“We need to remind ourselves how to talk to the base, which is not inner city,” Bowen says in an interview.
“If you look at the election, wealthy areas swung to us and poorer areas swung away from us.
“When you consider our agenda was fairly redistributive, that’s pretty extraordinary.
“So we’re obviously not communicating with that part of society who would be natural Labor supporters if we were talking the right language to them.”
Labor gained voters where it needed them least, such as the wealthier electorates of Goldstein in Melbourne and North Sydney in NSW. It lost voters in “battler” areas like Bowen’s seat of McMahon, where there was a 3 per cent swing to the Liberals and 8 per cent support for Pauline Hanson’s One Nation.
Bowen, 46, went to Smithfield Public School and the local state high school before studying economics at the University of Sydney, becoming the mayor of Fairfield in 1998 and entering federal Parliament in 2004.
That background makes income inequality one of his priorities.
“There’s rising concern about income inequality and there’s a hunger to do something about it,” he says.
He believes Labor should have a policy review that allows a “blank canvas” to put every idea up for debate.
“I stand for growth, economic growth and government intervention to improve opportunity. I stand for a progressive society. I class myself as broadly socially liberal, sensibly of the centre on most social issues,” he says.
“I’m a person who is pretty much in the Hawke-Keating mould and doesn’t mind taking on big reform.”
On climate change, he wants a “robust” policy but says there is room to review the position Labor took to the election.
“We’ll have to recalibrate all our policies, but I think there’s a real hunger for action on climate change, not just among the young,” he says.
“And we will need to have a robust climate change policy. It comes back to not walking away from core beliefs. Reviewing policy, sure, but not walking away from core beliefs.”
The Adani coal mine, which appears to have lost Labor votes in central Queensland, is one area where he wants a new stance.
“I think we need a clear position,” he says. “I would convene shadow cabinet. I don’t think it was an attempt, frankly, to say one thing in Melbourne and another thing in Brisbane, I just think our message was too muddled on it.
“Whatever we decide, I’d adopt a clearer position.”
As a leader of the Right faction, Bowen puts himself forward against Anthony Albanese, a longstanding leader of the Left from the inner west of Sydney.
But his message is about a practical change to Labor strategy more than any call to move from one point on the political spectrum to another.
He says it is a “work in progress” to determine how much of the election result was a backlash from voters on policy and how much was the result of poor campaign decisions.
“No doubt we were out-campaigned in terms of advertising, and to be fair to us we were up against $80 million worth of Clive Palmer money that was aimed directly at us at the end,” he says.
“And it was fundamentally dishonest – about $1 trillion of Labor taxes and all of that. And we paid the price for that.
“The Liberal advertising was good and there was more of it, so we do need to reflect on all those things – it’s not just about policy, it’s about tactics and strategy as well.”
David Crowe is Chief Political Correspondent for the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.