BETWEEN CHRISTMAS AND New Year, I had the opportunity to be incredibly self-indulgent. My family were away and I had to stay in Sydney, so I settled in to catch up on some reading. I’d already endured the execrable Ego and Plagued, but Savva’s Bulldozed was interesting, especially after reading Brett’s Australian Liberals and the Moral Middle Class.
However, the recently released Liberal Party’s Review of the 2022 Election floored me; so much so that I’ve gone back and read it several times, largely in disbelief.
The Review produces 17 findings and 49 recommendations. The latter are quite detailed and probably of interest only to the incurably politically tragic and machine politicians, so I’ll concentrate on the 17 findings. My critique of the Review is informed by my hands-on experience with the campaign of one of the 2022 independents but the opinions here are mine, and not those of Nicolette Boele or her campaign.
The Review starts from a partisan foundation and doesn’t move from there
“Of course,” you will say, “Look at the authors. What did you expect?”
I expected, obviously naively, an objective assessment of the Liberal Party’s success and failures. Maybe that was unlikely to come, given the authors, but if I was commissioning a genuine insight from which I could learn and reorient an entire organisation, I’d be expecting an objective assessment.
It’s a remarkable approach from a Party that purports to be business savvy. There’s much to be said critically about the relationships between boards and commissioned third party reporting in Australia, but even in that context, I doubt any serious board in Australia would have commissioned a review like this if they were serious about change.
The Introduction (p 7) asserts, for example:
“It is clear already that the Albanese government has no answers to the significant problems facing Australia.”
That’s an insouciant claim to make by a party that has just been electorally trashed, largely because it both ignored and exacerbated the challenges facing Australia over the last decade, and because this Review is written just 6 months into the new government’s administration. Unless Chalmers’ first budget was a Kwasi Kwateng level event – which it wasn’t – it’s hard to say how anyone could fairly say that failure is “already clear”. I’m not saying it won’t happen; it’s just that when you’ve had the reins since 2013 it’s a bit rich to slam the victor within 6 months. That claim can only come from pure partisanship point scoring, not from objective assessment.
Similarly, the first two of the Report’s findings (p 12-13) ignore the possibility that the Government may not have been well functioning before the pandemic, and simply assert that the Prime Minister and his team did their best and were distracted by the national interest:
“Concentrating on managing the pandemic meant the Government did not fully appreciate serious political developments which were taking place and did not respond as comprehensively or as quickly as normally would be the case.”
Really? A more compelling thesis might be that the Coalition had been ignoring political developments for quite a while, because that was normal for them, standard operating procedure. There’s no evidence that the Coalition’s view of “normal governing” would have included, bar the pandemic, addressing concerns about emissions or integrity or the treatment of women.
They had ample time to address those issues as part of normal government, and they didn’t. Simple.
Seen but not heard, apparently
What the Review does, which is entirely consistent with the exceedingly narrow world view of Ego and Plagued, is limit its discourse to “poor perception”, “campaigning”, and “appearances”. For example, “The Prime Minister and the Party were seen as “out of touch” (p 14) – they weren’t, implicitly, actually out of touch. And, “The Coalition’s agenda for a fourth term appeared to be limited and unclear to the electorate” (p 18) – it was only a matter of appearance, apparently.
My favourite (p 35):
“There were a number of reasons for (the Government’s poor performance with the Chinese-Australian community), including a perception the previous Government’s criticisms of the CCP government of China included the wider Chinese community more generally. This was obviously incorrect but the Party’s political opponents pushed this perception among voters of Chinese heritage in key seats in 2022.” (my emphasis)
So, it was the listeners’ collective fault? They should have understood what Dutton and Co. meant to say, not what they actually did say. Or, alternatively, Government ministers did say what they meant to say and the community got it wrong?
Politics is, in other words, entirely transactional and operational, about nothing but the effectiveness of clear and targeted communications, value free. It’s all about the optics, mate!
A tone of victimhood resonates throughout the Review
A favourite comes in discussion of the Teals (p 36):
“The (Teal) campaigns sought to exploit the position of the Federal Government on a range of issues, particularly perceptions of its responsiveness to concerns of women, integrity and climate change.” (my emphasis)
“Exploit” is a telling choice of word, echoed in some of Dutton’s interviews just before Christmas:
“Dutton also said the Liberal party was suffering from an “identity crisis” and had allowed itself to be defined by its opponents “including people from the Holmes a Court party”, referring to the teal candidates backed by businessman Simon Holmes à Court.” (Massola and Galloway)
He’s ascribing to Holmes à Court Murdoch-press like powers against a poor defenceless party apparently just minding its own business and doing normal governing.
