Opinion/Comment, Politics

“Oakeshott in – Nats win. Confirmed.”

At the NSW Australian Labor Party NSW Conference at the Sydney Town Hall, I was lining up with other delegates to vote for the various ballots for office As it happened, I was standing in the queue with Anthony Albanese.

By Andrew Woodward, Labor candidate for Cowper in the 2019 federal election

Did Rob Oakeshott make several costly strategic errors in the recent federal election?

‘Albo’ and I got to talking about Cowper. I said I was looking to run in Cowper and Albo snapped back “Cowper! We can win Cowper!”. Albo’s view was based on his witnessing of the lacklustre performance of Luke Hartsuyker over nearly two decades of representation. I agreed. He asked about ‘Rob Oakeshott’, who straight after the 2016 election said he was running in 2019.

I explained to Albo that Rob Oakeshott can’t win Cowper. He asked why. I explained he had a ‘problem’ with Labor and Green voters, as proven by the results in the previous election. In  2016, 22.6 per cent of Labor voters preferenced the Nationals ahead of Rob Oakeshott. In the same election, 13 per cent of Green voters preferenced the Nationals. Had Rob got all Labor and Green preferences in 2016, just over 5,000 votes, he would have won the seat by just over 700 votes (50.7% to 49.3%). The actual result saw him drop short by 2,357 votes (45.4% v 54.6%).

Rob’s strategy for the 2019 election was to try and win National’s voters. This was the wrong strategy. Our view was that if wanted to win, he had to get all Labor and Green voters to preference him and for there then to be a nationwide swing to Labor. As it turns out, we were right.

How do we know this was Rob’s strategy? He told us.

Rob spent most of 2018 playing silly word games with the media on if he was running again in 2019 (even though in September 2016 he said he was running again in 2019). We knew he was running. He told us so at a private meeting in August 2016.

We (not me but an authorised representative of the Cowper Labor campaign) met with him to say we didn’t believe he could win because he had a problem with Green and Labor voters. Our view was “Oakeshott in – Nats win”. A member of Shadow Cabinet also left a message with him to discuss our thinking. That call was never returned. It should have been.

He could have saved himself a lot of time and money and opened the door to the possibility of real change. With the polls running as they were at the time (just prior to Malcolm Turnbull’s demise), we were of the view of Labor had the best chance of winning Cowper. In effect, we tried to talk him out of running because we knew he would lose. If he didn’t run, we thought Labor had a fair shot at the seat.

We didn’t keep our views to ourselves. On the day Rob was meant to officially announce his candidacy in December last year, I wrote “Rob Oakeshott’s entry into the race only increases the likelihood of the Nationals retaining Cowper. If it comes down to a race between the Nationals and Mr Oakeshott, it is highly likely the Nationals will win.” We said it to the Greens, community groups, indeed anyone who would listen. The message didn’t get back to him and if it did it was ignored.

Rob eventually entered the race in January this year. He supported the Liberals and Nationals in opposing Labor’s plans on Franking Credits reform. He wouldn’t support voluntary assisted dying. He wouldn’t support the restoration of penalty rates for 10,000 plus impacted workers in Cowper. He wouldn’t rule out supporting a minority coal-loving climate change denying Liberal-National Government. He wouldn’t do any of this as he didn’t want to upset people who would potentially switch from the Nationals to himself. He was wrong. He should have. He might have won again, had he not shot himself in the foot (I will come to that shortly).

So, what happened in 2019? Rob lost more on the left:

  • Twenty-seven per cent of Labor voters preferenced the Nationals over Rob Oakeshott – an increase of four per cent percentage points on 2016
  • Thirteen per cent of Greens voters preferenced the Nationals over Rob Oakeshott – an increase of three percentage points on 2016
  • About 6,000 votes went from Labor and Green voters to Nationals – bypassing Rob – up from around 5,000 in 2019
  • In 2019, Rob needed an extra 3,584 votes to win (up from 2,357 in 2016)
  • Two-party-preferred moved from 54.6% v 45.4% in 2016 to 56.8% v 43.2% in 2019 – a swing of 2.23 % to the Nationals. 

Things get interesting in 2019 if you look at what would have happened had Rob got all of the Labor and Green preferences. He still would have dropped just short, 51 per cent to 49 per cent. He would have still needed another 1,002 votes to get over the line. But he could have.

As mentioned, he also shot himself in the foot, twice. For the first few weeks of pre-polling, Rob issued a ‘how to vote’ leaflet with a “1” next to his name and Asterix next to other squares on the ballot paper. This left some voters thinking they only had to vote 1 for Oakeshott as to cast a valid vote. He then compounded the error a week or two later, issuing another how to vote with only five squares but all numbered next to fictitious names when in fact there were eight candidates. It was madness.

What did this crippling piece of communications do? It did just that. It crippled him. The informal vote in Cowper was up 2.63 per cent in 2019 compared to the national average increase of 0.48 per cent. In raw numbers, we’re talking 3,285 votes.

