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How? Why?

By Ad astra  

It’s not just Labor supporters who are asking these questions. Everyone is.

The polls are unable to provide an answer. They proved to have no predictive value. Psephologists explain that since pollsters have changed their sampling techniques in the face of changes to communications technology, they no longer harvest the representative sample that statisticians know is essential for accurate results. They may never recover their stature.

So how did an expected Labor victory turn into a such a discouraging loss? Why did it? Many have attempted to give answers. Here’s mine.

Mind you, the Morrison win is being termed a ‘miracle’ only because the LNP, as judged by the opinion polls and the betting markets, was considered a rank outsider. There has been no massive change in the state of the parties such as would be seen in a ‘landslide’. The LNP has gained four seats and Labor has lost four. The percentage of the vote received by all the major parties is down. One Nation and the United Australia Party have taken up the slack. The raw figures show the ‘win’ is not so spectacular at all. Morrison will have to deal with the actual numbers. He will need lots of miracles to manage them.

As in all complex issues, there are always a variety of answers and a multiplicity of contributing factors. Distilling them into a few essentials runs the risk of over-simplification. But it needs to be done.

The voters of Australia, predominantly in Queensland, produced this result. Why was it so?

Clearly, they preferred what the Coalition had to offer over what Labor had.

So what did the Coalition offer?

Not all that much. It offered modest personal tax cuts for us all now, and large ones for high income earners in the future; it offered a budget surplus next year and subsequently; it assured us it would run a ‘strong economy’ that would support all the services we need; as usual, it promised ‘jobs and growth’; it allotted billions to ‘congestion-busting’ infrastructure in places where they thought it counted, notably the East-West road link in Melbourne and the Geelong fast train, and it assured us that it would keep us safe and our borders strong. Late in the campaign it floated one of its few-and-far-between policy initiatives, the First Home Loan Deposit Scheme to assist those buying their first home. Details were sketchy; criticism came from several quarters. It may never eventuate.

PM Morrison assured us over and again that ‘if we had a go, we’d get a go’. He urged us to be ‘aspirational’: to seek work, meet someone amazing, start a family, buy a home, start up a small business and save for our retirement. He assured us that the rewards would flow. He reminded us that ‘he was on our side’, and would ‘burn for us every day’! He was a master of ‘feel-good’ messages. They resonated. He was equally adept at heavily negative messages: ‘Labor will give you higher taxes, more debt, and a weaker economy’, a ‘Retirement Tax’, and a ’Death Tax’ – just a few of the negative slogans that will stick in our memory.

But what else did he offer?

You heard him talk about cost of living pressures and inflated energy bills, but did you hear him offer a plan to reduce them? Did you hear one word about an energy policy? Were you made aware of his plans to get prices down? No, because he hasn’t got any.

He must have been aware of the increasing clamour for strong action on climate change. But did you hear him talk about his climate change policy, other than his platitudinous claims that they were on track to meet emissions targets ‘in a canter’, and reach Kyoto 20 and 30 targets easily. Did you hear him acknowledge the climate change emergency that scientists tell us about almost every day? No. You heard him talk about the need for a transition to renewables, but not about transitioning out of coal. He is as wedded to coal as ever. He had his Environment Minister approve Adani’s proposed groundwater safeguards just days before the election, thus giving the Adani mine a big tick.

Shorten highlighted the need to address climate change, as did the voters in Warringah and Indi with such verve, but lost out when he avoided giving an estimate of the cost of his climate policy. Voters saw his ”It’s more expensive to do nothing” as a cop out. Likewise, they regarded his promise to replace mining jobs with as least as many jobs in the renewables industry as hollow because he failed to provide any details.

Labor regularly highlights the gross inequality that afflicts our society, and the need to close the gap between the rich and the poor. We all know about the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’, but when did you ever hear government ministers refer to them, except to castigate Labor for waging ‘class war’ against ‘the top end of town’? ‘Inequality’ is not in the lexicon of the LNP.

For years, economists and the Reserve Bank governor, as well as Labor spokespersons, have drawn attention to the issue of chronic wages stagnation. Workers languish year after year waiting for the largesse enjoyed by the business world to trickle down. They are still waiting. Did you hear anyone from the Coalition address this, except to say that an increase in wages is coming, and Treasurer Frydenberg hinting that it was already a fact? What we did hear though from Finance Minister Cormann was that keeping wages down was a deliberate government policy to support the economy!

