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Labor election review warns about risks in party’s ‘heartland’ seats

Labor needs to develop plans to address dissatisfaction among voters in some of its heartland seats, especially in outer suburban Melbourne, the party’s federal election review has warned.

It also should frame plans to improve outcomes in Queensland, to deal with its under-performance in Tasmania, and to retain the clutch of seats it won in Western Australia.

The review, titled Election 2022: An opportunity to establish a long-term Labor government, was chaired by former minister Greg Combet and Lenda Oshalem, a former party official in Western Australia. Other members were Linda White, a Victorian senator and Craig Emerson, a former minister.

It found that the unpopularity of Scott Morrison and his government was the “most significant” factor in the election result.

Despite the Morrison government’s unpopularity, Labor’s primary vote fell to its lowest level since 1934.

Contributing to this, the review says, were the long-term downward trend in the major parties’ primary vote, driven by declining trust in government, politics and politicians.

Other factors included:

  • tactical voters by Labor supporters, particularly where there were high-profile independents

  • Labor’s focus on Morrison’s shortcomings as a leader, and its small and tightly-targeted set of policies

  • the proliferation of minor party, Green and independent candidates

  • dissatisfaction with Labor in some heartland seats in Melbourne and Sydney

  • an anti-Labor swing in Tasmania.

“The election victory conclusively affirmed the Labor campaign’s strategic judgment to maintain focus on the Morrison Government’s negatives, and to present a more targeted set of policies, even if it may have moderated the primary vote,” the review concludes.

The success of Greens and teals in Liberal heartland seats, multiple Coalition losses in WA, and Labor’s loss of Fowler (contested by former senator Kristina Keneally) to an independent shows the “folly” of assuming some seats as safe, the review says.

Read more: What explained the seismic 2022 federal election? The Australian Election Study has answers

“The unusually disparate results in individual seats, regions and states reflect the political turbulence of recent years and the frustrations of many voters.

"While the results do not represent a permanent realignment of Australian politics, the loss of support for Labor in heartland areas, as evidenced once again in the recent Victorian state election, is cause for significant concern.”

The election saw a realignment for the Liberals, with voters in their traditional seats leaving them, benefiting Labor, the Greens and independents.

But while the Liberal party is in “its worst position since the 1946 election”, with the Coalition’s path back of office appearing difficult, “there is no room for Labor complacency”, the review says.

“It is reasonable to expect that the Coalition will target Labor-held outer-suburban and regional electorates – a strategy that Labor must anticipate and counter.

"The Review cannot overemphasise the importance of both federal and state Labor focussing on the delivery of demonstrable improvements for communities in areas of long-standing support for Labor. These communities must not be taken for granted.”

The review does point out that although Labor “experienced swings against it in some outer-suburban areas, some of the biggest swings to Labor were also recorded in outer-suburban and regional electorates”.

Read more: Labor retains big lead in Newspoll as Albanese's ratings jump; Victorian election update

Among its recommendations, the review makes specific reference to how China is spoken about. “While always uncompromisingly promoting and defending Australia’s national interests and Australia’s security, both major parties should avoid unnecessarily divisive and aggressive rhetoric towards China.”

Chinese Australians swung towards Labor, while Vietnamese Australians swung away from Labor in 2022. The latter “might partially be explained by the result in Fowler [where the successful independent was a Vietnanese Australian]. However, the correlation is still evident when Fowler is excluded from the overall results.”

The review says Morrison’s unpopularity was the result of:

  • failure to accept responsibility and show leadership during natural disasters

  • failures in the pandemic, on the vaccine rollout and the shortage of rapid antigen tests

  • politicisation of the pandemic through attacks on Labor governments and leaders

  • failure to empathise with women’s experience

  • failure to develop a credible climate policy

  • political dissembling and misleading

  • bellicose politicisation of the relationship with China.

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