The Labor government’s electoral decline began in 2008 and continued under Julia Gillard, according the Liberal Party’s Federal Director, Brian Loughnan.
Addressing the National Press Club in Canberra, Loughnane claimed that despite the difficulty of unseating a first-term government with all the advantages of incumbency, Tony Abbott’s “decisive leadership” made the party competitive throughout the election.
Loughnane disputed the argument put yesterday by the ALP’s National Secretary, Karl Bitar, that it was leaks per se that had a catastrophic effect on the government’s campaign. Rather, the leaks “focussed voters’ attention on the fact Julia Gillard was not the politician Labor spin doctors wanted Australians to think she was”.
Loughnane said his party’s polling showed only 49% of voters had decided how to vote before the election campaign began, compared to 68% in 2007.
He said post-election research showed Liberal members and candidates “added to the Party’s vote across Australia while Labor’s candidates were neutral or a negative influence on their vote”.
Loughnane said the Liberal Party won the election campaign but “despite the strong campaign the historic task of winning after just one term was ultimately insurmountable”.
- Listen to Brian Loughnane’s Address to the National Press Club (56m)
- Watch Loughnane (29m)
Transcript of Brian Loughnane’s National Press Club Address.
Mr President, Ladies and Gentlemen:
I am grateful to the National Press Club for the opportunity to discuss one of the most remarkable election campaigns in Australian history.
On the 21st of August, for the first time since 1931, a Government was denied a majority after its first term.
The reasons for this result are complex and I would like to take the opportunity today to set out in some detail, aided by research the Party has done since the election, the factors which influenced the result.
The campaign was an important influence on the result. But it was far from the only influence.
To properly understand what happened on the 21st August we must begin with the community expectations that Labor itself created in 2007.
Despite significant hesitations, the community gave Labor a mandate in 2007 to implement what Australians considered significant promises to help make their lives better. However doubts about Labor’s commitment to deliver on their promises quickly began to appear.
We first saw those hesitations emerge in our research prior to Labor’s first Budget in 2008. Understandably however, people found reasons to put off making a judgment believing the Budget would be the moment Labor would start to deliver on its promises. You may recall the Prime Minister and Treasurer at the time raising expectations with their talk of tough decisions.
The 2008 Budget was a failure for Labor and marked the beginning of its electoral decline. Australian’s were underwhelmed by the Budget and by the lack of any significant action on the issues Labor had sought and been given a mandate.
The failure of the Budget was quickly compounded by Labor’s ambivalence towards rising petrol and grocery prices and manifested itself in the result of the Gippsland by-election.
Brendan Nelson’s reply to the Budget in May 2008 captured the mood of ordinary Australians and was the beginning of the Coalition’s re-emergence as a viable alternative after the 2007 election. Brendan Nelson deserves great credit for instinctively understanding and clearly articulating both the expectations of Labor and the disappointment widely felt with the Government across the community.
By mid 2008 our research was showing that while support for Mr Rudd was apparently high, behind these top-line numbers were very deep frustrations. Labor appeared to ordinary Australians to be ignoring their legitimate concerns and obsessed with their own priorities and interests. This was particularly true of Kevin Rudd. Just seven months into office Labor had begun to lose its way.
The Government did receive some initial credit for its approach at the beginning of the global financial crisis. However, as the stimulus rollout occurred throughout 2009, concern within the community quickly developed. Australians believed schools could use additional funding but were frustrated at the bureaucratic and poorly considered edict that the money had to be spent on school halls when, in many cases, there were obviously other clear priorities for their school.
The concern in the community at Labor’s level of waste was deep. The school halls and insulation fiascos cut through as practically every community in Australia had examples of mismanagement and waste and this was made worse by the Government’s exaggerated rhetoric and refusal to admit any level of problem.
The community reaction to the 2009 Budget was that the Government lacked a clear strategy to manage the economy and in particular, to begin to repay debt. A sense began to grow that the Government was losing control of the nation’s finances with little to show in return.