The Coalition’s policies and plans are threadbare, as was described in The cupboard was bare. Morrison, who was almost the sole spokesmen because most other ministers were in ‘witness protection’, caressed the ears of voters with banal platitudes, reminiscent of the proverbial snake oil salesman. That’s not surprising – he started his public career as one.

While some voters might have found Morrison unacceptable, many accepted him as a ‘good bloke’, the common man in a baseball cap, ready to kick a footy or eat a sausage or drink a beer with the ordinary man. He carefully cultivated that ‘blokey’ image with his actions and words. He told us he was ‘speaking to the quiet people’, at home with the family, or at work. His jovial use of ‘How good is that?’ resonated. It was this homely image that voters carried into the voting booth.

Another factor that contributed to the outcome was the mainstream media, which consistently adopted an aggressive anti-Labor stance. Murdoch was out to Kill Bill and Labor. He succeeded!

Clive Palmer was another aggressive player. His blanket ads were all anti-Labor, and by gifting the Coalition his preferences, he helped them over the line in several seats. Where would the LNP have landed without Palmer? And what did he achieve? Nothing in the parliament, but his $60 million did secure his investment in his coal interests. That was always his intention.

What of Labor? What did it offer?

It offered Bill Shorten, who over the last six years has unified a talented team behind him, which was on full display during his campaign launch. He performed well in public debates, and in Q&A, which Morrison squibbed. But Shorten is still burdened with his Union background, and his history of aiding and abetting the overthrow of two Labor prime ministers. Although as a Union man he mixed well with workers, notably during the Beaconsfield mine tragedy, he seemed to be less at ease with the man in the street. He appeared ungainly, notably when taking his morning run. Somehow, he never achieved much popularity and was always behind his counterparts in opinion polls. He was said to be toxic in Queensland, possibly because of his ambivalent approach to the Adani mine, which was interpreted as a callous disregard for the employment prospects of Queenslanders.

Bob Brown made matters worse with his anti-Adani caravan that angered Queensland voters, who, like most of us, resent others telling us how to live our lives. GetUp was just as bad, and according to Peter Dutton and other Queensland LNP politicians, improved their vote.

Perhaps Shorten’s most telling drawback though was his inability to reduce to simple terms the complex legislative changes that Labor proposed. Changes to negative gearing, changes to capital gains on property and franking credits on investments are all difficult concepts to explain, yet were essential in raising revenue to fund Labor’s social policies: dental care for the elderly and subsidies to ease child care expenses. Laudable as these changes were, they were never explained in terms the man in the street could comprehend, and so they were easy to exploit by representing the revenue-raising component as taxes. What Shorten needed was simple yet memorable three word slogans, Abbott-style. We can still remember Abbott’s ‘Axe the Tax’, ‘Repay the debt’, ‘Stop the boats’, and ‘Stop the waste’. Chris Bowen, the author of the reforms, was of little help. His ‘If you don’t like our policies, don’t vote for us’ was ill-advised, even stupid.

Apart from its reform agenda though, Labor did offer bigger tax cuts, bigger surpluses, the closing of loopholes for the ‘top end of town’ a crack down on trusts and tax-avoiding multinationals, positive action on climate change, more renewables, cheaper power, a new ‘Jobs Tax Cut’, and a cluster of new wage, health, education, housing and infrastructure initiatives. The details are here.

Just as Tony Abbott represented a price on carbon as a ‘carbon tax’, and thereby killed the concept, Morrison represented Labor’s proposed reforms as a ‘Retiree Tax’, a ‘Housing Tax’, an ‘Investment Tax’, a ‘Family Business Tax’, a ‘Superannuation Tax’, a ‘Car Tax’, an ‘Electricity Tax’, and even as a ‘Death Tax’, which was never proposed. With the same ferocity that Abbott used the word ‘Tax’, Morrison was able to seriously damage Labor’s proposals. He augmented his attack with ‘Labor will hit you with $287 billion of new taxes’, ‘Bill Shorten will have his hands in your pocket’, and so on. These attacks resonated, as they were consistent with other Coalition memes: ‘Labor has a big taxing, big spending agenda’; ‘Labor wants to take your hard-earned savings from you.’

