A roadmap for victory: If all goes wrong for Australian Labor, can the 10 commandments bring salvation?

“One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors.”

Plato

“The darkest places in hell are reserved for those who maintain their neutrality in times of moral crisis.”

Dante Alighieri

“Male stupidity masks the will to power that lies just behind the goofy grin … (and) is in fact a new form of macho.”

Jack Halberstam

Without appreciating the price of timeless wisdom, contemporary leadership is doomed to fail. It is not an accident that a little known text survived two millennia. In 64 BC, Quintus Tullius Cicero wrote a letter to his brother Marcus who at the time campaigned to be elected consul of the Roman Republic. Unlike Machiavelli’s The Prince, Cicero’s Commentariolum Petitionis reads like a campaign guide very much applicable in our times. Sadly, it is the political right that has honed the skills necessary to prevail in most electoral contests these days, and, in consequence, the US has its Donald; good old Blighty is blessed with BoJo the Clown and down under they must put up with ‘daggy dad’ Scomo. While progressive politicians and the liberal media bemoan the injustice of it all and constantly decry the effectiveness of Trump’s Twitter feed, preaching by now themselves like zealots from a position of moral superiority, the decline of social democracy continues unabated. So, what went wrong, and what is to be done?

Following Labor’s surprise election loss in May 2019, the party went through the motions conducting its own internal review.

“Labor lost the election because of a weak strategy that could not adapt to the change in Liberal leadership, a cluttered policy agenda that looked risky and an unpopular leader. No one of these shortcomings was decisive but in combination they explain the result.”

Review of Labor’s 2019 Federal Election Campaign

The 60 findings and 26 recommendations Labor stalwarts Craig Emerson and Jay Weatherill came up with went far beyond what had been obvious fr most observers following the election. While it was clear that the ALP had gone into the campaign with overly ambitious and largely uncosted policies and relied on a strategy devised to unseat Turnbull not Morrison, Emerson and Weatherill also highlighted the structural shortcomings besetting Labor. They warn that, unless all 26 recommendations are implemented in full, the party may find itself in a similar predicament come 2022.

“While we should have won in 2019 it unfortunately does not mean the 2022 campaign will be any easier. We have made observations about Labor’s culture and in particular its policy formulation process. Labor will need to reflect on whether its current structures and processes are suitable for this task.”

Review of Labor’s 2019 Federal Election Campaign

But even if all 26 recommendations were acted upon in full, would this truly suffice to mount a credible challenge to the Coalition government in 2022? Unashamedly partisan but refreshingly blunt and straightforward, Australian political scientist and former Press Gallery journalist Chris Wallace has weighed in, taking the left in general and Australian Labor in particular to task over its many failures to counter right-wing populism and to get over the line in elections. In her pamphlet How to Win an Election, she implores the progressive left to urgently rediscover political theatre and to find a language that speaks to the heart of voters. The notion that the public square is a place where citizens gather to rationally deliberate over the common good is a belief held by only those who make a living out of sitting in the ivory tower of academia writing papers on the subject. Like US sociologist Ari Adut, Wallace is equally dismissive of this fanciful construct and believes that what happens in the public space is mainly a spectacle, and politics is therefore primarily an act. In theatre they say “action is character”, and the same is true in political life. Believing strongly that reasoned argument will eventually win the day coupled with a sense of having history on their side, most social and media elites frown upon the idea of political theatre being essential for presenting a policy agenda to voters, but progressives and social democrats do so at their own peril. If the political left, Wallace argues, doesn’t learn quickly that reason alone almost never triumphs, conservatives will keep winning elections, and social democratic and progressive parties will keep losing them. However, at no stage does Wallace imply that Labor must jump on the conservative bandwagon and adopt a right-wing agenda. On the contrary: Labor has proven in the past that it can come out on top by pursuing substantially different policies.

“The Liberals’ John Howard may have won four elections dog-whistling on race, but Labor’s Bob Hawke won four elections built on the foundations of Labor’s national reconciliation, national recovery, national reconstruction’ principles proving you can reject the politics of division and still mightily succeed.”

How to Win an Election, Chris Wallace.

Indeed, Labor didn’t win 5 consecutive elections between 1983 and 1996 by merely pushing through much needed economic and social reforms. The ALP prevailed because of its style.

Prime Minister Bob Hawke the trade unionist, in tandem with his attack dog Treasurer and future leader Paul Keating who left school at the age of 15 to become an autodidact and intellectual in his own right, spoke the language of common folk. Marrying substance with outstanding brain powered theatrical performances, both men dominated Australian politics for over a decade. These politicians didn’t have to learn how to engage with voters. They did so naturally – it was in their political DNA. No serious analyst of politics in Australia can shine a spotlight on the 2019 federal election without harking back to what happened in 1993. Emboldened by favourable polling and encouraged by a press that had already written off Keating as a dead man walking, the Liberals fought the election on their neoliberal ‘Fightback’ agenda. So botched was the messaging on the possible introduction of a Goods and Services Tax (GST) that neither opposition leader John Hewson nor his shadow Treasurer Peter Reith could adequately explain its likely impact. When Keating told the House on 5 November 1992 that, in case Hewson were to win the election, Labor would not obstruct the GST in the Senate, pandemonium broke out and opposition MPs had a field day ridiculing the Prime Minister. Yet one lone figure sat on the opposition benches stony-faced and most certainly didn’t laugh – John Howard. Being the political pro he is, Howard recognised Keating’s masterstroke. Playing the chess game of his life, the Prime Minister had just surrendered the queen to win the game. As he put it years later, his statement in the House and his subsequent television appearance “buried Hewson.” In March 1993 the ALP won its 5th consecutive term in office, and Labor saw a significant lift in its primary vote. If Keating’s performance won the day for Labor, then what happened in recent decades to potential leaders of similar stature? With parliaments nowadays largely made up of pathetically devious lawyers and mostly undistinguished slick professionals, social democrats may find it difficult to recruit a leadership that doesn’t lack the common touch.

