Calls for Bitar’s head after ‘inept’ campaign

The former NSW premier Morris Iemma has publicly repudiated Labor’s federal campaign director Karl Bitar, saying if he had a ”conscience” he would hand his resignation to the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard.In a blistering attack on Labor’s five-week campaign, Mr Iemma described it as ”the most inept in living memory” salvaged only by the ”personability and ability of Gillard”.”Labor booth workers and Labor supporters to a man and woman agree that it was the worst campaign they can recall … It is not for Julia Gillard to ask for Karl Bitar’s resignation, it’s for him to have a conscience and offer it up,” Mr Iemma said, publicly stating sentiments that a number of senior insiders have voiced privately.Mr Iemma was dismissive of Mr Bitar’s attempts on Channel Nine yesterday to blame Labor’s poor performance on anti-Gillard leaks in the second week of the campaign.Mr Bitar said the leaks, which targeted Ms Gillard for questioning pension rises and allegedly reneging on a deal with the former Labor leader Kevin Rudd, wiped 10 points off Labor’s vote.But Mr Iemma said Mr Bitar was failing to show ”contrition”.”No amount of spinning, no amount of fakery about his research can save him,” the former premier said.Mr Bitar said the remarks were unfortunate coming from someone who played no role in the campaign.The bitterness between the pair stems from Mr Bitar’s former role as a general secretary of the NSW ALP who helped end Mr Iemma’s premiership.However a number of senior party figures contacted yesterday shared some of Mr Iemma’s criticisms.Among the weaknesses they cited was failure to offer voters a clear strategic vision, frequent switching between messages, the failure to bring Mr Rudd into the campaign earlier, and an over-reliance on narrowly based questions put to focus groups in marginal seats.”I don’t think it was a disastrously executed campaign, I think it was a very ordinary campaign run by people used to running state elections,” said one party veteran.Several internal critics accused Mr Bitar and his mentor, Senator Mark Arbib, of setting up a ”closed loop” of advice inside Labor’s national headquarters, where dissenting voices were not welcomed.Senator Arbib and Mr Bitar hail from the NSW party office in Sussex Street. Mr Bitar took over the top campaign job after the national director Tim Gartrell resigned in 2008.He became determined to put his own stamp on Labor’s campaign team, party observers say. He alienated Neil Lawrence, who had masterminded the winning Kevin07 advertising campaign, by asking other advertisers to bid for the ALP account.When Mr Lawrence left as a consequence, Mr Bitar said it was because he could no longer afford him on a tight budget. But many in Labor believe the party’s TV advertising suffered as a result, failing to sell its achievement in warding off mass unemployment after the global financial crisis.Mr Bitar also edged aside Tony Mitchelmore, the pollster who had worked closely with Mr Lawrence and Mr Gartrell on the 2007 campaign.Instead, Mr Bitar took the polling work to research company UMR but is said to have personally written detailed guidelines and the questions for grilling focus groups.This, the critics claim, resulted in a small-minded federal campaign which lacked a compelling national narrative.The mixed messages, said one insider, were like ”the pearls without the string. It doesn’t make a necklace. The missing string was a strategy.”Perhaps the worst mistake, in the eyes of some, was failing to reach a pact with Mr Rudd before the campaign started. It appears Labor’s campaign directors grossly underestimated voters’ lingering resentment about Mr Rudd’s political execution.An uneasy rapprochement between Ms Gillard and Mr Rudd was finally reached in the third week of the campaign after intense diplomacy by Senator John Faulkner. But by then the damage had been done.
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