Morrison’s negativity was persistent. Every time he was asked a question he turned it against Labor. His scare campaign was relentless. Ministers that were let loose soon copied him, even although their utterances were as banal and untruthful as Morrison’s.

Labor strategists ought to have realized that such a ‘Tax attack’ was bound to occur, and should have taken steps to avoid it. They had no counter ready. Labor was unable to recover from Morrison’s repeated assaults.

In the future, political strategists will shrink from presenting a comprehensive reform agenda in advance of an election, knowing that it will be mauled by opponents, distorted, and turned into negative rhetoric. This election should teach planners that details of complex reforms are unlikely to be understood. We remember though that Bob Hawke and Paul Keating successfully introduced a complex reform agenda that reset our entire financial system to accommodate the global changes that were taking place. They, however, were able to explain what they were doing, and why. Contemporary Labor seems to lack the skills these doyens displayed.

Moreover, Labor seems unaware of the common human trait of self-interest. As Paul Keating said: ”In a two horse race, always back self-interest because at least you know it’s trying”. Self-interest motivated many voters to turn against Labor. They saw Labor’s proposals as taking something from them: refunds on franking credits, and the right to buy more than one property and negative gear. They were angry that what they regarded as ‘their rights’ were being ‘stolen’ from them. Self-funded retirees and family investors were so upset they took out their angst at the polling booth. Labor strategists should have been aware of this possibility and taken preventive action. They didn’t.

Another factor in this election is a common human trait: resistance to change. Many people, set in their ways, do not want to change, no matter how enticing the change might look. Morrison seemed well aware of this. His rhetoric reflected a ‘steady as she goes’ approach. He did not ‘frighten the horses’. His consistent message was that he would look after voters, keep the economy strong, and protect them from threats. To those who eschew change, his words were reassuring. Labor’s changes, exciting as they were to true believers, frightened the timid.

What can we glean from this analysis? Here is my assessment and a few suggestions.

Keep messages simple and memorable. Phrase them in the vernacular. Compose them carefully and then workshop them to distill out the most engaging language. Field test them and refine. Repeat them in the same form over and again. Use them like nursery rhymes that people can learn and repeat. ‘Mary had a little lamb’ will forever be in our memory. We might tire of hearing: ‘Jobs and Growth’, but we will never forget those irritating words. Morrison knew how potent they were, and how strongly they resonated with ‘working families’.

Avoid presenting complex concepts. Reform agendas need to be refined into a few catchy phrases. It’s counterproductive to argue that such an approach will ‘dumb down’ the voters. If it isn’t understandable and memorable, it’s a useless communication, which will be ignored, certainly forgotten. Being too smart by half is stupid. Good communicators can reduce complex ideas to simple words. Political parties needs to engage them.

Be aware that most people are resistant to change. Fashion communications in a way that promotes a ‘steady as she goes’ approach that doesn’t frighten the voters. Good communicators do this consistently.

Anticipate questions and problems that might be evoked by every piece of publicity, and have answers ready. Hesitation in responding is interpreted as ‘not knowing what you’re talking about’.

On a more personal level, engage experts to assess the habitual behaviours of members of the team so that adverse ones can be eliminated. In particular, assess their communication skills. Hide those that can’t do the job. Thoroughly train those who are assigned a public role. Impress on them the importance of building trust by connecting with voters, speaking their language, and understanding their views.

In short:

  • Keep it simple.
  • Speak plainly.
  • Use catchy slogans.
  • Field test them.
  • Repeat them often.
  • Select only top communicators.
  • Have ready answers to anticipated questions.
  • Offer benefits; don’t take them away.
  • Introduce changes slowly; fully explain their purpose.
  • Alter policy gradually.
  • Connect strongly with ordinary people; mix with them often, talk their language.
  • Build trust.
  • Don’t ‘frighten the horses’.

So there it is – my appraisal of ‘How’ and “Why’. I trust the suggestions I’ve made make sense. If they don’t, please tell me.

This article was originally published on The Political Sword.

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25 comments

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  1. Vikingduk

    All good points, Ad Astra, but when faced with a blatantly biased media, how will any message get a fair hearing. Also, overestimating the ability of most voters to listen and use what intellect they may or may not have to vote for the greater good for this society to flourish.