The time had come to begin delivering practical results on the ground, but instead the rhetoric continued, the debt grew and interest rates began increasing.
As he moved around the community Malcolm Turnbull heard these concerns and articulated them. By contrast, Mr Rudd and Labor continued to dismiss them, further fueling community concern.
Our feedback on Kevin Rudd in this period included representative comments such as: “marvelous vision but can’t put it into action”, “struggles to know how to implement things”, “badly targeted spending”, “always overseas”, “just waiting for an opinion poll”.
After only two years in Government it was clear to us the community had deep reservations about Labor and Kevin Rudd, even if those reservations were not yet fully reflected in published opinion polls.
The community was looking for a strong alternative and an opportunity was emerging for the Coalition. However, the latter part of 2009 was one of the most difficult periods in the history of the Liberal Party.
Labor was attempting to use the ETS as an issue as much to divide the Coalition as to legislate what it considered to be important policy. As a consequence of the public spotlight being on us the growing concerns of the community with the Rudd Government were ignored. But they were there, they were real and they were growing. The community was actually more worried in this period with the inaction of the Government than they were with the Opposition.
This is why Tony Abbott was able to so quickly and effectively unite the Coalition and take the fight to Labor. People wanted Labor held to account and wanted a strong alternative and
Tony Abbott provided that from the moment he became Leader.
It also helps explain the apparently sudden and dramatic collapse in support for Kevin Rudd. From our perspective, the collapse was neither sudden nor dramatic. As I’ve said, the signs of trouble for Kevin Rudd were there as early as six months into his term as Prime Minister. Mr Rudd was cut an enormous amount of slack by the electorate. They wished him well. They wanted him to succeed. But Labor’s performance never matches its rhetoric. Australians were waiting for something to change but after two years the Government’s priorities seemed to be either overseas travel or on photo opportunities and process rather than outcomes to improve people’s lives.
In my view, in a professional political sense, Mr Rudd was one of the most effective framers of a message we have ever seen in this country. But this was both his strength and the basis of his failure.
He effectively positioned climate change as “the great moral challenge of our time”. People believed he was serious and that he would do something about it. The failure of the Copenhagen climate change conference came as the wider frustrations of the community with Labor were coming to the surface. Why take 114 people to a conference unless you were certain it was going to achieve something? And what did the much anticipated failure of the conference say about a leader’s judgment?
After Copenhagen people expected Mr Rudd to find other ways to take action. But instead he abandoned the ETS and moved to introduce a new tax on the mining sector, considered by most Australians a critical driver of our prosperity. This was the moment of no return for Mr Rudd and the final straw which broke the very strained bond of trust he had with the Australian community.
Even a few months before we would not have been able to use humour and ridicule against Kevin Rudd but community sentiment had moved so quickly that our Kevin O’Lemon advertisement accurately captured the mood.
We had obviously considered the possibility of Labor changing leaders before the election – indeed we had prepared for it – so our campaign was able to quickly adapt to Julia Gillard. What was surprising however was the speed with which the Gillard sky-rocket returned to earth.
As Deputy Prime Minister, Julia Gillard was directly linked to every major decision of the Rudd Government and as a Minister was personally responsible for a significant number of the major failures. So while we thought the change would not fundamentally alter the community’s problems with Labor, we did think she would have a longer honeymoon.
But after only three weeks it was clear the community’s concern and frustration remained and that the way Kevin Rudd was removed by the faceless operatives of the Labor machine had in fact, created a new and very deep hesitation about Labor.
Labor itself was obviously finding that Gillard’s replacement of Rudd had not reversed its decline. The decision of the Labor machine to call the election early seemed to us not to have been a considered strategic decision, but rather an attempt to move the focus from the day-to-day bungles which threatened to overwhelm the new Prime Minister.
Nonetheless, the task for the Coalition in the campaign was formidable:
– Only one first term Government had lost its majority since 1931.
– After the series of redistributions we needed to win 17 seats to obtain a majority.
