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Posted on 3 Nov 2022 in Non-Fiction |

PETER VAN ONSELEN and WAYNE ERRINGTON Victory: The inside story of Labor’s return to power. Reviewed by Bernard Whimpress

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This expert analysis of the 2022 federal election examines Labor’s rebuilding process, the six-week campaign, and the challenges ahead.

Victory was released for sale just over four months after election day, but it would be foolish to categorise it as a ‘quickie’. It must have been written fast, but fast writing can be good in the hands of skilled practitioners. And there is no doubt that Peter van Onselen and Wayne Errington, political scientists and journalists, are both experts in the field and an established writing team whose previous titles include Battleground: Why the Liberal Party shirtfronted Tony Abbott, The Turnbull Gamble, and How Good is Scott Morrison?

In their acknowledgements the authors reflect that they were both undergraduate students when Pamela Williams’s The Victory, on the 1996 election, was published, and how that book inspired them to write about politics. They thank senior figures from both major parties for interviews, including new Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, but point out that Scott Morrison was also contacted and did not respond. The result of their deep and broad research (with fingers on the political pulse) is a book that reads like a thriller.

Detective novels frequently begin with enticing prologues, and writing history – no matter what form – is detective work. Here, the prologue, ‘The prime minister who almost never was’, which engages with Albanese’s marriage break-up on New Year’s Day 2019, reveals both a rupture to his personal life and a threat to his political life. Albanese had to rebuild his personal life as he did the Labor Party after its devastating loss in the 2019 election.

 Albanese’s accession to the party leadership involved the need to ‘de-Bill the message’, a change from predecessor Bill Shorten’s personal style to a greater emphasis on a team approach. It meant adopting a small-target strategy that built momentum on the back of the Morrison government’s flaws, notably the prime minister’s holiday in Hawaii during the bushfire crisis in 2019 and his line ‘I don’t hold a hose, mate’, as well as his mishandling of the COVID 19 vaccine rollout.

 But such flaws might be overcome. As van Onselen and Errington point out, fire gave Labor ‘a sniff of victory’ but ‘plague took it away’, with voters showing patience with governments (state and federal) in times of extraordinary circumstances. They also reveal that personal political futures often hang by slender threads, citing Labor’s Eden-Monaro by-election win of 2020.

NSW Deputy Premier and Nationals leader John Barilaro saved Albanese’s bacon. He was advocating a preference flow Labor’s way for anyone voting National in the three-cornered contest. Barilaro was no fan of the Liberal candidate. Barilaro’s words carried extra weight because his state seat was within the federal electorate … If Nationals preference flows from the 2019 election had been replicated at the by-election, Labor would have lost, and who knows what might have followed for Albanese’s leadership.

The phrase ‘a week is a long time in politics’ means that a lot can happen in a short space of time. When a ‘long’ election campaign was set to run over six weeks, a lot more could happen. At the beginning of the campaign Labor held a 53 to 47 per cent lead over the Coalition, but Morrison had come from behind in 2019 and hoped he could do so again.

The campaign is naturally the centrepiece of the book and the subtitles of the six chapters – ‘Gotcha!’, ‘Finding momentum’, ‘No Albo, no worries’, ‘Ready to launch’, ‘The bulldozer versus the builder’ and ‘The future caught up with him’ – provide a neat outline of its shape.

The gotcha moment occurred at a press conference in Launceston when Albanese stumbled answering a question from Sky News political editor Andrew Clennell on the unemployment rate, replying ‘Five point, uh, four …’ when it was four per cent. The authors state that ‘trying to guess the number was a bad look’ and that Albanese lost his composure. However, the media beat-up led by the News Corps tabloids was disproportionate in its response to the slip. The effect produced a rallying of the Labor team and a recognition that a mistake early in the campaign would not necessarily be fatal.

