QUARTERLY ESSAY 74 The Prosperity Gospel



James Newton

“We didn’t get enough votes.”

That’s what Bill said, smiling bravely into the sun outside his house in Moonee Ponds on what turned out to be the first day of the rest of his life.

It’s the simplest, briefest and most true answer to the question all of us whose ambitions for a Shorten Labor government were swiftly and comprehensively terminated on 18 May have been asked by friends and family and job interviewers in the weeks since: where did it go wrong? As one of those casualties, I’ve taken a keen interest in the various post-mortems. But so far, Bill’s answer remains the only one I can completely agree with.

Despite the subtitle of The Prosperity Gospel, Erik Jensen is not too proud to say he simply doesn’t know why Labor lost or how Morrison won. It’s a credit to him and a win for the reader.

Unlike many others, instead of wasting words on pseudo-psephology, Erik gives us telling sketches of the two major-party leaders, their campaigns and the choices Australians faced and made.

There’s plenty of the Bill Shorten I like and admire in Erik’s interviews and a fair chunk of the Scott Morrison I tried and failed to understand. It might seem a small thing, but there’s something chilling about a man who can dismiss the entirety of international fiction by saying he doesn’t relate to it and prefers “our stories” while sitting underneath a picture of the Queen and quoting the Bible.

For me, as someone who spent every day of the 2016 and 2019 campaigns on the Bill Bus, the contrast Erik draws between Bill’s days and Morrison’s was disconcerting. Against Malcolm Turnbull in 2016, we were the plucky insurgency: fun, frenetic, full of colour and movement. In this piece, our 2019 show comes across as earnest but dull. Full of long speeches and detailed pressers, a somehow self-consciously serious exercise. That’s not how it felt from the inside. Working and travelling with Bll was very often fun and nearly always funny. But the line that made me sit up and start writing was where Erik describes what we were doing as “betting against modern politics.”

Have no doubt: Bill Shorten is a political gambler. He bet on fairness and stood up to the 2014 Budget when some senior colleagues were telling him to roll over. His critics invariably accuse him of political opportunism, yet as Leader of the Opposition he repeatedly chose principle over expediency: on tax reform, marriage equality, climate action and a Voice for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. In 2015, fresh out of the witness stand at the trade union royal commission, he took on his own party over the necessity of boat turnbacks and prevailed. In 2016 he listened to people who’d been ripped off by the big banks and – betting against the Liberals’ contempt, powerful institutional opposition and no small measure of internal concern – he got a royal commission. Yet he also recoiled from claiming credit, from overt “leadership” moments, from public rebukes of colleagues or headline-grabbing acts of triangulation. He’d rather win the argument and give his former opponents ownership of the change than take a curtain call. Invariably, he’d scribble over the first few triumphal lines of draft speeches and say, “We don’t need to rub their noses in it.” That was a gamble too. And, of course, in the breadth and scope of our agenda, we had “ripped up the rulebook” of small-target, low-risk opposition.

For five and a half years, every time we held our collective breath and announced a policy or took a plunge and survived a by-election, a Budget reply or another media-manufactured “test of leadership,” I was exhilarated not just by the sense of winning the moment or setting the agenda, but by the thought that we were hammering down another plank in an election platform. Now, eleven weeks into unemployment, I think maybe we were just accumulating baggage for the journey ahead. Perhaps we were using up our luck.

By May 2019, when politics had been skewing to the simple and short-term for years, we were running as the party of complexity. To voters uncertain about the future and suspicious of reform, we offered ourselves as agents of change. With cynicism about politics and democracy rife, we presented a vision for big government activism. Right when we needed it, the zeitgeist deserted us.

Whatever our failures in planning, messaging and execution (and, of course, speech-writing), we didn’t do any of this to win a bet. It wasn’t an experiment for us, or an academic study. We didn’t take on the hard issues, put forward the big ideas and run the campaign we did to prove we were better than the system; we did it because we believed the system needed to be better. But when you combined our new, self-selected complexity with the perpetually complicated mix of emotions, motivations, causes and constituencies that is modern Labor, well, winning was never going to be easy.

Take stability. In the 2016 campaign, Turnbull would occasionally say people had to decide if they wanted Bill to be “Australia’s fifth prime minister in three years.” Considering he’d only just installed himself as the fourth, it always struck me as a strange argument. But the Liberals never seem burdened by self-doubt. Despite an unmatched record of dispatching Australians to failed wars on bad evidence, they have a superhuman capacity to brazenly assert their status as the natural party of strong leadership, steady hands and a safe country. And as much as we love to say they’re out of touch, perhaps they understand better than we do that Australians can forgive a threadbare agenda and overlook a whole lot of grubby scandals because what we crave most of all is the promise of stability – the right to be relaxed and comfortable.

