SAMANTHA MAIDEN Party Animals: The secret history of a Labor fiasco. Reviewed by Bernard Whimpress
Samantha Maiden’s Party Animals is a multi-faceted analysis of the 2019 federal election, the election the Labor party was expected to win – but didn’t.
In her introduction, political journalist Maiden offers a depressing thesis: that from recent evidence the Australian political electorate is risk averse – ‘the winner is frequently the party that can paint its opponent as more risky and radical’ – and that while Labor leader Bill Shorten had ‘good political instincts’, these instincts failed him at ‘critical times’.
Mistakes were made by Labor in formulating policy, primarily with shadow treasurer Chris Bowen and finance spokesman Jim Chalmers trying to control spending in contrast to Shorten’s big agenda and desire to appeal to his front bench. The party’s franking credit policy was not explained sufficiently, thus playing into the government’s hands by enabling it to label the measure as a retiree tax and a ‘death tax’ that didn’t exist. In these times of fake news, ‘death tax’ had a fatal ring.
Maiden also suggests that Labor made a crucial error during its campaign by finalising its policy on free childcare for families earning under $69,000 far too late to support a good news package. However, a major problem affecting campaign strategy was rooted in the vagaries of the polls. The expectation of success was much greater than it ought to have been. As Maiden says, discussion was far from robust and ‘under Shorten’s leadership, unity was preserved at all costs’.
Blaming Shorten for Labor’s loss is easy, but opposition leaders are never popular and Shorten had campaigned well against Malcolm Turnbull in the 2016 election with negative gearing then among the party’s policies. By contrast, in 2019 an alert Scott Morrison, responding to the same policy, framed another slogan – ‘housing tax’ – that, with support from the real estate industry, frightened voters.
In some respects, the blatant political message of the Real Estate Institute was similar to that taken by the banks in opposition to the Chifley Government in the 1949 election. While unsavoury, such a move could nevertheless be seen as part of the general political landscape alongside actions taken by other pressure groups such as the mining lobby and the union movement.
The 2019 federal election, however, was marked by a much greater degree of political skulduggery than usual:
- the politics of rape
- questioning Bill Shorten’s credibility
- the Murdoch factor
- fake news
- the Palmer factor.
Maiden’s opening to her first chapter is striking:
Scott Morrison just casually dropped it into the last question time before he called the election on 11 April. It was a reference to an old accusation, previously investigated by police, that Bill Shorten had raped a teenage girl at a Labor youth camp in the 1980s. But it was so subtle, so artfully constructed, such a throwaway little line, that few journalists noticed it, let alone reported it. It seemed designed for Shorten’s ears.
And it definitely unnerved the Labor leader, causing him to regard the prime minister’s reference as ‘disgusting’, and contributing to his own loss of the main political plot by raising questions about Morrison’s religious beliefs.
Shorten’s credibility came under attack after he invoked the inspiration of his late mother, Ann Shorten, who made a career change from teaching to law, in answer to a question on the ABC’s Q&A about the source of his political drive. The television program went to air on 6 May and the immediate response was overwhelmingly positive for Shorten before the Murdoch hacks got into gear. The Daily Telegraph’s Tim Blair was first on his blog the next day with ‘Sob Story Sells Mother Short’; and then on 8 May the Telegraph’s front page ran the story ‘Mother of Invention – Revealed Shorten’s Heartfelt Tale Missing Vital Fact’. Typically, the Telegraph omitted even more vital facts and, as Maiden tells us, draft versions used the crueller headline ‘Mother Of All Lies’, a title she gives to her own chapter which opens as follows:
Kevin Rudd was a man on a mission during the 2019 election and it was a project that involved frantic activity criticising Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp tabloids and badgering Bill Shorten to finally subject those ‘fuckers’ who worked for them to a royal commission into media ownership … When The Daily Telegraph decided to splash the Labor leader’s dead mother, Ann Shorten, all over the front page during the campaign, accusing her son of lying about her life story, the former prime minister sprung into action on the texts. ‘Gidday,’ his message to Bill Shorten on 8 May had begun. ‘Don’t let the News Corps fuckers get you down. They massively overreached today.’