– And Labor, of course, had the full advantages of incumbency to support it, together with the additional resources of the industrial arm of the labour movement and various complicit so-called third party groups such as Get Up.
Despite this, and given the challenges we faced throughout the term of Parliament, our position at the start of the campaign was stronger than we would have expected even a few short months before.
Tony Abbott’s principled and decisive leadership had put us in a competitive position and had staked out clear policy positions. He had united the parliamentary team, seen off a first term Prime Minister, restored the party’s morale and established the Coalition as a credible alternative Government.
We were therefore able to begin campaigning strongly from the moment the election was called.
Our success in setting the strategic direction of the contest in the first week of the campaign was very important. Had we not laid the basis then, Labor’s internal difficulties in the second and third weeks, while certainly not unhelpful, would have smothered any attempt by us to establish the terms of the contest.
Contrary to Labor’s attempts to write their own history, it was not the leaks per se that had such a catastrophic impact on their campaign. Rather, it was the subject matter of the leaks and the fact Julia Gillard failed to deny:
– That she had opposed the introduction of paid parental leave
– That she had opposed pension increases on the grounds that older Australians didn’t vote for Labor anyway
– That she had sent a relatively junior staff member in her place to meetings of the National Security Committee of Cabinet; and
– That she failed to consult Cabinet about her Citizens Assembly policy.
This focussed voters’ attention on the fact Julia Gillard was not the politician Labor spin doctors wanted Australians to think she was. Those responsible for these internal Labor leaks in fact exposed the real Julia.
By contrast, Tony Abbott was seen as a person with strong principles, highly disciplined, intelligent, energetic and with an easy rapport with people on the campaign trail.
In this campaign every day mattered. In 2007, 68% of voters told us they had made up their mind before the campaign. In 2010, only 49% had decided before the campaign. In our polling Labor had rebounded to a significant lead on primary vote immediately after Julia Gillard become Prime Minister. This was reversed to a 6 point primary lead by the Coalition on election day. Analysis of voter groups over this period shows it was younger voters under 35, and those with families who were most responsible for this movement.
Shortly after becoming Leader, Julia Gillard’s lead over Tony Abbott as preferred Prime Minister was over 25%. By the last part of the campaign, however, Tony Abbott had drawn level as preferred Prime Minister – a remarkable achievement for an Opposition leader. Interestingly, our research showed that during the campaign Gillard’s favorability fell below Rudd’s and it has remained below since.
There is no doubt community revulsion at the way in which the faceless powerbrokers toppled an elected Prime Minster influenced votes, and this was also shown in our research.
However, economic considerations were paramount: the economy, Budget management, waste and taxes were all cited in our research as major spontaneous reasons for the way people decided to vote. The Coalition built and maintained a strong lead on key economic issues during the campaign.
According to our research, our positive “action contract” advertisements featuring Tony Abbott were the most effective single advertisements of the campaign. The positive nature of our campaign was particularly important in building momentum as our research showed 69% of voters chose to positively endorse a Party while only 28% were motivated to vote against a Party.
Our success in building this positive campaign was remarkable given the strength of our opponent’s negative campaign against us. It is clear the ACTU, unions and other left wing groups were fully integrated into Labor’s campaign as an analysis of television advertising buy during the campaign shows. There was a period of ten days – a life time in a political campaign – in the first half of the election in which Labor did not advertise at all except for a minor buy in one State. But during this period, the ACTU and unions were on the air attacking Tony Abbott and the Coalition.
Our post-election research showed that our Members and candidates added to the Party’s vote across Australia while Labor’s candidates were neutral or a negative influence on their vote. Considerable work and preparation went into our marginal seat campaigning and was important in securing 14 additional seats for the Party.
Despite the massive opposition we faced, we held to our strategy and, I believe, clearly won the campaign by focusing on the key voter concerns: debt, deficit, waste, new taxes, lax border security, lack of competence in Government service delivery and integrity in Government.
Labor had no positive agenda to move Australia forward, thereby under cutting their campaign theme from the beginning. They could only resort to the same tired scare campaign they have used in previous elections.