When Albanese made a “gaffe a week”, did the Liberals not “exploit” that?
In the campaign that I was involved with we “exploited” nothing. We agreed with our community that the then Government and its local representative were utterly unresponsive to community concerns, and had been for a long time, well before COVID arrived. It is hard to sympathise with any contention that was exploitative, and not merely pointing out the obvious.
The Liberals lost because they were out-campaigned and out-organised by the ALP, the ‘Teals’ and third-party activists, not because their premise was wrong, reinforcing the review’s victimhood approach as well. “We are being ganged up on” is a much more remunerative message than “we stuffed up and lost touch with the electorate”.
The attractiveness of victimhood to populist agitators, as a rhetorical tactic, is well documented but if I was going to suggest one work to read on this it’s A Lot of People Are Saying.
On Scott Morrison’s unpopularity:— RN Breakfast (@RNBreakfast) December 22, 2022
“The review did find that Scott [Morrison] was personally unpopular and had been very effectively demonised in an intense, aggressive, continuing campaign by Labor Party and by the broader Green-left campaigning apparatus”
The word “ethics” (or “ethical”) doesn’t appear in the Review. “Principles” appears three times, but only in the context of Liberal core principles with no further detail. “Values” appears 19 times but almost always in the anodyne “Liberal values” context. The only exception is the recommendation that the Party undertake a “deep-dive values study” on the “attitudes and values of the Australian community”. This is the very last of the 49 recommendations, well after bemoaning the Teals, the misguided approach to women, the desertion of the young and Chinese-Australians. This bespeaks, to me, a weird set of priorities.
Credit where credit is due though. In the section on centre right voters, whose submissions expressed (p 40):
“(d)isenchantment… with the performance of the Government over a number of years, issues specific to COVID, religious liberty and insufficient progress on addressing concerns on various cultural changes.”
These submissions were clearly an open invitation to wage the culture wars more vigorously, an invitation that Loughnane and Hume did not accept.
A “whitewash exercise”?
To return to the blame game. The Review acknowledges that the Party – as distinct from the Government – wasn’t doing a good job. It and the Review does acknowledge that, especially when it goes to town on the “situation in the State Divisions”. It finds that the federal campaign team went gangbusters, despite the obstacles it had (like Morrison’s campaign approach and dysfunctional State Divisions).
The Review also touches on the performance of Liberal MPs (p 14):
“The leadership choice between Scott Morrison and Anthony Albanese became the most influential driver of voting intention during the campaign period.”
Does that suggest that if someone other than Scott Morrison had been leading – let’s say Frydenberg or Dutton – the Coalition would not have lost? I don’t think they’re saying that, but they come awfully close.
They do shoot home some responsibility to local members (p 14):
“The lockdowns had implications for local campaigning, fundraising and, in some cases, the timing of candidate selections. The standing of a number of incumbent Members of Parliament in key seats was not what should be expected leading into a campaign. The poor discipline of some members of the parliamentary team in the lead up to, and during the campaign, had a damaging impact on other colleagues’ local campaigns.”
Perhaps Loughnane and Hume are trying to avoid pointing fingers too specifically? Some former MPs have said (anonymously) in the press that they reject this completely, and it’s hard not to be sympathetic:
“There were clearly challenges in the last term of parliament, such as Covid restrictions, but to suggest for a second we lost to teals because of issues with incumbents papers over the more substantial problems of policy and leadership the party faces… One former Liberal MP said the review appeared to be a “whitewash exercise” designed to support a narrative that “we only lost the Climate 200 targeted seats because the local members were so bad… The former MP said the Liberal campaign “didn’t see Climate 200 and the Greens coming”, instead focusing resources on traditional Liberal-Labor marginals such as Longman.” Karp
The lockdowns had implications for all campaigns, not just the Liberals’. Some were positive, like the ability to use Zoom/Teams/Skype for mass-meetings, but most were negative, especially the inability for long stretches of time to meet voters face to face. If anything, incumbency should have been an advantage in those circumstances, in the ability to generate donations and name recognition, but it either wasn’t or wasn’t significant. Or perhaps other factors were just weightier.
The Review continues:
“The advantages of incumbency, including use of social media, were not fully utilised in too many cases.”
