For those who work in politics, every campaign matters – there is no such thing as a “dead rubber”. But the opportunity to work on an election with the capacity to permanently shift the dial internationally and domestically comes along once in a lifetime if you’re lucky.
Anthony Albanese’s confirmation as Australia’s 31st Prime Minister this week was one such election. Though the result saw a splintering of two party politics and the birth of the Teal independent movement, Labor’s victory was a true red letter day on climate, equality and cost of living. As Deputy Chief of Staff at Australian Labor’s Campaign HQ, I was able to play my part in helping to deliver this victory, and to see the workings of an extraordinary campaigning machine from the inside.
Political campaigns here are a mixture of the familiar and the alien, an unusual blend of the British and American combining to produce something uniquely Australian. Perhaps the biggest point of difference to the UK – other than compulsory and preferential voting – is television advertising. Lightly regulated in its content and uncapped in its financial reach, ad breaks on all commercial stations are filled with campaign spots for political parties.
The ads don’t just fill commercial breaks, instead finding new lives as they are dissected and debated both in the comment pages and on social media. And both these spaces – traditional press and broadcast and online discourse – are hyper-partisan. The unabashed right-wing agenda pushed by Murdoch’s News Corps would make their UK counterparts blush, with coordinated attacks on Labor, Greens and any other Liberal Party opponents pushed out across their print and broadcast stable.
And yet, in a landmark result, the wealthy Liberal Coalition backers and might of the Murdoch empire couldn’t stop a Labor win; a win which, even weeks into the campaign, was still being dismissed as an impossibility by some. Why? In large part because Labor played, as we say in the trade, an absolute blinder.
Led by Labor’s Campaign Director Paul Erickson, it was a well-oiled operation, driven by polling and research, that actually listened to all of what voters said, not just the bits they liked. This honesty of approach helped deliver campaign messages and message carriers that resonated, reminiscent of Welsh Labour’s work before our 2021 election win. A similar tack would serve UK Labour well as it looks to stretch its poll lead against the Tories.
The best political campaigns manage to capture a moment and shape the narrative around it. Zeroing in on Scott Morrison’s unpopularity may already seem like a “no-brainer”, but Morrison was an electoral asset in 2019 and an experienced campaigner. But Labor had done its homework, and trusting the intelligence gathered, hit go.
The campaign captured the public’s dislike of ‘ScoMo’, mercilessly zeroing in on the truths we heard from Australians across every state – that the PM was out of touch, mistake prone, and unwilling to take responsibility for his screw ups. Every Morrison attack ended with him saying repeatedly “that’s not my job”. The best attack ads work because they have an acknowledged truth at their heart; this campaign had that in spades.
And like any good campaign, Labor’s was geared to speaking to voters wherever they were and through as many means and across as many channels as possible. So running alongside a killer advertising campaign was a media, field and digital operation taking the same core messages – that of a better future with Labor, and of more of the same under Morrison – across the country.
The reach of the organic digital campaign was particularly impressive, powered in part by a refreshing willingness to use humour – as in actually funny things, not some approximation of a joke that’s been tested so long the moment has passed. The freewheeling approach to campaigning, and ability to speak to voters not just about their interests but to use a language they use themselves, found particular traction on relatively under used platforms like Tik Tok. In comparison, Morrison’s campaign seemed boorish, stale and out of touch.
All the while, state Labor parties were driving content and campaigning that proved the best fit for their electorate. This federal Labor structure, with strategic support from CHQ, shows how a centrally managed campaign can not only properly support and empower its devolved branches, but learn from them – another leaf UK Labour may wish to take from Labor’s book.
Like Welsh Labour’s Mark Drakeford, Anthony Albanese is a lifelong Labor operative liked and respected across factional and party lines, but not always viewed as a naturally relaxed media performer. His early campaign stand-ups came with a few statistical missteps, duly seized upon by political opponents and a ferocious travelling press pack. However, like Mark, his love of country and his plan to make it a better place to live shone through, alongside a fundamental decency that set him apart from his main opponent. A momentary lapse on the unemployment rate in week one was forgotten by the campaign’s end, and Albo was an indisputable campaign asset through sheer force of relatable likeability. And if the strength of a campaign is judged by how they ride out the difficult moments and stay on course, Labor’s was the sign of a very strong campaign indeed.