Attempting to resolve the binary of big versus small, Wallace urges Labor to campaign on “smart policy”, on measures that incur little or no transaction costs. In contrast to the 2019 election, the ALP must create “policy winners” not “policy losers”, and its agenda must fit into an overall strategic framework – policies must be easily explainable to voters. Wallace also reminds her readers that, with the exception of Gough Whitlam’s 1972 It’s Time campaign, no political party has won government from opposition by pursuing a big target policy agenda. While Whitlam’s victory in 1972 is legendary in Labor folklore, his achievements are grossly overrated. He was up against an incredibly unpopular Prime Minister and against a bitterly divided Liberal Party that had governed Australia for 23 years. Labor won, but it didn’t do so in a landslide. Only three years later, the party was out of office for almost a decade once again. Wallace advises that big target policies should only be pursued once you have the vast resources of government behind you. In 1984 the Hawke government put its controversial welfare reforms to the electorate and, despite significant losses, prevailed. In 1998 it was the Coalition Howard government that ran its campaign on the introduction of the GST and scraped home by the narrowest of margins. The ALP won the popular vote, but because the swing to Labor was not uniform across the board, the Coalition secured enough marginal seats to hang on to government. For Wallace these case studies illustrate one important point: unless you are a political genius, and they are far and few in between, running campaigns on far-reaching reforms is risky and require the skill of “managing voter expectations.” After all, even Howard the great persuader together with his politically astute Treasurer Peter Costello almost lost the Liberals the 1998 campaign.

What impact does the media have on Labor’s electoral prospects? Speaking to caucus shortly after his election loss, former opposition leader Bill Shorten blamed his defeat on “corporate leviathans”, the media and “powerful vested interests.” Political scientist Sally Young has marshalled plenty of evidence to show the ongoing structural decline of political journalism in Australia. The continuous hollowing out of the public broadcaster (the ABC) as well as the power of Murdoch-controlled News Corp are of immense concern. Thus, Shorten has a point, but Wallace believes that angry leaders are perceived in the public eye as unlikable and, in the context of Australian history, as unelectable. Politics isn’t fair and never has been. Like Young, she makes a distinction between proprietors and journalists, and she asks politicians to befriend the unbiased ones. In her estimation there are many good, professionally minded journalists around, many of them even working for News Corp owned media outlets. As she told ABC radio host Phillip Adams, “Journalists are often the ham in the sandwich between terrible proprietors and politicians who feel they are being done over all the time.” It is this sort of simplistic thinking that politicians must do away with. Wallace also reminds Labor supporters that the party won elections in the past in spite of a hostile press. Besides, since the structural flaws in modern journalism are likely to persist for quite some time, party leaders must develop a healthy sense of professional detachment from the 24-hour news cycle.

“So you are operating in a seriously degraded media environment. Is the Australian or the Daily Telegraph producing its ten-thousandth ridiculous news story sledging you and your party, or spinning good news for you into bad? Objectify it. Laugh it off. Pin it to a board and throw darts at it furiously until it falls to the floor in shreds. Make up a song about the Murdochs being arse hats and sing it raucously with your staff and spouse every time a News Corp shocker runs in one of its multitudinous newspapers or on ‘Sky after dark’. Ritualistic expurgation of stress has a lot going for it. It works. It’s pretty much the only thing that works.”

How to Win an Election, Chris Wallace.

The future of high quality reporting will not least depend on what news consumers demand. A handful of new digital publications have sprung up and might help buck the trend of journalism in decline. For high information voters at least, these new outlets have already become an invaluable source of reliable, accurate and non-partisan coverage.

“You can proliferate facts and spread truth by harnessing and sharing media like that produced by The Conversation, the Guardian Australia and Schwartz Media’s publications. In spreading truth you dilute lies. Without diluting the lies currently polluting Australian politics, what hope for the future?”

How to Win an Election, Chris Wallace.

If Labor is to have a shot at the Lodge again next time around, it has to attend to another pressing matter. In 2016 the ALP outperformed the Coalition on social media by miles, but only three years later the Coalition’s digital operation was second to none. What worked for Morrison in 2019 is unlikely to work in 2022, however, and for all political parties campaigning on social media is a constant race against time and puts additional pressure on them to simplify their messaging even further. As Labor’s internal review already noted, the party has to pour resources into its digital operations. Unless the lessons learned in 2019 are taken to heart, the ALP will lose its fourth election in a row. Out of the last 9 elections since 1996, Labor won only two and achieved majority government only once in 2007. This in itself speaks to the timeliness of Wallace’s book.

If you are one of those sociopaths and/or narcissists currently on the political ascendency, then all of this won’t matter anyway. Also, Wallace’s rulebook for modern politics is unlikely to sway bible cradling Evangelicals either. But if you happen to be one of those politicians just trying to do what is right or a journalist struggling to understand the seemingly unstoppable demise of social democracy, then this book has been written just for you. Wallace doesn’t have all the answers, but her 10 commandments of political success are a good place to start planning for the future.

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