When the Tampa hove into view and the Coalition’s rating surged by around 10 percentage points, many pundits wrote the ALP off. They were wrong. The government won with only 51.03 per cent of the vote – a win, but with a very slim margin.
At the time I argued that the effect on voting intentions of the terrorist threat would wane, but that Beazley needed to find a point of difference from the government on the refugee issue. During the course of the campaign I also argued that domestic issues would win through over international issues like refugees and terrorism. In retrospect those assessments seem to have been correct.
As we found in our focus group research, the ALP’s stance on refugees disillusioned many of its left-wing supporters. While they were voting Labor with their second preference, they were not enthusiastically supporting it. Labor lost its talkers and this had a negative effect on its vote. At the same time, it didn’t seem to be winning any friends among One Nation prospects. They didn’t believe that Beazley would stick to the policy if he won the election, so weren’t buying the cheap imitation when they could have the original. This attitude also seemed to transfer to the question of election promises. Many in the middle liked what Beazley was promising, but didn’t think he would be able to deliver. With each group the refugee decision was the catalyst or the reason for their position.
Linton Crosby, the Liberal Party Federal Director, has said that Beazley lost because he wasn’t a "conviction" politician – in other words, he lacked guts. Supporters of Beazley say this isn’t so, and that on the refugee issue he did exactly what he believed was right. The argument runs that Beazley cares just as much about border security as Howard. In favour of that argument is Beazley’s life-long private and professional obsession with war; and the fact that it was the ALP that originally instituted the refugee detention camps. But while it is convenient to personalise parties as people and to talk of Howard and Beazley, in fact elections are contests between organisations. No single person makes all the decisions. On this issue the ALP shilly-shallied. Some members wanted to take a different tack to the government, yet the whole eventually didn’t. The public sensed a lack of institutional commitment, so it doesn’t really matter what Beazley’s personal view might have been.
Could Beazley have taken a different position from the Government and survived? Yes, he could. As Green’s Leader Bob Brown suggested on Terry Lane’s The National Interest the day after the election, a tough-but-not-as-tough policy could have kept faith with the left as well as being strong enough to appeal to the middle ground.
Part of Labor’s pitch could also have been a demand that refugee policy be bipartisan. This would have had the effect of raising the suspicion that this was yet another version of the "non-core" promise – was it a policy that the government really believed in, or would it abandon it once it had fulfilled its political purpose?
The other effect of giving blanket endorsement to the Government’s policy was that the ALP dealt themselves out of the issue altogether. The obvious inadequacy and expense of the "Pacific Solution" couldn’t be raised because it was the ALP’s solution as well as the government’s.
Since the election the critics of the campaign strategy have been saying that the problem was that the ALP didn’t get its policies out early enough. They evoke Gough Whitlam’s 1972 election campaign and claim that he won by educating the electorate. That strategy would have delivered an even larger loss in the last election.
The ALP has a great sense of clan loyalty, but the elevation of Gough Whitlam to the highest point in their pantheon of campaigners is ludicrous and a sign of baby-boomer nostalgia rather than hard-headed assessment. Gough’s record as a campaigner speaks for itself. Against a government that had been continuously in power for 23 years headed by Billy McMahon, arguably Australia’s worst ever Prime Minister, Whitlam could only manage a majority of 9 seats. This contrasts poorly with the 55 seat majority won by Malcolm Fraser three years later when he bundled Whitlam out.
One of the problems with the Whitlam strategy is that the opposition deliberately makes itself the issue as it asks people to endorse its own agenda. More people vote against issues than vote for your opponent. A good campaign, directly or indirectly, keeps the focus on your opponent’s weaknesses, persuading electors to vote for you as a consequence of voting against them. Holding detailed policies back until the last moment is a necessary part of any Opposition’s campaign strategy as it leaves the Government’s performance as the only tangible thing to be discussed.
The ALP executed this part of the strategy well, by keeping most substantive policy releases until the election period, but their guile deserted them in the election campaign in two areas. While voters disliked the government’s domestic policies and preferred the ALP’s, they were more at home with the government’s position on the asylum seekers. As there was always going to be more dramatic media coverage of the war and the refugee issue than there was of domestic issues, the ALP needed to talk almost exclusively about domestic issues and almost ostentatiously ignore international ones, to cut through the noise created by international events.
They didn’t manage to do that. Beazley kept being drawn into the overseas agenda, and instead of saying words to the effect of "Well, what you are asking me is about the last three weeks, but I want to talk about the next three years. What is really important in this election is X domestic issue," he tried to match Howard as the international statesman.