Australian Government,  Blog post

How Labor lost the unloseable election

In an election that was supposed to be a shoo-in for Labor many were shocked on Saturday night when the coalition won a ”miracle victory”. Like many I spent yesterday reading about what went wrong and how the polls had predicted such a different outcome.  

This isn’t a political post. I am not going to review policies or politics. It’s about how communications led to Labours downfall.

In any election effective communications can change the outcome. It appears to me that one of the key reasons that Labor is not in government today is they were simply unable to sell their message to the Australian public.

Shorten on 18 May during his concession speech

Die hard Labor supporters probably won’t agree with my assessment. Committed Coalition fans will probably argue they won because they had a stronger platform. Regardless of your political persuasion I think it’s important to look at what we can learn from what many in the media are referring to as the “most baffling election outcome ever”.

Clearer communication of policies

In an interview on ABC TV on Sunday morning, Tanya Plibersek, Deputy Leader of the Labor Party suggested Labor – which had major plans for tax, childcare and healthcare and industrial relations – didn’t communicate their policies as clearly as they could have.  “Perhaps we didn’t have enough to explain all of the benefits of it,” she said. “When you’ve got such a large agenda, it’s sometimes hard to explain all of the details to all of the people who benefit.”[1]

In one sentence Tanya summed up why Labor lost the election, they didn’t explain the benefits to the audiences. This is critical no matter how many policies you have, whether you are working in politics or government – you need to be able to explain complex, detailed policies in a way that those people impacted can understand.

One example from this election jumps to mind, Labors policy on franking credits.

A Shorten Labor Government will make the tax system fairer by closing down a concession that gives cash refunds for excess dividend imputation credits. People will still be able to use imputation credits to reduce their tax liability to zero.

Australian Labor Party

This is the leading sentence on Labor’s policy page. Labor failed to explain what franking credits were and what impact their policy would have on those people who received them. More importantly they failed to clearly explain why they thought this policy was a good idea. In short, they didn’t explain clearly to their audience what they were trying to do.

They did have a complex policy platform but so did the Coalition, Labor just tried to communicate everything rather than highlighting a few key policies and selling them well. Liberals on the other hand identified a few key areas and focused on explaining the impact to the broader population.

Simple messages

“They had over-complicated their messaging; especially problematic given their complex platform.”[2]

This is the fundamental of any government communications campaign. Simplify your message. Repeat it and repeat it again.

I don’t doubt that significant effort (and money) went into polling, market research and communications strategy development. But somewhere in translation the message from Labor got lost. Negative gearing, franking credits, action on climate change, taxes, Medicare, the environment. There were so many messages and so much detail about complex policies which many Australians wouldn’t understand. They failed to create cut-through and show the bigger picture.

“Labor’s election platform was too crowded to effectively cut through to voters.”

Incoming ACT senator Katy Gallagher[3].

Meanwhile the Coalition created a simpler message that linked to a wider narrative around a “cumulative tax argument” against Labor. They kept it simple (and scary) “if you want higher taxes and more budget deficit vote for Labor”.

The aim of a big public campaign for an opposition is to show the big picture, laying out (just enough) policy detail to make a case for change, without scaring any of the voters. They need to create a compelling story for change. At the same time, they need to be creating direct messages that targeting individuals and addressing specific issues of concern to them. It’s a fine balance and one that clearly Labor did not get right this time.

Have a compelling leader

“Shorten lacks the X-factor. He doesn’t have that warmth. Morrison has the salesman approach; he knows how to work a room …”

In any change campaign you need to have a compelling spokesperson, a face of the change. If the audience (in this case the voting public) can’t relate to that person, regardless of how good their messages are, they will lose the connection to them.

Despite his best efforts, Shorten was seen as shifty and fake[4]. Not words you would like to use for the next leader of our country. In comparison, ScoMo was seen as well-intentioned, and a man of action.

Shorten failed to share his personal narrative which helps to engage audiences during change. At no time did we see the real Bill Shorten. He was seen as stage-managed, impersonal and unempathetic. It wasn’t until we saw him speak about his mother in the final days of the campaign that he showed his real self.

I wonder if he had spent more time showing the public who he was and what he stood for rather than playing the safe game there would have been a different outcome.

Have we lost the ability to communicate honestly?

I fear that this is the way all government and political communication is going. In an era of increasing scrutiny from 24 hour media outlets and social media, are we all becoming so risk adverse and scared of the “what if…” that we are unable to say what we want to say, to tell the story we need to tell and to be the leaders we want to be. We are stilted and polished, rather than rough and real.

I wonder if we as government communicators and politicians are all losing the ability to communicate effectively with the Australian public because we are worried about what might happen.


[1] Ireland, J (2019) Election result: Plibersek to run against Albanese, amid Labor ‘bewilderment’ over election loss. https://www.smh.com.au/federal-election-2019/plibersek-to-run-against-albanese-amid-labor-bewilderment-over-election-loss-20190519-p51oxy.html

[2] Koziol, M (2019), How the Coalition pulled off a miracle as Labor’s momentum fell apart – and why no one noticed https://www.smh.com.au/federal-election-2019/how-the-coalition-pulled-off-a-miracle-as-labor-s-momentum-fell-apart-and-why-no-one-noticed-20190519-p51ox6.html

[3] Brown, A (2019) Federal election: Katy Gallagher says Labor’s policy agenda was “busy and crowded” https://www.canberratimes.com.au/story/6132861/labors-agenda-busy-and-crowded-gallagher-says/?cs=14230&utm_source=website&utm_medium=index&utm_campaign=sidebar

[4] News Corp (2019) Federal election 2019: What’s in it for you? Coalition v Labor’s policies compared. https://www.adelaidenow.com.au/news/national/federal-election/federal-election-2019-whats-in-it-for-you-coalition-v-labors-policies-compared/news-story/205e490fafcf9603a0f1ed0e7c0917fe

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