There will be many post-mortems after the 2019 federal election: Labor on why it lost, the Liberals on why they won, why Queensland rejected Labor so comprehensively and why the Liberals lost Warringah. I worked as a campaign director for Kerryn Phelps last year when she seized the blue-ribbon Liberal seat of Wentworth in a byelection, and then for independent Zali Steggall's historic victory in Warringah at this general election.
There is a common thread across the byelection, Warringah, and the general election win for the Liberals - the candidates with the clear, concise message won and those with the complicated and/or poorly executed messages lost.
In Warringah we couldn't compete with the massive volume of messages delivered to voters by the Liberal Party and Advance Australia. We sent three letters to voters, our opponents dozens.
To win we had to make sure our message was clear, concise and effective. We would not get a second chance or have the luxury of multiple messages. Our opponents did and it didn't help them. They thought if they said it often enough it would work, even if it wasn't true. Consider this: the main message of the Liberal/Advance Australia campaign was if you vote for Steggall you will get Shorten. It was sent to voters repeatedly, stuck on billboards and trucks and sent in text messages ad nauseum. Well, the election is run and won. In Warringah they voted for Steggall and they didn't get Shorten.
The campaign I feared as Zali's strategist was never the negative campaign outlined above. What the Liberals should have done is address their main problem - Tony Abbott. If they'd spent their vast campaign resources acknowledging his negatives and seeking to address them, he might have had a chance. Instead we were served up a relentless campaign attacking Zali. It only reminded people of why they didn't like Tony Abbott and it was time for a fresh voice for the electorate. If I was running Tony Abbott's campaign my three-word slogan would have been "I am sorry".
The wrong lesson for Labor is to think it should have been more negative in its campaign. It would not have worked. Its problems stemmed from a lack of simple positive messaging about why people should vote for a Shorten Labor government. If you voted for Zali you got action on climate change and you got rid of Tony Abbott. What did you get if you voted for Shorten? The big end of town would be hit. Whatever that means.
It was a message that had nothing in it for voters. Fix the budget deficit - how about fix my family's budget deficit. The ALP campaign simply did not speak to voters and give them an individual reason to vote Labor. Many Labor people will point to policies that would benefit individuals. I don't quibble with that; I simply think voters could not identify them and that was the problem.
I suspect if you asked the question "what is in it for me to vote ALP" at focus groups in marginal seats, voters would have struggled to name anything.
As for Wentworth, the move back to the centre by the Liberal candidate, David Sharma, with one simple message - "I am a moderate Liberal" - was successful. He studiously avoided the negative campaign that failed so dismally at the byelection. He went positive. The contrast with Warringah was obvious and it worked, albeit with a narrow victory over Phelps.
But having been involved in winning campaigns in both Wentworth and Warringah, the lesson is clear to me. Spend your time getting the messaging right, and then stick to it with an iron discipline.
- Anthony Reed was a campaign director for Kerryn Phelps in the 2018 byelection and Zali Steggall in the 2019 Federal Election. He runs Watson Consultants.