It was naturally very disappointing for the Coalition not to be able to form Government after the election. Despite the strong campaign the historic task of winning after just one term was ultimately insurmountable.
We are determined to win the next election whenever it may be held. The Party has established a comprehensive review to ensure we build on the experience and lessons of the campaign and are in the strongest possible position to fight and win the next campaign.
We understand we cannot assume we will just fall into Government when the next opportunity arises. That is why we are reviewing our policies and reaching out to all sections of the community for new ideas to help meet the challenges ordinary Australians face as they go about their lives.
Labor and their allies are clearly going to use the advantages of incumbency to secure their position.
I indicated in my address to the Press Club after the 2007 election that the Coalition was willing to work with the Government on serious campaign expenditure and disclosure reform. It is regrettable Labor was unable to meet their commitment on this important issue in the last Parliament. I again indicate today that the Coalition is open to working with the Government on serious reform of campaign financing. A new regime will only survive over time if it has the support of both the major parties. Regrettably, the Bill introduced by the new Special Minister of State, for whom I have a high personal regard, does not seriously address long term campaign finance reform. The Coalition cannot and will not support a proposal that does not cover the activities of third party groups such as trade unions. In the 2007 and 2010 campaigns, union advertising was fully integrated into Labor’s campaign. To exclude the contributions of the unions makes a farce of any so-called reform. Equally, the activities of other groups, such as Get Up, must also be included in any reform. Given Get Up’s new found interest in funding reform I call on them today to voluntarily disclose all aspects of their funding and campaigning in the lead up to and during the recent campaign.
I also re-iterate the commitment of the Liberal Party to take part in a series of Leaders’ debates during the next campaign and to having an agreed format for them established well in advance of the next election.
The success of the different debate formats in the recent campaign underscores the importance of any arrangements being sufficiently flexible to adapt to opportunities during a campaign. It is therefore important any proposed Debates Commission facilitates, rather than prescribes the Leaders’ debates. The true success of the debates format must be that they allow Australians themselves to form their own judgments based on the Leaders having the clearest and fairest opportunity to make their case.
I would like to conclude by making a few short observations about the current federal political scene.
Australians are not confident minority government is good for the nation.
In the two months since the election it is apparent Labor is a mess and that Julia Gillard is struggling.
As a result Australia is drifting.
At the core of Labor’s problem is that it is unable to put Australia’s interests first. Everything Labor does is driven by the need to survive:
- What do the Greens think?
- What do the Independents think?
- How will the factions react?
Political survival now drives the actions and decisions of the Government and it is the reason why we are getting so many bad decisions and, increasingly, why so many decisions are being deferred. Every decision or deferral is a compromise taken with an eye to what’s required to keep an inherently unstable alliance together.
Julia Gillard is no economic reformer. Between 1998 and 2007 Julia Gillard opposed every major economic reform introduced by the Howard Government.
- She opposed the private health insurance rebate.
- She opposed tax reform.
- She opposed superannuation reform.
- And she opposed successive Howard Government decisions designed to reduce government debt.
Now Julia Gillard is running the most economically incompetent government in living memory.
Having wasted billions of dollars mismanaging the school hall building programme and continuing to borrow over $100 million every day, the only economic reform Julia Gillard is interested in is imposing higher electricity prices on Australian families through a carbon tax.
A strong leader would set a strong direction, but Julia Gillard can’t do that.
- Everything is a compromise.
- Everything is about survival.
We’ve already seen the rumblings start. I had not heard the rumours of a senior Minister misbehaving as reported recently in the media and have no idea what they refer to. But what was significant to me were the comments by unnamed “senior Labor figures” that the rumours were being circulated as part of early leadership positioning within Labor – and this just two months after the election!
So it’s little wonder Julia Gillard has resorted to two tactics familiar to those who have observed failing State Labor governments.