Andrew Woodward

Had Rob chased the Labor and Green voters, instead of Nationals voters, and not stuffed up his two botched attempts at how to votes, he may have won. Instead, he chased the National vote and was weak on progressive issues. He then shot himself not once, but twice, with confusing how-to-votes.

The phrase “a game of inches” comes from games played with horseshoes although these days it has been co-opted by sports. It is relevant in politics too.

Labor’s Susan Templeman won Macquarie, in Sydney’s Blue Mountains, by 371 votes after the lead agonisingly changed over the two weeks between election day and when the counting was completed. She eventually won. Susan won the seat by inches.

In Cowper, Rob lost by feet when he could have won by inches. By ignoring unambiguous data and then running, choosing the wrong strategy and delivering poor communications at a critical time, it was always going to be “Oakeshott runs – Nats win” and we are the poorer for it.


2019 AEC Tally Room


2019 preferences split


2016 AEC Tally Room


Andrew Woodward December 2018 News Release



  1. Hal Pearce

    Interesting Andrew but past history. Niether you or Rob was going to win this election we just had. It just was not the time. Labor made many mistakes not helped by scare tactics and $50m by Clive Palmer.So i think it is time to look forward(forget about Mr Oakshot) and make sure Labor does not repeat the same mistakes and not give conservative forces the amunition to scare the public again. If you are to stand again,i wish you the best of luck and i hope you win. But whoever stands for Labor will need a much higher profile than you had last time.The Nationals do that very well and anyone wishing to win against them needs to beat them both in profile and publicity.

  2. Cheryl Cooper

    How much do you blame yourself for National getting in Andrew? Serious problem when you spent most of your time bagging Rob rather than the Nats which created the very weird situation where Nats were placed second against Labor. Talking now to many scrutineers and looking booth by booth it is clear that Rob’s HTV was NOT to blame but sadly I feel your ego was. A look at past stats made it clear Labor could not win but Rob had every chance. Sadly the sear and fear from you and the Nats both at Cowper and Federal level saw us lose the opportunity for a great new MP. I am afraid Andrew that you will never be MP for Cowper, with or without Rob standing.

  3. Andrew Woodward should go back under the rock from whence he emerged. The fact is that after 18 months of telling us how great he is, and 5 months of telling us how awful Oakeshott was, Woodward got less votes for the ALP than the well-meaning but clueless candidate the ALP ran in 2016. He is a nasty, egotistical piece of work and will NEVER be elected to anything.

  4. Marie Moran

    I completely agree with Cheryl Cooper. Cowper is rusted on National Party. To vote Labor would be a step too far at this stage for Cowper. Forward thinking and in the hope of a better future for Cowper a Independent is the only way to go. Sadly I doubt that person will ever be Rob Oakeshott. A missed great opportunity.

  5. Rob Oakeshott did his best to say he could deliver as an Independent. He couldn’t. He tried to be all things to progressives while appealing to National Party voters. Having no preferences on his How To Vote didn’t work. People saw this strategy as bland and opportunistic. This electorate is more progressive than it culturally thinks it is. Labor reached 42% of first preference votes in the Kevin 07 election. It sits firmly in the middle of the political spectrum on Vote Compass, so why would you ever pander to the right?
    PS if you really want action on climate change and rising inequality the Westminster system demands that a political party takes office. You have to be inside the party of government if you want to get nice things done. It’s easier to make despair convincing than it is to ask what actually makes us better. This is our media, our society and our politics. Rob undermined the Labor vote because people voted for his personality but Labor sure had a load of good policy.

  6. Fruit bats are killing Nambucca

    I think Andrew you’re better off behind the camera than in front of one. I too hope for change in Cowper but it will have to be a better effort than this time.

  7. Jennifer Andren

    The targeted prolific campaign by the Nats was as effective in COWPER as it was across the Nation. The attacks on Labor by the Greens, GetUp, ON and AUP gave the Libs and Nats a free run. Oakeshott made mistakes, Labor made mistakes but Nats ran a very effective campaign targeting individuals and groups information. .. albeit lies, pork barrelling promises, misinformation and disinformation. They used every means possible… letters, emails, flyers, posters, robo-calls and word of mouth. Neither Labor or Oakeshott could compete against the backing of mining moguls, banks and big business, churches and retirees or groups with vested interests. For an electorate with high unemployment, low income levels and a high reliance on good medical care it’s hard to see any ratioal reason for contined support of Coalition for the well-off. .. but that’s what happens!

  8. Sorry Andrew but there was no way you were going to win Cowper the way you campaigned, even the National parachuted a past Liberal party member from Sydney into the seat & won it. It took the last decent candidate the ALP ran many years of hard work & putting himself out there to get known before he almost won in 2007. If you intend to run again, take a lesson out of his book get out & do stuff for the community without any expectation of what’s in it for you, ‘just like he did’ & maybe next time you will be better received.

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