Weatherill, together with former federal frontbencher Craig Emerson, has been charged with overseeing the ALP’s formal review into its failed campaign, with the former Premier last week addressing SA members at a ‘politics in the pub’ forum and a meeting of the ‘Hagar Club’, a regular gathering of retired party heavyweights.
Insiders at both forums have told InDaily the reviewers have found no single ‘smoking gun’ that cost the party victory, but it’s understood Weatherill’s narrative concentrated on three specific areas: a glut of poorly-explained policy, chaotic campaign coordination between the party’s leadership hubs and a failure to address the enduring unpopularity of former leader Bill Shorten.
Shorten’s poll standing as Opposition Leader barely shifted throughout the campaign, ending slightly lower than it had begun.
“Despite the campaign and all the effort, there had been no change,” one insider said of the briefing.
Another said that Weatherill raised the fact that “the federal parliamentary Labor Party really didn’t have a strategy to deal with the change from Turnbull to Scott Morrison”, with the party confident in successive polls showing it had an election-winning lead.
“That was not unusual after the mess the Libs were in… everything seemed to be on track to win,” the source said.
“They had no issue they could run on.”
In the end, the issue for which Morrison opted was a simple one: “Who do you trust, me or Bill Shorten?”
“There was not enough preparation to deal with a Scott Morrison-type leadership in the campaign, compared to Malcolm Turnbull,” an attendee at the briefing said.
“We weren’t able quickly enough to realise that Morrison was campaigning differently than we’d have expected Turnbull to campaign.”
“The Labor Party were always defending and the Government was always attacking,” said another.
Many inside and outside the party have been quick to lambast Labor’s contentious negative gearing and franking credits reforms – and it’s understood many failed candidates have bemoaned to the inquiry the fact a ‘grandfathering’ clause was not added to the latter, in a bid to kill off the negative publicity.
However, that narrative has been dismissed as simplistic by the reviewers, who have pointed to national seat results – including in the SA marginal of Boothby – showing swings to Labor in more affluent areas and swings away from the party in more traditional working class booths.
One explanation is that issues such as climate change resonated more clearly in such booths, but became a big issue for Labor in the mining-rich heartlands of Queensland and Western Australia.
“The results in Queensland in particular and Western Australia were very bad for the Labor Party, while in the rest of Australia they were quite reasonable,” a source said.
Sources say Weatherill told a briefing the seeds of this year’s defeat were sown “after the loss in 2016”.
“He said there was a problem after that election, because we’d done so well [and] we didn’t really review exactly what happened,” a source said.
“We still lost the election; we should have looked at all the issues, but we went straight on as we were.”
Weatherill told one of the briefings while the ALP caucus should be “commended for having detailed policy”, there was no filter, nor adequate explanation of key issues.
“We had too much policy – it was all too hard to digest,” said an attendee.
“It’s not that the policies were wrong, but every day we were introducing something new… there were just too many policies.”
Weatherill told attendees the election failure should not be simply sheeted home to Shorten.
“We can’t lay it all on Bill’s leadership,” said the attendee.
“We didn’t do anything to address Shorten’s unpopularity… it just seemed we were going to win, and we went to sleep in the last week [of the campaign] and didn’t address Shorten’s unpopularity – that means attacking Morrison’s credibility.
“We let him off the hook.”
One witness said Weatherill had expressed his own “surprise” at the “lack of co-ordination between Shorten’s office, the campaign office, the policy wonks and the caucus”.
“He was very surprised about the lack of co-ordination… the core message is we don’t want to dump it all on Bill – we just didn’t sell the policies: we didn’t sell them, we didn’t explain them – the campaign was a shambles.”
One attendee said the election campaign proved a counterpoint to the maxim that Oppositions don’t win elections, governments lose them.
“I think in this case the Opposition lost,” they said.
The review is still ongoing, and is due to be handed to Labor’s national executive in November – with a recommendation that its findings be made public.
Weatherill said that was his preference, telling InDaily the report would be written in such a way that it could be broadly distributed.
“There’s no sealed section,” he said.
However, he declined to comment further about its contents before the report is finalised – other than to confirm that the comments attributed to him in the forums corresponded with feedback the review had received.
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