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"This one hurts": SA lessons for "anti-aspirational" Labor

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State Labor leader Peter Malinauskas says his party’s federal election disaster should not be a deterrent from campaigning on “policy and ideas”, saying the ALP must better engage with business and avoid being seen as “anti-aspirational”.

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Bill Shorten’s failure to wrest power from Scott Morrison’s Coalition despite repeated polling suggesting a Labor win has opened deep wounds in the shellshocked party, with supporters angrily blaming Liberal voters on social media and members arguing amongst themselves about the lessons that should be learned.

Labor’s policy platform of franking credit and negative gearing reform was a soft target for Morrison’s Liberals, and has been widely blamed for turning the tide against the Opposition, along with Shorten’s own enduring lack of popularity.

“I really hope this election doesn’t become a deterrent from elections being a debate about policy and ideas,” Malinauskas told InDaily.

“There’s certainly a question about whether federal Labor’s policy contributed to its election loss – but that should be distinguished from whether or not it’s a good idea to have policy…

“I’ve seen the commentary but I hope that this election doesn’t mean we stop having a debate in elections about policy and ideas.”

The SA leader, installed after Jay Weatherill’s defeat last year, said “Labor has to be true to its values – that’s clear – but it’s also important to bring people with us”.

“Labor leaders are at their most effective when they bring consensus around issues generally – we need to be serious about addressing issues like climate change and the quality of public health and education, but we shouldn’t be doing it from a platform that allows us to be criticised as anti-aspirational,” he said.

“The way we engage with business matters in that context as well.”

Malinauskas said the party had to fundamentally represent working people “but that doesn’t mean you can’t work with business”.

“You’ve got to do both,” he said.

He said the backlash against Liberal voters from Labor supporters on social media was counter-productive.

“I don’t spend that much time on social media because I think it’s an echo chamber, but I’ve looked at Facebook and Twitter – I’ve seen some of those comments and I think they’re so ill-founded,” he said.

“I fundamentally believe in the decency of the Australian people, and I don’t think because the Liberal Party won, that the majority of Australians are less decent – that’s an absurd proposition.”

The social media outrage has also been slammed by his predecessor in the seat of Croydon, former Attorney-General Michael Atkinson, who took federal heavyweight Doug Cameron to task on Twitter for arguing against a return to a more mainstream policy agenda.

Atkinson blames “the obvious” for the defeat – “negative gearing, franking credits, making yourself a big target”.

“But locally the campaign was pretty good,” he added.

The Labor Party has to be a party for all Australians and it has to have something to say to rural and regional Australians

“The reason I reacted to strongly to Doug Cameron’s remarks is because I once heard them when I was eight years old from my uncle after the 1966 election defeat.”

He said the reaction at the time was one of noble defeat, of “pride that we lost and that we lost because of our principles”.

“And then you don’t draw any conclusions from the loss, other than that you have to be more like yourself than you were at the last election – you move to the Left and you make yourself an even bigger target.”

Atkinson says “we’ve seen people from the Left – particularly the Green Left – just abusing the Australian people”.

“There’s an upsurge of it, of which Doug Cameron is only a tiny part,” he said.

But, he adds: “I’m very confident the SA Party will not go down the path of the Queensland and Tasmanian parties.”

“I think the big target strategy would have been impossible without the Queensland and Tasmanian parties being the way they are.”

Atkinson said he did not “really understand the federal strategy”.

“Chris Bowen invited self-funded retirees to vote against us – and they did,” he lamented.

“I just think the Labor Party has to be a party for all Australians and it has to have something to say to rural and regional Australians… that will always mark me out as a Right winger in Labor terms, so there it is.”

The pain within the party remains raw though, with one senior insider saying it was as bad a loss as they’ve experienced in politics.

“This one hurts – and it hurts because we lost it,” they said.

Atkinson doubts the party has seen the last of ‘big picture’ campaigning – but only because parties fail to learn the lessons of history.

“I see people taking the same course for the third time… it only takes fifteen years for everyone to forget,” he said.

“Everyone had forgotten 2004, when John Faulkner had convinced Mark Latham to adopt a forestry policy in order to stave off the Greens in the federal division of Sydney – that lost us the Tasmanian seat of Braddon in ’04 and now we’ve gone and done it again… but on a larger scale, of course, in North Queensland.”

State Labor heavyweight Tom Koutsantonis noted the SA party was conducting a policy review and “we’ll have more to say about that as we get closer” to the state poll.

Our federal colleagues probably need to look to us and our example about what happens when you lose an election

“I don’t think we can compare the federal campaign to the state campaign, but there’s lessons in every election,” he said.