When Bill returned from Christmas at Wye River, he told us how many people had come up to him and, whatever complaint they had about a particular policy, had given Labor “a tick” for being united. Pretty soon he would whittle the line down to: “I don’t like everything you’re doing, but at least you guys will have the same prime minister for three years.” It wasn’t exactly “Ask not what your country can do for you,” but it had the ring of truth to it.

In early 2014, when I first started working for Bill, any speech that mentioned the Rudd–Gillard governments required a contrite sentence or two about the lessons to be learnt from that time. He became fond of an analogy George Wright had given him about party unity being “the green fee” for national government. Five years later, we had paid the fee and we were proud of it.

Three days of National Conference spoke for unprecedented harmony between the party and the movement. Bill’s “stable, talented and united team” rarely missed a campaign mention. Tanya and Penny and Chris and Albo and Kristina Keneally and Catherine King co-starred in the pressers. Hawke and Keating penned a joint op-ed, their first collaboration since 1991. Kevin and Julia shared a laugh at the launch. Short of Mark Latham moving to reinstate Billy Hughes’ membership, there was nothing more we could have done to demonstrate our unity of purpose.

Inevitably, commentators tut-tutted about “highly choreographed” moments and “stage-managed” displays, but the Liberals didn’t even pretend to go through the motions. Abbott was “too busy campaigning” to come to the launch, Turnbull stayed overseas, not even Howard got a gig. When journos asked Morrison why none of his ministers was doing media, he sneered about not needing people to “prop me up.” Again, self-doubt didn’t figure.

Of course, for a progressive party trying to take back power, the “stability” pitch could only ever be half our story. The green fee.

Because we were stable, we said, we could be trusted to keep our promises, unlike Abbott. Because we were stable, we wouldn’t fracture or compromise, unlike Turnbull. Because we were steady and united, we could end the political dysfunction.

Climate change, we thought, joined the dots better than anything. Any time Bill gave an audience a version of “We won’t waste time fighting about whether climate change is real, we’ll just get on with real action,” he was guaranteed a round of applause. It was a long way from “the great moral challenge of our time,” but it had been a long ten years.

With unity and policy, we had a compelling story, and as the man who’d assiduously cultivated that unity, managed the program and driven the “positive alternative” strategy, Bill could bring it to life better than anyone. But it still took a while to tell the tale and, as Bill would say, “explain to people where they fit in.”

The town-hall meetings are where people fit in. We’d be in a bowls club bar or the people-mover or a cramped little backstage room with the local candidate kicking around the potential issues and Bill would say to whichever luckless policy adviser was about to be tasked with a hypothetical question on a four-minute deadline: “Mate, I don’t want a process answer, I need a real response.”

When Morrison gets asked about Newstart, he says, “We believe the best form of welfare is a job.” “If pressed,” as all politicians’ talking points demurely phrase it, he says most people get additional payments anyway.

But that doesn’t fly in a town-hall meeting when the person asking the question is living on forty bucks a day – and Bill knew it. He appreciated that the blow-in from Canberra with the white car parked outside can’t just airily tell a person who’s given up their evening and put up their hand that all they really need to do is have a go.

Bill would start by agreeing that Newstart is too low and explaining that we were not reviewing it to lower it. We need a review because it’s a big commitment and there are interactions with other payments and it’s complicated and we’re in Opposition. But there’s a journey to come. He’d talk about the dignity of work and the pain of losing your job and the pressure it puts on family and the harm it can do to community and the need for good TAFEs and employers giving older workers a fair crack and bringing back Aussie apprenticeships and local content and procurement. First question or last, good day or bad, Bill would show the humility, the respect, to give a proper answer. Everyone would be moved to applaud, even those of us who’d heard it twenty times. And when we got back in the car, he’d say, “I need a better answer on Newstart, mate. And on cannabis.”

Our gleeful critics have claimed that the breadth of our agenda reflected a presumption of victory. Erik Jensen chalks it up to insecurity. The truth is, we were offering a town-hall answer to every question, nationwide. It was humility, it was respect. If we were asking people to choose us as their government, we believed we had to offer more than a slogan. If we were going to promise new investments in schools and hospitals and child care and pensioner dental, if we were going to eliminate the costs of fighting cancer, then we figured it was up to us to explain to people how we would pay for it.

So, on a whole range of issues, it was the tale of two messages. We were promising stability but asking people to vote for change. We were going to end the chaos but remake the country. We were ready to govern but taking nothing for granted. If there was a phrase I came to dread in the pressers and interviews, it was “please, let me finish.”

This kind of nuance wasn’t much of a match for endless headlines about “tax bombs,” a housing market “collapse” and “class war,” and it got us nowhere against the biggest single advertising spend in election history: Clive Palmer’s entirely dishonest and almost exclusively anti-Labor, anti-Bill campaign.