  2. Jack Cade

    First of all it was not a thrashing, unhappy as I am at the result. But I am unhappy at the untold damage these people can do to the very fabric of Australian society. Three years of a ‘mandate’ can wreak unimaginable harm to all of us. I look forward to the excuses when the ‘surplus’ doesn’t happen and we have a recession.
    The Adelaide Advertiser (I don’t read it!) is now reporting that the Downer filly is complaining that she was not elected by the suburban scum (my words but her father’s perspective) because of her gender. So…is Rebekah Sharkie a cross-dresser?

  3. Keitha Granville

    Exactly Vikingduk, if the media doesn’t ever tell people what the LNP is NOT doing, they simply keep on believing it is.
    Has there been a huge headline announcing that power prices rose the day AFTER the election ? No.
    Have there been reports of where all the Jobs n Growth have occurred ? No, because there aren’t any.

    The media is complicit in this election win, Labor may not have had catchy slogans, but I am a grownup and I managed to understand their story. It was all about fairness, sharing. The things we are taught in kindergarten. It’s not fair for me, you, and all those with brain cells that vast swathes of the country were incapable of understanding that without the vision outlined by Bill, this country is doomed. In my more uncharitable moments I hope no-one is employed by the big mines, and I look forward to the media reporting it.

  4. Phil Pryor

    What questions were asked by pollsters? What answers were offered and how were those processed and analysed? Something went wrong in a professional blunder here. The voters, ignorant or informed, have had a say, but that did not seem to assess future needs for the nation, planet, environment, future. It was the worst level of self focussed but benighted voting perhaps ever here. The biggest taxing, debt accumulating, lying, cheating, deceiving, greedy government has been returned to recommence its pillaging and pocking and self preferencing, with a cast of defectives, political perverts, rule-regulation-law exploiters and many insider gravy train leeches. So? If ALP policy and Shorten did not attract sufficient repressed voters on the day, despite predictions and polls and press intrusiveness, why would the peasants vote for self flagellation and short sightedness? Murdoch media muck from its maggoty misfits bears much blame. Indoctrination to bolster the Yankee Fuhrer of Filth will not stop revenue decline in media, but who cares??

  5. Andrew J Smith

    Agree, like watching ‘journalists’ letting LNP and related types off the hook while Labor people slow, naive or unprepared:

    ‘Labor strategists ought to have realized that such a ‘Tax attack’ was bound to occur, and should have taken steps to avoid it. They had no counter ready. Labor was unable to recover from Morrison’s repeated assaults.’

    Versus too many Australians acting like Americans, using the old trope about Germans ‘living to work’. Too many obsessed about material and/or financial aspects of life, welcome to success helped by our medium (NewsCorp +?) reinforcing radical right libertarianism using Conservatives, Christians, Nativists etc. as their praetorian guard.

  6. Aortic

    Headline Sheridan in the OZ. ” PM promised much but delivered nothing”. Thought he was talking about Morrison until realising he was referring to Theresa May. At least Hawkie wasn’t here to see it, that’s one consolation.

  7. Frances

    Get rid of Preferential voting system and bring in First Past the Post. I know there are pros and cons of each.

  8. Trevor

    Labor can win elections against the LNP. What they are unable to do is beat Murdoch, the media where truth goes to die.

    Fair dinkum Labor. Bowen is an effn dill telling voters to vote against Labor.

    Bill Shorten is forever saddled with knifing 2leaders, knifing the Labor rank & file over Albanese, and he is NOT a credible media performer, from his man boobs running to no idea about creating memorable slogans to get elected with.

    Labor strategists appeared asleep at the wheel.

    When you debate and never challenge the slurs, allegations and false stories, straight up LNP lies you loose. It’s as simple as that.

    Labor’s we won’t get in the gutter is defeatist claptrap of the highest order.

    Labor lost thru hubris and arrogance in the final week.

  9. Peter F

    @Frances: a ‘first past the post’ system would have put the Phone and UAP voters in the wilderness.

    They are to discover that this is where they will soon be enjoying the fruits of their ‘second choice’ LNP.

  10. Anthony Williams

    I think this is an excellent article by Ad Astra. I realise that the power of the biased (Murdoch-driven) media will be difficult to overcome but we must continue to strive for a fairer society that also contributes its fair share to overcoming global warming. Of course, that would be helped by Murdoch’s demise but we cannot rely on that: he will probably live past 100 y.o.! In summary, I think Ad Astra’s analysis & advice are excellent.

