Author: Niki Savvy
Publication: The Australian
Even if you take inspiration from the heavens, as Scott Morrison does, and with such great success, you still need earthly beings to deliver. The Prime Minister’s performance was obviously instrumental in May’s election victory; however, he couldn’t have done it without the meticulous preparation of the party organisation, led by the Liberals’ federal president Nick Greiner and federal director Andrew Hirst.
The result showed the party is in good shape structurally, much better shape than the fabled Labor machine, partly thanks to the personnel who are the unsung heroes of this year’s campaign, and partly because of a determination not to repeat the mistakes of 2016, forensically reviewed by former party director and cabinet minister Andrew Robb.
Robb undertook the assignment on the explicit understanding it would be made public when it was concluded. It wasn’t. It has, however, since been made available and I have included the detail in Plots and Prayers, the book the muddle-headed delcons, through malice or fantasy, claim was rewritten after the election, or that it should have been rewritten or not written at all, as if buckets of blood were not spilled last August, or even if they were, nobody should mention the war, Basil.
It was not rewritten and was never going to be, simply because what happened, happened. All that changed was the title. Laurie Oakes read the manuscript in late March — sans the final chapter, which was always going to be written after the election — and tweeted to this effect during the week. The loony left and right have this in common: they never let the facts get in the way of a smear.
Anyway, Robb’s review was a devastating critique of the 2016 campaign. The Liberals picked up a solitary lower-house seat, Chisholm, won by Julia Banks. The Coalition lost four in NSW, two in Queensland, one in Western Australia, two in South Australia, three in Tasmania and one in the Northern Territory, to end up with 76 seats and a wafer-thin one-seat majority in the lower house. It also lost three Senate seats.
It was a 55-day campaign and, along the way, just about every campaign rule was forgotten or flouted. Although much of the blame was laid at Malcolm Turnbull’s feet, it was not all his fault, and without the final injection of $1.75 million of his own it would have been worse.
Because of a shortage of money, the Liberals had pared back their research. Consequently it took too long to pick up the impact that Bill Shorten’s Mediscare campaign was having, and too long to respond. The internal post-election review found that this failure to effectively rebut Labor’s “lies” had cost the Coalition six or seven seats.
The 51-page report made for sobering reading. It found fault everywhere: messaging; the campaign slogan; internal communications between headquarters and state divisions; the failure to run on Shorten and Labor’s negatives; the inadequate use of social media and the latest data-collection techniques; poor candidate selection; deficient fundraising; and bullying and intimidation of candidates at polling booths by people apparently linked to unions and Labor.
According to this hard-headed analysis, the Coalition’s problems began, and the seeds of the government’s demise were sown, immediately after Tony Abbott won so handsomely in 2013. It underscored once again that although Abbott and those around him knew what to do to win government, they didn’t have a clue what to do once they got there to make sure they stayed there.
Greiner and Hirst, hand-picked by Turnbull to run the party, travelled to each state to talk to divisions about their problems, determined to do everything humanly possible to avoid a repetition, no matter who led the government to the election.
Last February, after conducting regular reviews of Robb’s recommendations, a final internal assessment of the Liberals’ preparedness was presented to the party’s federal executive meeting in Canberra.
It was endorsed. With three months remaining until the election, all the key recommendations had been implemented.
Greiner, who had a good political and business brain, was the chairman of the board. Hirst loved election campaigns, even though he spent his first in 2004 proofing transcripts in John Howard’s press office. He reckons that taught him the importance of accuracy in grunt work. As this political year got under way, party officials were confident there would be no repeat of 2016’s great mistakes. Shorten would be well defined, and the negative campaign would be prominent and unrelenting.
Fundraising was continuing apace. Despite a pause after the leadership switch, it resumed well under Morrison — perhaps even better than under Turnbull — and there was enough money to fund the vigorous negative advertising campaign. Marginal-seat polling had been undertaken, a data-analytics unit was established and clear-cut messaging would ensure voters would be left in no doubt about the choices they faced.
The results showed how well prepared they were, how accurate their polling and how deadly their research.
Around the states, the party had a blend of the experienced and the battle-hardy such as Chris Stone, fresh from Gladys Berejiklian’s winning campaign in NSW.
In Victoria, newly appointed state director Simon Frost (now returning to Josh Frydenberg’s office), was picking up the pieces of a shattered party. Polling at the start of the year showed the Liberals could lose up to eight seats there. The losses were limited to the two notional Labor seats of Corangamite and Dunkley. Sam Calabrese had settled in well in WA and Lincoln Folo won applause from his peers for the stunning result in Queensland. Who can argue with that, given Labor’s 20-something primary vote?
In Tasmania, Sam McQuestin had run both of Premier Will Hodgman’s winning campaigns, and looked set to pick up Braddon, Bass and Lyons. The problem in Lyons — and in Victoria — was candidate selection.
Inadequate vetting cost the government the third Tasmanian seat.
Although the Liberals were never going to win Isaacs and Wills in Victoria, their chosen candidates there, eventually dumped, provided the worst days of the campaign for the Liberals, offset only by Labor’s duds.
Vetting will be a strong focus of the next review, already informally under way.
That was another of Robb’s key recommendation — the next campaign begins the day after the last one ended.