I would never actually throw a book across a room, but I got pretty close when I saw Erik quoting a Liberal insider concerned that Palmer was “debasing political advertising.” There was only one beneficiary from the wall-to-wall Palmer: the LNP.

We knew the “death tax” campaign was nothing but bad news. What to do about it was another matter. When Chris Bowen and Kristina Keneally went out to smash up the LNP for sponsoring lies, within twelve hours the Liberal campaign had made a video montage of our people saying “death tax.”

In the absence of alternatives, we ended up with a position of public contempt and private terror. When, two weeks from election day, my wife texted me saying her colleagues at the hospital were asking her about Bill’s 40 per cent death tax, I knew we were in strife.

As for our actual tax policies, by the time of the campaign we’d spent over twelve months talking about closing a loophole that cost Australia more than the government spent on public schools. We called it a giveaway, a gift, a tidy little arrangement, an unsustainable leftover of Howard–Costello largesse. All of these terms pissed off the people collecting the benefit. But nothing cut through with the broader population like “retiree tax.”

I watched more of Tim Wilson’s committee hearings than was good for me. I learnt the script. When “self-funded” retirees started saying they didn’t want to be a burden to the taxpayer, I would sometimes find myself saying, “Well, we’ve got good news for you!” No one I saw railing against our measures struck me as a true believer lost to the cause, especially those who began by saying “I’ve voted Labor in the past,” as if the next sentence was “but I didn’t inhale.”

Along with the “death tax,” it was the people who would be fine but feared they’d be hurt that broke the heart. A pensioner in the first debate, a vocal passer-by at the Nowra shopping centre, an angry coffee drinker in Adelaide. Never have so many Australians identified so strongly and so wrongly with a tiny percentage of the population.

Then there was Adani. During the Batman by-election, when anyone with a Twitter handle talked about Bill “walking both sides of the street,” I tried to cheer up our team by saying that was the only way to knock on all the doors, but in reality we were straddling a barbed-wire fence. Never mind that we couldn’t “Stop Adani” any more than we could start digging; in Queensland it swallowed press conferences whole. The tiniest deviation from the language of the previous answer or the previous day or the previous campaign was freighted with imagined significance. Bill was stuck delivering lines, not giving answers. And it showed. I lived in hope that the conservationists would find a more loveable animal than the black-throated finch.

So that’s how we spent too much of our campaign. Talking about a mine whose future we couldn’t determine, carpet-bombed by ads from a party that couldn’t win and didn’t care, defending one tax that didn’t affect the people concerned and another we weren’t imposing at all. Precious minutes of national attention that couldn’t be used to tell families about cheaper child care, pensioners about free dental and workers about secure jobs and better wages.

But how could we have changed any of that? Like Erik, I’m not too proud to say I don’t know. Apart from collecting around another one million primary votes, I’m not sure what we should have done differently. If we’d promised the spending without the revenue, we’d have been rightly dismissed as trafficking in false hope. If we’d promised to kill Adani, or start construction on day one, half the country would have hated our guts and the other half would have known we were lying. If we’d chatted to Sky before Question Time every day and called in to Jones and gone to New York and kissed Murdoch’s ring, they all would have come after us regardless. Nothing we said or did to Palmer would have mattered. Whatever that expression is about picking fights with people who buy ink by the gallon, it’s doubly true for a bloke whose ads run right through Married at First Sight.

If we’d swapped the town-hall answer for the glib line and abandoned complexity and tucked ourselves into a little ball and said that they’d had three leaders and we’d had one and now it was our turn to drive the car, great swathes of our progressive constituency would have said that we were arrogantly expecting a coronation and that a “Liberal-lite” government was no better than the hard-right real thing.

Finally, I’m poorly equipped to write about “where Labor went wrong” because on so many issues I still don’t believe we were wrong. What happened on election day didn’t convince me that negative gearing and refundable franking credits are more important than better schools, free cancer care and universal preschool for three- and four-year-olds. Defeat didn’t make me think that climate change is a conspiracy or that a Voice will be a third chamber or restoring penalty rates will shutter small businesses across the land. But more than enough people thought differently. In other words, we didn’t get enough votes.

So what’s the post-mortem? We were brave, we were ambitious, we argued for what was right, not what was easy. No one worked harder than Bill, but a lot of us worked incredibly hard, for many years.

I’ll always be proud of the way we went about it, but I wish we’d bloody won.

Or, to use a favourite Shortenism, the operation went perfectly but the patient died.

James Newton


This correspondence discusses Quarterly Essay 74, The Prosperity Gospel. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.

This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 75, Men at Work.


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