  11. helvityni

    “Select only top communicators.”

    Bill Shorten was not one of them.

    “Introduce changes slowly; fully explain their purpose.”

    Hopefully not TOO slowly, many Australians are not in favour of any change.

  12. pierre wilkinson

    It would appear that the policies presented by the Labor opposition did resonate with many people, even with some from the other side, but the unrelenting media megalith of negativity from Clive and Rupert’s constant dismissal of all things Labor whilst praising all things Liberal was enough to swing those that were undecided.
    A sad day for our country when voters turned against policies designed to assist them in their aspirations to embrace “more of the same” from the incompetence of the government.
    Now will they realise too late just what they have wished for has in fact not been what they were promised?
    Already there is talk of modifying super and pensions that are not assisting the government’s budget.
    Already electricity prices have risen.
    Already the mining companies are planning on fully automatising their projects.
    And the economy is flat and heading towards recession.
    But at least it will all be Labor’s fault, or the senates, or world economics but never theirs to own.

  13. Jack Russell

    Thoroughly formulate all the policies, then select three or four to campaign on. Put the seriously reforming ones in the “to enact when in government” cupboard … lock the door and, for goodness sake, shut up about them. The reins of power are the first requirement to achieving a.n.y.t.h.i.n.g!

    Then, proceed, much like Ad Astra’s suggestions. KISS will do the rest. It will be no hardship to select which policies to put out there as they’ll be the ones your ears on the ground have told you the people are gagging for … the give them things ones … not the remove things ones.

    Whatever they turn out to be, talk about nothing else. Make it a priority to NOT feed the packs of press piranhas. Say ONLY what you need to say, repeatedly, then walk away. Avoid being chum buckets. Rely heavily on carefully worded official written press releases, if necessary. The media are hostile, and will remain so, as they know a Labor government has serious plans to sort them out, the old man and his spawn in particular.

    The lived experience of the Sacred Morris Dancer’s bungling of our domestic economy, and the coming global headwinds, over next three years will be Labor’s friend.

    So, Labor, heads down, bums up, get busy!

    PS: And stop talking to the bloody MSM … they are screwing you over already, and it’s only the first week!

  14. Cheryl Bookallil

    A good article that critically analyses the election campaign. However, while saying that labour needed a counter strategy, the author does not provide any advice on what that should be. I would like to hear what three word slogan Ad Astra would choose that might neutralise the insistent and misleading “retiree tax” rhetoric.

    This was probably a “last ditch effort” to bring some fairness into our taxation system and stop the intergenerational theft….and so the inequality in our society widens. No party will ever have the courage to put forward progressive policies again in fear of Murdoch, Palmer, and other wealthy lobby groups derailing their chances for election. My heart cries for our country who, when presented with a positive reform agenda, voted only in their own self-interest.

  15. Kaye Lee

    Outstanding article. Thanks Ad Astra. I so agree.

    As I read through I thought of so many things I wanted to say to add to your appraisal. To say them all would be an essay of some length. You brought up so many important things.

    They should get advice on communication from teachers. We have to make things interesting and understandable for everyone and we have until bell-time to do it. And the results of our labours are continually assessed, not by what we put in or achieve personally, but on how well we can inspire and assist others to improve.

    I am speaking as someone who had to teach kids logarithms. I always wanted to be an actress. It helped.

  16. Stephengb

    So Ad Astra,

    Your summary is that the average Australian, really is as dumb as they present themselves.

    Yes

    How right you are!

  17. Ken Fabian

    Perhaps it was as simple as the potentially swinging voters wanting stability of government and being offered the instability of an ambitious program for change, with a strong old labor flavour. Not that I personally would not welcome some ambition like that, but I am not a swinging voter.

    I have some thought, not all consistent with each other, like that I think Shorten ended up not so much ambitious as ambiguous on climate and energy whilst on taxes, having ever more of the middle income and a few lower income people become beneficiaries, in small ways, of tax concessions like neg gearing lines their self interest up with the ones who benefit it big ways. In the face of a housing price slump that looked too much maybe.

