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While Liberals squabble, Labor builds a winning strategy

No longer a toxic soap opera, the ALP has seized the upper hand in the policy debate.

As the political honeymoon of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull ran late into 2015 it seemed an impossible prospect. Even now, no one in Canberra is predicting a Labor victory. An aggregation of major polls shows the Coalition with a two to three point  two-party-preferred lead and betting markets are paying up to $6 on a Labor win.

And yet, Labor is very much in the hunt in this election. Momentum is running its way and the key building blocks for a strong campaign are coming into place at the right time. Meanwhile, the Turnbull Government is being cruelled by the realities of governing and most dangerously, its pitch for re-election is still not clear.

2016 has been an annus horribilus for the Turnbull Government. As it racks up bad week after bad week there is a growing sense of division and drift in government, they are on a trajectory that cannot continue much longer.

Meanwhile, the Shorten Opposition is having an annus mirabilis as it continues to rise on the back of new policy announcements, a united team, and a leader who is slimmed down, restyled, and looking almost ready to govern.

These developments run deeper than the week in, week out, political fray. Winning government does not just happen on election day, it is a three year journey. Labor has a blueprint to win and step by step it is methodically delivering it.

The first step in Labor's blueprint has been re-establishing party unity. The toxic soap opera of the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd years was the real killer of Labor's last term in office. But the new party rules have stopped the revolving door of leaders, and the current caucus has been desperate not to repeat past mistakes. The contrast with the Liberals own poisonous internals could not be more stark, a reversal of roles unimaginable three years ago.

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Critically, Shorten has been given time to develop and build his confidence as leader. Party hard heads know he does not have the popularity to lead Labor to a sweeping victory like Rudd or Hawke. But they also know he is very good in an electoral contest and not to be underestimated – something the Coalition and the media continually do. Every challenge that has been put to Shorten he has overcome, in his short time as leader he has somehow survived encounters which would have ended the career of most politicians. He can also claim some credit for seeing off a sitting PM, remember the "bring it on" 2014 Budget Reply.

The next step has been Labor's ability to grab the upper hand in the policy debate. This did not just happen by magic, it is the product of a three-year process. First there was the review of the 2013 campaign loss by Jane Garrett and Milton Dick that identified Coalition attacks on Labor over asylum seeker boats, the carbon tax and government debt as eroding Labor's support at the ballot box.

This was followed by the Labor Party Conference in 2015 where Labor voted to overhaul its platform including policies and debates that had dogged it for years. On climate change and renewables, marriage equality, asylum seeker policy, women's advancement, superannuation tax loopholes and multinational tax avoidance, Labor updated its position.

Now in the lead up to the election, Labor has built an economic and budget narrative around a suite of ambitious policies on negative gearing and capital gains tax and housing affordability and jobs, with more to come that will focus on Labor's core policy strengths of education and health.

The next major area of Labor's campaign preparation centres on the air war that will be fought through media and advertising, and the ground war or field campaign that will be fought house by house, street by street in marginal electorates.

Labor relies heavily on its ground game because it is usually outgunned by the Coalition's bigger advertising spend. In 2016, Labor will spend up to $30 million on its campaign while the Coalition will spend over $40 million.

Labor's field campaign will build on the strategy it deployed so successfully in the recent Victorian and Queensland elections.  Using a volunteer supporter base and a data-driven focus the party has a target of two million phone calls or door knocks across its target seats.

In terms of the air war, Labor is still refining its key positive messages and attacks on the Coalition. Labor knew from the start it could not go around Turnbull, it would have to go through him. But it has taken some time to find its range against the new PM.

Now there is growing confidence in Labor that they have Turnbull pegged as the "shrinking PM", a leader who sold out his principles in exchange for power, and has disappointed after promising economic leadership. Then there are Labor's unseemly attacks on Turnbull's wealth. These are not about "class war" as is most often claimed but an attempt to paint Turnbull as "out of touch", a label that is lethal in Australian politics. While Turnbull talks about the worthy pursuit of an "ideas boom" Labor will focus on everyday concerns around Coalition cuts to education and health funding and claim it plans to privatise Medicare and strip back penalty rates.

While Abbott was Liberal leader the closest analogue for Labor's campaign strategy was the Queensland election of 2015. With Turnbull as leader it is likely to look more like the Victorian election of 2014. Labor built the Victorian campaign around the theme of "putting people first" and "under the Liberals you're on your own".

The electoral maths makes this election very hard for Labor to win – with just 55 seats the party is further behind in the Parliament than it has been since 1996. Following the redistribution and depending on what happens with the five cross benchers, Labor needs to win 19 seats requiring a 4 per cent swing. While every state is important, NSW has almost half the seats Labor needs to pick up.

In many respects the Liberal Party has the easier campaign to run. It will try and turn the race into a popularity contest between the two leaders and focus on Shorten's trade union past. Without a big policy agenda of its own Turnbull will focus on a scare campaign around Labor's negative gearing and capital gains changes.

The strongest card the Liberals have to play is the abiding sense that the public want Turnbull to succeed, and they do not want to go back to the uncertainty and chaos of the Rudd, Gillard and Abbott years. Only problem is, right now Shorten is looking like the stability candidate with a unified team and concrete policy plans, while the Turnbull government is mired by in-fighting and policy uncertainty.

Nicholas Reece is a principal fellow at the University of Melbourne and a former policy adviser to Labor prime minister Julia Gillard. 

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