Rudd, as Maiden reminds us, had ‘actively courted the News Corp newspapers on his rise to the top’ but then (as prime minister in 2013) was the recipient of the Daily Telegraph’s headline ‘KICK THIS MOB OUT’. Not surprisingly, therefore, he had come to the view that News Corp conducted itself not ‘as a news organisation, but as a political party’ and one which was ‘a cancer on the wider cause of democracy’ contributing to ‘a mess across the Anglosphere’. Rudd is right and it’s interesting to recall the famous 1994 Dennis Potter interview with Melvin Bragg on the UK’s Channel 4 in which he labelled his own cancer ‘Rupert’. Malcolm Turnbull had a similar experience to Rudd, and in his recent memoir attests to the political power wielded by the Murdoch media in his own removal as prime minister.
Murdoch’s papers, along with the rest of the mainstream media, ignored the claims of alleged rape victim Kathy Sherriff, but, as Maiden argues, Labor was spooked ‘by fears the tabloids would interview the accuser’ and the issue continued to be ‘pushed around on social media through all the extreme right-wing channels’ and enthusiastically shared on Facebook. Fake news would have a field day as it does in Trump’s America.
Fake news would also be evident as Labor tracked thousands of Facebook shares regarding the ‘death tax’ from which the government would be the only beneficiary. Thus it is not surprising that in an interview after the election Shorten would assert, ‘I think this is a government that is prepared to lie about anything.’
Of all the issues raised in the 2019 election, though, the most disturbing was the candidacy of Clive Palmer. Maiden details how Palmer obtained the signature of defecting One Nation Senator Brian Burston to enable his United Australia Party (UAP) to gain immediate registration and an above-the-line box on the Senate ballot paper. It was a move that ‘would have profound consequences for Bill Shorten’.
Palmer would begin Trump-style by gathering 100,000 lunatic Facebook followers ‘to build an online force to attack his enemies’, but more crucial is the question Maiden raises about how he measured success: ‘Was it really a seat in parliament? Or something else?’
Quoting a Labor Party post-election analysis of Palmer’s advertising campaign spending comes the revelation that the UAP spent more than the advertising budgets of McDonald’s, Foxtel, Telstra or any of the banks during the same period, and the only organisations who outspent him were Harvey Norman, Woolworth’s, Wesfarmers, Toyota, the Commonwealth government and the New South Wales and Victorian state governments. No other political party made it into the top 50 Australian organisations for this period. Palmer was thus able to gain ‘share of voice’ and as the campaign continued, his advertisements directed a strong anti-Labor message designed to prevent Shorten becoming prime minister. He even took two full-page ads in every News Corp paper for the last fortnight before the election, which (as Palmer admitted) ‘cost millions of dollars alone’.
Palmer and Murdoch. The Liberal Party might deny a Faustian pact with Palmer but it benefits from his preference votes as it also benefits from One Nation preferences. Labor always has to struggle to win office and if the playing field is never level, it was tilted far more in favour of its opponents at the 2019 election.
The polls got things wrong. Newspoll predicted a Labor victory for 50 consecutive polls and got it wrong. The exit polls taken at polling booths got it wrong. Maiden devotes an extensive chapter to this aspect of the election and among the admissions of error comes the following quote from Campbell White, head of YouGov’s Public Affairs and Polling Asia-Pacific:
‘Australian pollsters are actually victims of their own past successes, because this set up expectations that polling was completely infallible and it isn’t. It’s sort of insane to look at 51-49 and think that’s a complete fait accompli.’
Samantha Maiden’s Party Animals is an important book that reveals the dire need for limitations to be placed on campaign spending by parties and individuals during elections, and for a royal commission into media ownership. Democracy is imperilled enough without the shenanigans of corporate cowboys like Clive Palmer tipping the balance further in favour of big business. If there is one good outcome from the 2019 election, it might be that the major political parties are tempted to pander less to the polls and, instead, design policies in the national interest. But I won’t hold my breath.
Samantha Maiden Party Animals: The secret history of a Labor fiasco Penguin 2020 PB 336pp $34.99
Bernard Whimpress is a historian who usually writes on sport. His new book, George Giffen: A biography will be published in November.
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