Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Beware Tasmanian loggers

Helen Newton explains how the recent Australian elections show how Labour can use the tactics of one Howard to beat another

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Even with compulsory voting in Australia, early queues at the polling booths are largely welcomed by opposition parties, as they tend to indicate that voters are dissatisfied with the status quo and are eager to bring about change.

But initial optimism on the day of the 2004 Australian federal election was soon dashed when it became clear that Labor had, once again, failed to convince the Australian electorate that it was ready for government. In fact, Labor recorded 38 per cent of the primary vote – its second worst performance since 1938.

Ten months earlier, the standing of the Australian Labor party had been significantly buoyed when Mark Latham was elected leader. Although something of a maverick, with a history of controversy, his relative youth and charisma made him well placed to depose the tired, out-of-touch Tory leader, John Howard, who had been prime minister since 1996. On his first outing as leader, Latham wrong-footed Howard by ignoring traditional battlegrounds and focusing instead on social policy issues such as early years literacy and adult obesity. His unconventional style knocked Howard off balance and boosted Labor’s standing in the polls.

But Labor’s electoral fortunes have traditionally been hampered by the fact that its core issues such as health and education are devolved to state government, making it difficult to campaign on them at federal level. Labor had held all six states and both territories since 2001 but desperately needed to re-engage voters on its winning issues at national level. Latham set about finding new ways to campaign on those devolved issues within federal government: he spoke of ‘ladders of opportunity’ and championed the aspirations of ordinary Australians. It was conviction politics at its best.

But, unlike the British Labour party in 1997, Latham was ultimately unsuccessful in making the Labor party more appealing to a broader cross-section of the electorate while reconciling this agenda with Labor’s traditional support base.

Latham made a number of tactical errors in both the run-up to the campaign and the campaign itself. A few months after he became leader, he made an off-the-cuff remark about bringing Australian troops stationed in Iraq home by Christmas, which developed quickly into a firm policy commitment. It was designed to give Labor a defined difference with Tory policy, but the arbitrary Christmas deadline severely misread the public mood and instigated a slide in his approval ratings. Essentially, it triggered doubts about the relative novice and enabled the Tories to turn the advantage of Latham’s youth into messages of inexperience compared to the track record and steady hand of Howard.

The Tories were able to capitalise on this throughout the campaign by exploiting Latham’s inexperience and playing up the risks of change. Voters were hammered with posters depicting a vote for Mark Latham as taking a gamble on high interest rates and contrasting that with the sustained period of low interest rates and economic prosperity under the incumbent government.

Voters such as low- and middle-income earners, who should have been attracted by Labor’s tax package, and older voters who were targeted by the ‘Medicare Gold’ health policy, either didn’t understand the policies or weren’t given sufficiently straightforward messages to overcome their fears on interest rates.

In the last few remaining days of the campaign, Labor made a key policy announcement on the logging of Tasmanian forests – a highly emotive and polarising jobs-versus-environment issue. Latham left it too late to be able to counterbalance Tory criticisms: there was no time to clarify policy details and the enduring image on the run-up to polling day was that of Tasmanian loggers refusing to meet Latham.

In fact, Labor’s biggest undoing was the fact that it failed to define its message. There was no single unifying theme, and even its traditional supporters became confused as to what Labor stood for.

Early indications show that the new Labor leader, Kim Beazley, has narrowed the Tories’ poll lead by 10 points and that voters are starting to trust Labor again, but it won’t be until 2007 that he has the chance to see whether his efforts have paid off.

Although there are key differences with Australian politics and the political system, there are a number of lessons that the British Labour party can learn from the Australian experience.

Australian prime minister John Howard is not widely liked but he has developed a successful formula of reassuring voters and sticking to a small number of key issues that resonate with ordinary people – not unlike John Major’s strategy in 1992. Although the tactic of campaigning on a small number of core issues, such as Europe and immigration, failed spectacularly for William Hague in 2001, Michael Howard has started to focus more sharply on several key issues such as crime and immigration that have the ability to unnerve voters.

We also need to be careful that policies such as the multitude of tax credits for working families do not confuse the very people that they are designed to help. Latham had great difficulty engaging with voters on his family tax reform package. His ‘Families under financial pressure – ease the squeeze’ would have benefited many Australians, but the message was lost under the minutiae of policy. We need to be cautious and not place too much hope in voters wanting to understand detailed policy initiatives even if they will benefit significantly from them.

Latham’s overall campaign agenda was too detailed and confusing and we need to keep those dangers in mind. The trick is to get the balance right between reminding voters of what is dangerous about the Tories and offering a positive policy agenda that takes us forward. John Howard has largely been successful in running campaigns based on policy contrast rather than sustained personal attack and we should take some comfort from the Australian experience: if you focus on an issue and contrast it with the risky alternative, incumbent governments can still motivate voters to support them.

The Australian election should also be scrutinised closely by the British Labour party because Michael Howard has appointed Lynton Crosby – the man widely regarded as responsible for John Howard’s electoral success – as director of the Tories’ general election strategy.

Crosby has a reputation for localised campaigning and favours ruthlessly targeting undecided voters in winnable marginal seats rather than placing too great an emphasis on national campaign themes. Although, with such a deficit of seats, this method of campaigning alone is unlikely to win them the election, we can expect to lose a significant amount of those seats gained in 1997 if we are not ready to engage in localised campaigning.

As the incumbent government, the British Labour party can largely be reassured by the Australian experience if it pays careful attention to some of the messages from the campaign. A polarising issue such as Iraq is not necessarily enough to topple an incumbent government if they are able to handle other issues well, present policies in a way that can be readily grasped by those they target, and focus on what voters have to lose by risking the alternative.

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Helen Newton

Helen Newton is an associate at the Australian public affairs company Hawker Britton UK and campaigned for the Australian Labor party in Sydney during the federal election

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