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  1. The Staggers
10 April 2023

Australian Labor would never have run Labour’s Sunak attack adverts

Anthony Albanese won by recognising that voters were tired of lazy, divisive and dishonest politics.

By Marc Stears

As the general election edges closer, it is inevitable that disagreements about the parties’ strategies will spill into the open. There has been no more dramatic example of this than the spat over Labour’s advertisement apparently suggesting Rishi Sunak endorses shockingly generous sentences for child abusers.

Anger over the advertisement united most of the political spectrum, from Ash Sarkar to Nick Timothy. But there were a few voices who attempted to justify it.

One of the arguments cited by a Labour source was that it mirrored the approach taken by the Australian Labor Party in its victorious election campaign in 2022. Australian Labor strategists “told us to ignore the wailings of the people who expect you to be kind losers and fight as viciously as the Conservatives do”, the source told HuffPost UK.

As someone who lived through that campaign, and followed its immediate aftermath closely, I remember it very differently. To reassure myself that my memory was not failing, I returned to the writings of the veteran Australian commentator, Labor strategist and opinion pollster Peter Lewis to check.

In the immediate aftermath of the election, Lewis set out what he saw as the basis of the Labor leader Anthony Albanese’s unique appeal. “Under an Albanese government,” he explained, “neighbours seem reassured, allies embraced, differences moderated rather than weaponised.” The new prime minister’s style represented a “tangible change in the national climate”, with an end to the “performative cruelty” associated with the populist conservatism that he had ousted and its replacement by a spirit of calm, open-minded competence and a desire to stick to the facts.

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Albanese, Lewis concluded, “has gifted us a unifying project to all lean into”. It was “a one-in-a-generation opportunity to restore civility to the Australian discourse”.

None of this had come about by chance, nor was it simply motivated by a naive desire to be nice. Albanese is not that kind of politician. Rather, it was the result of a careful political strategy that dated back to his assumption of the Labor leadership in 2019.

[See also: Australian Labor is showing what progressives can achieve in power]

As anyone who spoke to Albanese’s team back then should tell you, at the core of their strategy was a profound sense that voters had had enough of the lazy, divisive and dishonest politics of the past. The time had come to take the edge off the anger and instead to forge a careful consensus on everything from climate change to immigration.

This strategic instinct was reinforced by the desire to capitalise on the public trust in science that had characterised Australia’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic and by the need to protect Labor from any of the “culture wars” that its conservative rivals wished to wage. “Do your job,” Albanese taunted Scott Morrison on the first day of the election campaign when the right-wing Liberal leader sought to switch attention away from the everyday economic concerns of Australians and towards trans rights.

Sorting economic problems out, calmly, intelligently and directly, was what Albanese promised voters. His calculation was that this would always matter more than enabling people to vent their frustrations about cultural change. And at the same time he openly disdained any effort by the Australian Liberals to take politics back down into the gutter.

None of this is to say, of course, that Australian Labor did not attack Morrison, his record and his proposals. It wouldn’t be democracy, and especially Australian democracy, if it had not. There were attack ads, and they were aggressive. But they were based on Morrison’s record on the core issues that Albanese wanted to address and they focused, most of all, on the Liberal leader’s inability to address the economic troubles of our time.

Most of all, Albanese had a clear brand during that campaign. It was a brand that emphasised open-mindedness, evidence, collaboration, civility and a resolute focus on the everyday economy. It was a brand that worked for him. And it is a brand that could still work for Keir Starmer too.

[See also: Keir Starmer’s international inspiration]

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