“We lost the election in 2018 and elected Peter, and he’s gone about visiting every electorate out there listening to people and hearing what we got wrong… our federal colleagues probably need to look to us and our example about what happens when you lose an election, and do the same exercise.

“That’s what politicians should do.”

Koutsantonis, though, is bullish about swings to Labor in SA – that he attributed to state issues such as the Darlington debacle – and warning the Liberal Party would be foolish to rest on its laurels.

If voters are annoyed, they look to alternatives; if they’re not, they go with the flow

One who agrees with that sentiment is newly-elected Liberal MP for Sturt James Stevens.

Stevens, who replaced his former boss Christopher Pyne, is an old hand at campaigning, having worked as Steven Marshall’s chief of staff for several years.

He noted healthy swings to the Liberals in booths held by state MPs, but said “it’s important that we have a proper review of the campaign”.

“The worst thing you can do when you win an election is think there’s nothing to learn from it,” he said.

“You can always look at the things we could have done better.”

But it’s Labor ruing a misreading of polling data that had Shorten convinced he was bound for the Lodge.

Stevens, who with state director Sascha Meldrum championed the i360 data mining tool credited with a key role in the 2018 state election strategy, pointed to post-election revelations the ALP had used the same polling company used by News Corp, Galaxy, for its analysis – something that leaves him dumbfounded.

“The opinion poll companies that do the stuff for media are very different to the internal data and research we rely on,” he said.

“They tend to be very economical, and that tends to come at the expense of the methodology.”

In SA, Stevens said, “we were not surprised at any of the results that were achieved”.

Rather, what was surprising was “we couldn’t really see what we were being told by the public polls”.

“It didn’t gel with our own data and polling at all,” he said.

Stevens says he is “an advocate for i360 or similar programs that have the ability to bring together big data and various elements of the information you can use to determine what you need to focus on”.

Like Malinauskas, he is unconvinced the election lesson is one of presenting a small target.

“I don’t think there’s a problem in putting together a comprehensive policy agenda – it’s just got to be one that the vast majority of reasonable Australians want to get around and support,” he said.

He attributed Labor’s failure to “trying to turn Australians against each other, and saying to reasonable voters on the middle ground ‘we want to tax these people we don’t like and who don’t vote for us’”.

“We’re not about that in this country,” he said.

“We think there’s got to be equity and fairness.”

He’s confident his former boss Marshall is “well on track to securing a second term based on what they’re doing”.

“People feel it’s a competent government, but… not a government of nastiness doing things people would find to be unreasonable – and that’s very important.”

That view appears to be echoed in the party’s own polling, with one source saying “Marshall is riding really high in all our surveys”.

“Despite some of the decisions the Government is making, he’s riding high – he demonstrates this enthusiasm for the job, he loves the job, his life is this job – it’s almost infectious,” the insider said.

Barring something “catastrophic”, they said, Marshall’s Liberals are “building a fairly solid base for re-election”.

That will be aided by the fact the state poll will coincide with the next federal one – thus ensuring Marshall avoids “a federal budget giving you a kick in the arse as you go to the polls”.

“The last federal budget [before the 2022 state election] will be a good budget, not a disappointing budget which we’ve got to control public reaction to,” they said.

“That’s pretty big in terms of the Liberal brand, and whether people are annoyed with the Government… if they’re annoyed, they look to alternatives; if they’re not, they go with the flow.”

Five weeks of Bill Shorten on our TV sets will remind people why they don’t like him

The Liberals were able to monitor how public sentiment was tracking more effectively than published polls, in part, through mining Google activity.

“We Google search and make sure we identify who’s Googling Liberal, Labor or other parties, and how to vote on a particular issue,” a source said.

“You can get a bit of a guide as to where things are going… social media is the new dimension, and that’s what the traditional polling is not achieving – it’s not getting into the new digital media.”

They said Liberal polling consistently showed “for about six years we had an unpopular leader in Shorten that couldn’t be trusted – and that never changed in any polling”.

“When people said ‘you’ve got no chance’, my response was: ‘Five weeks of Bill Shorten on our TV sets will remind people why they don’t like him’.”

Morrison was able to capitalise by doggedly focussing on “tomorrow and not yesterday”.

“He didn’t allow the debate to bring up the disunity of the past – he just kept the debate on his agenda,” they said.

“Bill was too pedestrian on TV – he was stilted, almost uncomfortable… and that created the ‘shifty’ view by some.

“Then you had Morrison, who was comfortable in his own skin, he was always optimistic… and relatable to Don and Rita out there in Voterland.”

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