Week two saw Labor run negative advertising against Morrison with advertising agent Dee Madigan explaining that the PM’s mistakes made him a ‘future risk’. ‘Voters will elect a dickhead or an incompetent but not an incompetent dickhead,’ she told the authors. The ads featuring Morrison saying ‘that’s not my job’ underlined this. It was also important that the negative ads were run early so that positive themes could be addressed later in the campaign. When the first debate between the leaders took place, Albanese had the better of his opponent, but wise heads knew this was only a small step towards success, as Shorten had won all the debates in 2019. A real problem for the government was the growing power of the teal independents, especially in safe Liberal seats, a warning for the party’s failure on gender politics.

Albanese then contracted COVID, and in what seems like a strange judgement, van Onselen and Errington argue that the timing of his week in isolation couldn’t have been better. At this point Labor’s track polling had seen its lead slump to 52 to 48, but the benefit was that its team effort attracted praise. Penny Wong, Richard Marles and Jim Chalmers took the lead on the campaign trail. When a spike in inflation brought fears of interest rate rises, Chalmers hit out: ‘This government has dropped the ball on inflation. When things are going well for the economy Scott Morrison takes all of the credit. But when times are tough for Australians, he takes none of the responsibility.’ Labor’s team approach stood in marked contrast to the capabilities of the Coalition:

Who might have stepped up if it had been Morrison with COVID? The Coalition already had to keep Morrison and Joyce – the Prime Minister and his Deputy – away from a host of seats as well as each other, given those texts from Joyce labelling the PM a liar. The Treasurer was under threat in his own seat … Would we have seen more of Dutton’s belligerence? Marise Payne’s timidity? Stuart Roberts’s vacuousness? More likely, we would have seen the first election campaign run entirely by Zoom from a leader’s lounge room.

The fourth week saw Labor launch its campaign at Perth’s Optus Stadium, the first time a major party had done so in Western Australia, and an acknowledgement that the state was a key to winning government. While polls still indicated the Opposition holding a 6 to 8 per cent lead on two-party-preferred indicators, the real impetus for Labor did not come until the penultimate week when two leaders’ debates were held, and the PM had to admit his growing unpopularity was due to his ‘bulldozer’ approach to issues. As Albanese told the authors, the bulldozer reference ‘just perfectly played into my space. He was going to be nice but it reminded everybody that he wasn’t nice, that he wasn’t a builder, that he was rude. It reinforced the perception that he couldn’t be trusted.’ It was the turning point in the campaign.

In the last week the margin favouring the Opposition was 53 to 47 (as it had been at the beginning of the campaign) and the contest proved decisive, with Labor winning ten seats and the Liberals being further annihilated by the teal independents. After the victory, Labor’s national secretary, Paul Erickson, outlined eight factors undermining the Coalition in a speech to the National Press Club, which is reported as follows:

… a refusal to take responsibility for anything, incompetent management during the pandemic, partisan attacks on state governments throughout the pandemic, incompetent budget management, an incoherent and incompetent response to the cost-of-living crisis, incompetent engagement with Australia’s allies and region, a lack of awareness or interest in women’s experiences, and a decades-long failure to take climate change seriously.

Serious as these accusations are, however, it is worth heeding the authors’ remark that such factors are ‘about the shortcomings of the Morrison government. While the new ministry will constantly remind voters of those problems, they will never again be as potent.’ Van Onselen and Errington see challenges ahead for Albanese’s consensus-style of leadership, particularly in dealing with a large crossbench, as well as wanting to store up gains made in Western Australia and winning seats in Queensland in the future. For the Liberals, losing so many of their heartland seats to teal independents may prove difficult to reverse. As the authors note:

Contrary to their longstanding political strategy, which was successful throughout the twentieth century, Australia’s conservative parties continually promoted their ability to govern in the national interest, whereas Labor represented a sectional interest. On climate change and other issues, it is now the Coalition parties that represent sectional interests.

Victory is a compelling read which should appeal to a wide audience as well as political scholars.

Peter van Onselen and Wayne Errington Victory: The inside story of Labor’s return to power HarperCollins 2022 PB 320pp $34.99

Bernard Whimpress is a historian who usually writes on sport. His most recent book is Adelaide Oval 1865-1939: A History, available from

You can buy Victory from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW or you can buy it from Booktopia.

You can also check if it is available from Newtown Library.

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