found that only 20% of voters said the Democrats ran an effective campaign whilst 72% said their campaign was ineffective.

Given that the motivation for the Democrats to change leaders was said to be Natasha Stott Despoja’s popularity and media image it would be concerning to the Democrats to note that even 55% of Democrat voters said their Party ran an ineffective campaign.

What is more interesting is the fact that voters did not take kindly to the Democrats preference deal with Labor.

71% of voters said the Democrats should be a truly independent party and not do preference deals with any of the major parties. Only 23% agreed with arriving at such an arrangement. We also found that voters haven’t a clue what the Democrats stand for under the leadership of Senator Stott Despoja.

94% of voters said the Democrats need to tell people what they stand for, 86% said they wanted to see more policy substance from the Democrats rather than a focus on personalities and 72% believe they should support the Government’s stance on illegal entrants.

It will long be remembered that a vote for the Democrats in 2001 was a vote for Kim Beazley and the Labor Party.

The preference deal the Democrats negotiated with Labor was designed to hand government to them.

Political professionals always like to ask the question “Who won the campaign?”

The answer to this question can be found in those voters who made up their minds during the course of the campaign.

Our research found that during the course of the campaign more people chose the Coalition than chose the ALP. 50% of Liberal voters made up their mind after the election was called compared with 46% of Labor voters – indicating the impact of the campaign in converting voters to the Liberal Party.

We also found that Labor’s claim that Kim Beazley won the campaign is disputed by voters.

82% of voters polled in key seats believe that the Liberal Party ran a convincing campaign (44% very, 38% somewhat).

Just 48% of voters believe that Labor ran an effective campaign (12% very, 37% somewhat) and more (50%) thought Labor’s campaign was ineffective.

Even 40% of Labor voters believe Labor ran an ineffective campaign!

So when did people make up their minds?

As in 1998, a significant proportion of voters in this election made their voting decision in the final stages of the campaign.

14% of voters made their mind up on polling day itself – 9% in the booth and 5% on the day but before entering the booth.

This reinforces the importance of communicating messages to the very end.

John Howard’s press club performance and continuing discipline coupled with the strict discipline that our campaign displayed with polling booth dressing and messages helped lock away our vote.

In contrast, Labor had different election day wraps and signs in virtually every state.

Since 1996 we have been entrusted with government by the people of Australia. That right carries with it the equal responsibility to constantly work hard to maintain that trust. John Howard knows better than most his obligation.

Whilst our result federally has been strong, our results in some States have been disappointing.

At a national level we do not hold any seats in Tasmania, and despite receiving a swing to us nationally of over 2% we were unable to pick up Bass with its margin of 0.1%.

That is why I believe the Liberal Party organisation needs to continue to reform itself over the next three years.

We need to establish a set of benchmarks for our candidates and Divisional bodies to achieve. We must continue to promote a career path for people to work within the organisation. We must ensure that our membership continues to be built up and revitalised.

I believe we won this historic victory because of the foundations laid by John Howard and his team over 5 years in Government.

I have worked on every Federal Election in one way or another since 1974. At this election I worked with the most unified and professional parliamentary and organisational team ever. It was a victory due to the commitment and tenacity of John Howard, supported by Peter Costello and John Anderson and their colleagues. To them I extend my thanks.

To Shane Stone, our party president, thank you for your support and counsel. And to my friend Ron Walker, my sincere thanks for ensuring our campaign was well funded, despite not having the pipeline of dollars from Labor’s Centenary House and the union movement.

The skill and professionalism of our State Directors was more than a match for the ALP’s and we continued to beat them on the ground, in the streets and suburbs where it mattered. In this our local members and candidates were critical.

Through our advertising team of Mark Pearson, Ted Horton, John King and Toby Ralph, and our pollster Mark Textor, we were able to understand and effectively communicate with the community.

My sincere thanks also goes to my team at the Federal Secretariat who put the interests of the Party first for the past three years to help ensure we got over the line.

To my family Dawn, Tara and Emma, thank you for your absolute patience and unswerving support.

And most importantly, to the tens of thousands of Liberal Party members and supporters across Australia – I say thank you for the drive and energy you continue to give to our cause. Your work has helped to keep Australia in safe hands.

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Malcolm Farnsworth
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