Firstly, Julia Gillard is deliberately trying to lower expectations of her performance and that of her Government. We are told this will be a term of “consolidation”, that we don’t appreciate just how great the challenges are. Minor and procedural developments are being trumpeted as major initiatives and difficult decisions are deferred or sent for review.
Australia cannot afford another three years of weak Government with limited ambition. The Coalition will not let Julia Gillard and Labor get away with this. We will hold them to account and we will push them to do better because Australian families deserve nothing less.
The second tactic Julia Gillard has borrowed from State Labor is to avoid fronting the media when there is bad news. Instead, Julia Gillard and senior ministers regularly require public servants to handle the media on difficult issues. Apart from placing senior public servants in an impossible position, Australians are entitled to hear directly from their elected leaders when there are problems. The Coalition will use the revised Parliamentary arrangements to hold Ministers who won’t front the media to account.
After just two months, the contrast could not be clearer – between an ineffective government with no policies, no direction and weak leadership, and the Coalition with clear direction, good policies and strong leadership to make Australia a better country. Australia does need strong leadership and only one leader can provide it. Tony Abbott knows what he believes, will always make the right decision for the right reason and has what it takes to get Australia moving again to make life better for ordinary Australians.
As Campaign Director I have many people to thank and acknowledge.
The success of this election campaign would not have been possible without the hard work and commitment of our candidates and the tens of thousands of Coalition supporters around Australia, who worked so effectively throughout the campaign and on election day.
I thank the Federal President of the Party, Alan Stockdale, for his support and dedicated work.
I also thank our Vice Presidents Danielle Blain, Tom Harley, Alexander Downer, and David Russell, the Honorary Federal Treasurer Michael Yabsley and all the members of the Federal Executive for their efforts.
I am personally very grateful to the great team at the Federal Secretariat, particularly my Deputy Julian Sheezel who lead the key seats unit so effectively, and my personal staff Jane Curtis, Kate Walshe and Kristian Galanti for their great work and support.
I record my personal thanks to Tony Abbott for his strong leadership of the Liberal Party. Tony has led our Party to an extraordinary result and deserves great credit for the remarkable turnaround in our fortunes.
I would like to thank the staff at the Leader’s office for their co-operation and great work and all the Coalition staff across Australia for their dedication and commitment.
I also thank the members of our parliamentary team, including Julie Bishop and Warren Truss for their energy and determination over the last three years and during the campaign.
I am particularly grateful to Andrew Robb and Nick Minchin for the role they played in the campaign and their sound counsel.
I am proud and grateful for the hard work and support of our State Directors and all our professional staff around Australia.
The Coalition is strong and campaigns well together and I record my great debt to Brad Henderson and his team at the National Party for everything they do to make this possible and congratulate them on a great result on election day.
I would like thank all who worked at the Campaign Headquarters for their outstanding commitment and for the sacrifices they and their families made. I particularly record my gratitude to John Griffin, Darcy Tronson, Stephen Galillee, Peter Phelps, and Kathy Casey.
I record my gratitude to Mark Textor and the team at Crosby-Textor for their support and wise advice over a difficult and challenging three years.
Our advertising team was again led by Mark Pearson. I thank Mark and the team – John King, Chris Grey, Ken Gee, Keven Kelly, James Woollett, Kym Leibig and Toby Ralph – for the enormous level of support they provided in the lead-up to and during the campaign.
Finally, I acknowledge and thank my wife Peta and my wider family and friends for their support and understanding.
Ladies and Gentlemen:
We are in an unprecedented political situation. We have a weak and unstable Government which is in a mess and getting worse. We have a Prime Minister who is not up to the job. And we have a restless Labor Party which has already removed one Prime Minister and will remove another when desperation sets in.
The Coalition is the only path to a strong and prosperous Australia. We have a great obligation to be ready to offer an alternative whenever the next election is held. Tony Abbott and the Coalition are determined to provide the leadership Australia needs and which Labor cannot provide.
I look forward to working closely with Coaliton supporters around Australia to deliver a great victory for all Australians when the opportunity arises.