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Of Votes And Bodies: The Labor Party’s Election Defeat

by Malcolm Farnsworth

There’s votes and there’s bodies.

In Saturday’s election, the ALP ended up with more bodies than it thought it would. Members who were written off or deemed at risk just three months ago have survived the election.

Think, for example, of Jason Clare, Chris Bowen, Laurie Ferguson, Ed Husic, Matt Thistlethwaite, Mark Dreyfus, Alan Griffin, Anna Burke, Graham Perrett, Kate Ellis, Gary Gray and Warren Snowdon. They are some of the saved furniture. Some of it is tatty, some of it has lustre, but it has survived.

That’s why the relief in the ALP is palpable. Bodies matter. MPs have staff, offices and facilities. They are an essential part of the infrastructure a political party needs to wage war with its opponents.

Whatever the Gillard apologists might say – and they were out in force over the weekend – the ALP was heading for the loss of 30-40 seats in June.

In Melbourne in May the massive swing against the ALP in a state by-election where the Liberals didn’t even run a candidate drew attention to what was happening in the electorate. In some areas, the swings were over 20%. The smarties denied that a state by-election warranted federal comparisons but people on the ground knew better.

Rightly or wrongly, Gillard was detested. Her political skills were woeful. What the political, bureaucratic and media class loved in her cut no ice with the public. She was leading her troops to a slaughter.

All that changed with the return of Rudd. The over-excitable types began to dream of victory but the “saving the furniture” faction was always the most realistic. Rudd alluded to it in his concession speech on Saturday night. He delivered a party that is still viable and that has enough MPs with their futures still in front of them.

The final result is not yet in but we know the ALP will end up with about 58 seats, give or take. That’s 39% of the seats in the House of Representatives. It’s a severe defeat overall. But the ALP has done worse than that at 12 of the 41 federal elections since 1910.

It could have been much worse.

Only one seat was lost in South Australia. Only two have gone in Queensland. Western Australia is no change, as are the territories.

The ALP has definitely lost 14 seats. It may end up losing 17 or 18. But that’s a lot less than what was likely at mid-year. The furniture was saved. And that’s why there was a curiously up-beat mood amongst Labor supporters on Saturday night. Everyone was expecting much worse.

This defeat is not as bad as Keating’s in 1996 or Calwell’s in 1966. It is nowhere near as bad as the carnage of Whitlam in 1975 and 1977. It is a defeat that still leaves the party with something to work with.

Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not starry-eyed about this. It was also a terrible defeat. A primary vote of 33.85% is dismal. It is the lowest primary vote since 1931.

The election showed the ALP is in bad odour in Tasmania. Three of its four members were defeated. It has been nearly a quarter of a century since the ALP held only one seat in Tasmania.

In Victoria, the ALP’s two-party vote has fallen below 50% for only the second time since 1990. In Western Australia, the party is at its lowest point in three decades, measured by seats and votes. In growing Queensland, the ALP has only twice polled 50% in half a century.

In NSW, the expected rout in western Sydney did not occur. Losses were minimised. But seats fell elsewhere and the vote is the lowest in decades.

And when you take the ALP’s performance at the 2010 and 2013 elections together, the picture is a nasty one. The party’s vote has declined by 6.01% since 2007. The holding pattern results in Queensland and Western Australia are from a very low base.

All this points to a party in trouble, a party that no longer speaks to the mainstream of Australian society. It illustrates why the party has to reform, why it has to nurture better candidates from broader backgrounds, and why it has to learn to talk to the voters afresh.

Bob Hawke was right. It is a devastating defeat, especially when you consider the vote. Look at the number of formerly safe seats that now sit on small margins and you can see how serious the problem is.

It was a defeat the party deserved. The government had been unelectable for most of its second term. It was an embarrassment. It was politically inept. It was riven with division. It was widely regarded as incompetent and wasteful. Important issues, from the budget to asylum seekers, were judged to have been mishandled. The government’s achievements, from school funding to broadband and the NDIS, often seemed tainted by its failures and budgeting on the never-never. Only one in three people voted Labor and many did so out of lifelong loyalty. They held their noses as they did so.

Rudd and Gillard are equally culpable. Both were dismal in their own way. I happen to think that Gillard was disastrous. As we saw in the election campaign, Rudd only ever showed erratic form. The quality of their joint leadership was mediocre. But that is all irrelevant now. Gillard has left the parliament. Rudd should now follow her. A line needs to be drawn.

The problem goes deeper than either of them. It is institutional and structural. It is about internal culture. It is about philosophy and policy. It is about personnel and the stultifying influence of the party’s ruling class of unions and factions.

It’s about language, the great political skill that Abbott has in spades. The managerial and bureaucratic language that characterises many Labor people has to be challenged. The language of process has to be cast off.

Gillard said the first Rudd government had lost its way. The election showed the party has certainly lost its way. Erstwhile supporters won’t easily cop more of the circus. Look at the strong swings to Adam Bandt and Andrew Wilkie in two traditional Labor seats and you see candidates Labor supporters will vote for. You see another in Alannah MacTiernan and the sparkle she brought to the Perth campaign.

But the signs are not good. The misunderstanding of Abbott is deeply ingrained. The detestation is misdirected. We don’t know for sure yet but I suspect this man will be hard to beat now that he has the reins in his hands. The ALP is going to have to do better than the insipid campaign waged against Abbott over the past three years, to say nothing of the last five weeks.

When Paul Keating lost in 1996 the next two Labor prime ministers weren’t even in the parliament. Rudd and Gillard both arrived in 1998, as did a goodly number of future Rudd and Gillard ministers. History may now be repeating itself. If the unctuous, over-rated and spivvy Bill Shorten is the best the party has to offer in opposition, the road back is going to be long and slow.

As always in Australian elections, compulsory voting and compulsory preferential voting has saved the ALP from greater disaster. Imagine what might have happened if people didn’t have to show up on Saturday and if they didn’t have to give a second preference.

These institutional forces can sustain the major parties through the hard times.

The ALP has now entered upon those hard times. It has arrived with some extra bodies but derisory public support.

It is time to do or die.

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Malcolm Farnsworth
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