Let’s not dissemble. This is a terrible result for the Australian Labor Party. It rivals its worst electoral defeats historically.
This includes the 1966 Vietnam election drubbing in which the party ended up with 41 seats in the 124-seat parliament.
It recalls the 1975 rejection of the Gough Whitlam experiment.
It reminds us of Ben Chifley’s loss to Robert Menzies in 1949 on the bank nationalisation issue. This heralded 23 years of uninterrupted conservative rule.
In some ways, this election defeat is worse for Labor than the others.
On this occasion, Labor expected to prevail. The opinion polls and betting markets forecast a Labor win. The media had, overwhelmingly, predicted Labor success.
Political journalists began tiptoeing, and, in some cases, rushing un-edifyingly, to embrace those whom they believed would be occupying the great offices of state in articles that praised their sagacity.
Then on election night a flimsy Labor edifice built on shifting and shifty foundations of an unpopular leader marketing a big-target set of tax policies came crashing down.
This was, and is, a debacle. Why?
In the post-mortems that Labor will conduct into this catastrophe two questions will be paramount.
First, how was it possible the party saddled itself with a leader who, by any reasonable measure, was one of the least popular and most distrusted politicians in the entire country?
Second, why did the party roll out a set of complex tax reforms that went far beyond what was required to rebut criticism of Labor profligacy in funding a reasonable suite of social programs?
This latter was a “big target’’ strategy writ larger by Labor policymakers who had convinced themselves that the best way to beat a policy-free do-nothing-except-fight-among-themselves Coalition was to roll out what amounted to a Big Mac array of tax reforms.
Whatever your own perspective, these tax measures attacking negative gearing, capital gains, trusts, and cash-back franking credits for those who had paid no income tax were relatively easy to demonise and obfuscate.
Morrison, in his own version of Greene-land populated by “Quiet Australians’’, proved extraordinarily effective at running a negative campaign that zeroed in on Labor vulnerabilities, and, increasingly, Shorten’s manifest weaknesses as the campaign wore on.
This brings us to the difficult question, for Labor, of Shorten’s responsibilities for a disastrous outcome. How much of the blame should be heaped upon him?
Understandably, senior Labor figures closed ranks on election night to praise his steadfastness in the campaign in an attempt to divert uncomfortable questions.
However, Shorten’s failure to market an albeit top heavy and complex Labor program will weigh in his peer’s judgments.
More than that will be the question of whether his own difficulties in connecting with the electorate are what killed the party’s chances in the end. Poll after poll has attested to the public’s reservations. The Ipsos poll, for example, regularly recorded low ratings for Shorten among various metrics for trustworthiness.
Whether Labor acknowledges this or not in its post-poll post-mortems, the fact is a significant proportion of the electorate disliked Shorten. The ANU Election study 1987-2016 found he had “more negative evaluations than any major party leader’’ since it first asked leadership questions in 1993.
All this is relevant for Labor as it contemplates a replacement. This takes us back to 2013 when the party selected Shorten over Anthony Albanese. In that contest, the Right faction, with help from a splintered Left, got Shorten over the line with a combined 52.02 percent caucus and rank-and-file vote.
Six years and a car crash of an election defeat later, that judgment in which Albanese lost critical support among his own Left faction can be seen for what it is, and was. This was a triumph of factional thuggery and personalities over what was best for the party.
At the time in a column for The Australian Financial Review I quoted an outgoing Labor frontbencher as saying that Shorten would be given a go for one term pending an election loss and the selection of a more marketable leader.
It’s history that Shorten survived as leader after running Malcolm Turnbull close in 2016. That proved a false positive politically. It put off a reckoning of Shorten’s manifest weaknesses, with disastrous consequences.
In its selection of a new leader the Labor caucus would be doing itself a favour if it eschewed narrow factional considerations and made its choice based on who would best combine the qualities required. These are communication skills, management skills, proficiency in the cut and thrust of Parliament, and, perhaps most important, character.
Factional considerations should be way down the list.
Commenting on Labor’s leadership predicament and the caucus’s role, one of Labor’s more astute elders puts it this way: "You’ve got to ask yourself the question: What sort of people make up a caucus who elect Mark Latham, Kevin Rudd and Bill Shorten as their leader?"