Whatever the advantages of incumbency, it’s hard to see what they have to do with social media. A candidate can use social media well or badly, irrespective of their status as incumbent, or as government or opposition or aspirant.
The Review quotes Ed Coper (“responsible for Teal digital advertising” (p 44)). Coper did none of ours in Bradfield, and the Review doesn’t quote Clive Palmer singing paeans to the effectiveness of his spend.
“Social media”, which the Review does not define, covers a vast range of channels and techniques, from Search Engine Optimisation to paid advertising and the dark arts of Cambridge Analytica. To be fair, again, the Review does touch on the difference between advertising and analytics, but in doing so, it unintentionally emphasises the deep generation divide between those writing the report and digital natives, cohorts that have turned away – not coincidentally – from the Liberal Party.
Finally, a word on the ‘Teal’ bogey woman that the Review constructs. The Bradfield campaign of several hundred volunteers significantly lowered the margin of a former Cabinet Minister and sent the seat to preferences for the first time, achieving the biggest swing against the Liberal Party in Australia.
From where I sat, there was absolutely no central coordination of resources and absolutely no policy diktats from a non-existent head office. Would we have accepted “cutting-edge campaigning assistance from the United States” (p 36) and electoral analysis? It’s a moot point. They weren’t offered, and even if they had been we did not have the funds to pay for them.
The Review states:
“Information which has become public since the election confirms the high level coordination between the Teal campaigns, and the extensive resourcing and the use of cutting-edge campaigning tools, particularly data and analytics.” (p 16)
The Review does not cite the information which has become public, a strange omission when it happily cites from other public sources and there are clearly no confidentiality issues. I suspect that this is just an assertion driven by preconceived notions, a case of putting two and two together and making five, simply because the writers – again, Liberal party insiders, not objective assessors – can’t conceive of the world in any other way. They assume there had to have been outside professional assistance because that’s the way the major parties have always done it. The possibility that local community talent might, just might, be sufficiently motivated and more than adequately skilled is not considered.
And, in any case, it’s not clear why co-operation or co-ordination between independents would be a bad thing. Do we want our cross-bench MPs to be solipsists?
“It is… very clear that, from a campaigning perspective, the “Teals” are not a series of “independent” entities. They are, for all intents and purposes, and by any meaningful interpretation of the term, a political party and should be treated as such going forward.” (p 37)
Again, a rather odd omission. Here’s the perfect opportunity to define, or adopt someone else’s definition of, a political party, and then measure the Teals against it. The Review does not do so, choosing instead to claim that, from a “campaigning perspective” (whatever that is) the ‘Teal’ independents are effectively a party. There’s much more to being a party than just campaigning. This to my ears is an allegation that doesn’t land, emotive and hurt language that doesn’t go anywhere except therapeutic venting.
So, what are we left with after slogging through the 60-page booklet?
My one-line summary of each finding is, I think, fair:
1) COVID-19 had a huge impact. It’s not an excuse, but it kinda is.
2) We didn’t see the political landscape changing around us. See (1)
3) The state divisions were incompetent.
4) Women deserted us. Demography! Who knew? See (2)
5) The Teals blind-sided us. Demography! Who knew? See (2) and (4)
6) Right-winger stole our primary votes and preferences were ahistorical. See (2)
7) The two-party assumption doesn’t work everywhere. See (2)
8) Our opponents co-operated with each other. See (2)
9) Chinese-Australians deserted us. Demography! Who knew? See (2)
10) Voters weren’t interested in us. Demography! Who knew? See (2)
11) We stuffed up Western Australia. See (2)
12) It was a unique combination of events that won’t happen again. See (1) to (11)
13) We didn’t have any policies. See (2)
14) The campaign operation worked smoothly a.k.a. it was Morrison’s fault
15) We let Morrison call too many shots. See (3) and (14)
16) Our polling was pretty accurate, good, as polling. We’re pretty good. See (14)
17) We seem incapable of learning lessons from previous reviews. See (1) to (16)
It’s hard to disagree with the findings, so in that sense the Review was probably worthwhile. But given finding 17, and the unshakeable partisan premise upon which everything else is based, I’m not optimistic that a better Liberal party will emerge. And I wish it would. For a strong democracy, we need rigorous debate and engagement, not rote denunciations and facile fear mongering.
Rob’s other No Fibs posts
Featured image: Ravi Gundal, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons