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
‘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.
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