    I see that with climate responsibility too – that because we are all shareholders in it we should be expected to grant blanket immunity from responsibility to the institutional shareholders, who are the major ones. Except that whilst most of us have limited choices if we want to reduce emissions and remain fully functional members of our society, those holding positions of power and influence, trust and responsibility can choose or not, have choices with much greater significance. I think they are negligent and failing their duties of care and due dilgence by turning aside from the expert science based advice and the immunity from responsibility they seek to entrench is on a whole other scale. And despite the sense I had that there was and is a groundswell of support for climate action I do wonder if there is also a growing sense that the transition away from coal domestically has a kind of inevitability to it now – and that is why it did not flow through as Labor votes.

    Why the polls got it wrong? I don’t really understand that. Perhaps a case of knowing better (saying you won’t vote for the LNP when polled) but doing it anyway (voting for a messy but familiar status-quo).

  18. Kronomex

    I do know that I’m getting sick and tired of seeing that persistent overbearing, arrogant, holier-than-thou,and all-knowing smirk from Scummo.

  19. Kaye Lee

    How good’s that smirk!

    Sorry Kronomex. I merged our angst.

  20. RosemaryJ36

    People are scared of change.
    Too many people accept falsehoods without fact checking.
    The insistence on ‘Preferred PM’ polls distracts from comparing policy platforms.
    More complex issues which primarily affect the wealthy should be held back until power is achieved.
    Ask ‘Do you already own negatively geared property?’ Answer ‘Yes’ response ‘You will not be affected by our suggested changes.’
    Ask ‘Do you receive an annual cheque for a refund of franking credits?’ Answer ‘No’ same response as above

  21. Zathras

    Rather than the “landslide” as described by the media there were actually primary vote swings away from both the ALP and the Liberals and a migration of votes to other parties – protest votes or the “none on the above” option.

    The reason the coalition were victorious was due to National party and Queensland LNP votes. There was also an increase (about 4.5%) in informal votes which suggests growing dissatisfaction of both sides.

    In real terms things are really much the same as they were before – the coalition picked up 2 seats, the ALP lost 2 seats and there is 1 more independent. That’s hardly a significant loss or colossal victory.

    There has been extensive (and sometimes hysterical) analysis but in the end it seems that fear, greed and self-interest always trump logic and fairness.
    Past elections were critical of the contrived “small target” approach but in this case it would probably have worked in the ALP’s favour.

    Ironically both the “retiree tax” and negative gearing were both addressed and flagged for future consideration by then-Treasurer Joe Hockey but the ALP never bothered to raise that fact.

    Shorten should also have been more precise and better targetted in his “big end of town” generalisation.

  22. Henry Rodrigues

    All the points and the advice are very accurate and true. But the biggest obstacle is the MSM media which almost to a man/woman is pro coalition. That as far as I can see is the main enemy of any change or progress in Australia. Will we be saddled with a coalition government forever ?? Its looks very possible right now. Am I being pessimistic, defeatist ? The ABC and SBS are now part and parcel of the coalition cheer squad. Do we have any other means to get Labor’s message across ?? These are rhetorical questions, the answers to which, are yet to found.

    I’d rather die fighting for what Labor proposed but I cannot, try as I might, see any light at the end of this long tunnel.The people are so greedy, stupid, self centered and easy to manipulate. We indeed need a ‘miracle’, if such things exist.

  23. Ad Astra

    Folks

    May I thank you all for your splendid contribution to this post, and for your kind remarks.

    Among you there is a strong consensus about the influence of the media’s anti-Labor stance, which combined with the Palmer ads, must have pushed many away from Labor. Labor needs to learn how to play the media rather than cringing as the media mauls it.

    Cheryl Bookallil, I agree that what is needed now is a set of good pro-Labor slogans. I’ll keep this in mind as Labor develops its policies to take to the next election. An article devoted to slogans that invites readers to contribute might be a useful way for pro-Labor bloggers to contribute to the Labor cause.

  24. David Bruce

    Labour lost because they lost the vote of the war veterans. I provided the evidence in a previous post. You can be assured that if you piss off the Australian war veterans, life will not be easy. Queensland now has a very large population of current service personnel and returned war veterans. Maybe it is something which can be measured in the next Census?

    As for the smirk, it makes ScuMo look more like a grubby cane toad eating a fly.

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