The Labor Party needs more Graham Richardsons and fewer Karl Bitars, irrespective of whether Julia Gillard or Tony Abbott is commissioned to form the next government.

Bitar was interviewed by Laurie Oakes on Today on Sunday. The ALP national secretary was in denial mode. He declared one of the challenges the ALP had to overcome was “this high expectation”, especially in Queensland, that Labor was going to win. According to this line, electors who supported Gillard voted for the Coalition “to give us a kick or send us a protest vote”.

How about that? The ALP national secretary’s explanation for Labor’s disastrous result is that voters supported the Coalition only because they thought Labor would win. Bitar told Oakes that “there’s a lot of people waking up this morning thinking … ‘Did I do the wrong thing yesterday?’ ”

How does he know this – especially since when he made the comment many Australians had not woken up for the day? He doesn’t. Bitar just made it up.

On Wednesday, Richardson – who served as a minister in the Hawke Labor government – addressed a function in Sydney. He was reported as having said he has “always been a supporter of Tony Abbott” and described the Opposition Leader as “a bright guy”. Earlier in the campaign, Richardson acknowledged that Abbott had an appeal among lower socio-economic Australians in the outer suburbs and regional areas.

The wisdom of this assessment can be found in the swings to the Coalition in Queensland, NSW, Western Australia and the Northern Territory.

Richardson’s opinion was a minority one within the ALP. The majority position turned on the conviction that Abbott was an erratic extremist who happened to be unelectable. This belief motivated Labor from the time Abbott defeated Malcolm Turnbull for the Liberal leadership in December to the decision to overthrow Kevin Rudd and on to election day itself.

On Channel Nine’s election night coverage, the Labor parliamentary secretary Bill Shorten maintained that Abbott was part of “the Second XI of the John Howard team”.

Can you believe it? In just nine months as Opposition Leader, Abbott’s political tactics contributed to a Labor panic that saw Rudd junked for Gillard. Then Abbott’s campaign ensured, at the very best, Gillard may lead a minority government.

This although no first-term government has lost office in Australia since 1931 and Australia probably has the strongest economy among Western nations. Only someone in serious denial would believe Abbott underachieved in the campaign.

In this election, the voice of the voters invariably carried greater weight than the analysis of many experts. This was evident in the success of the Sky News people’s forums held at the Rooty Hill RSL Club in Sydney and the Broncos Leagues Club in Brisbane. It was evident when the views of voters were reported. Take Anne Fay, a Victorian farmer, who complained about the waste in the Building the Education Revolution program. She told The Australian: “We are farmers out here. If we ran our business like the government ran the BER, we would not be here.”

Then there was Paul Murphy, a small businessman from Illawong. Responding to claims that Abbott worried feminists, Murphy wrote to the Herald about the young women he has employed for more than two decades. He said they were primarily “concerned with conceiving, managing work and kids and running households”. Murphy wrote that most of the women in the outer suburbs of his acquaintance “have strong circles of friends and generally hold ‘old-fashioned views’ “.

The left-wing community action group Get Up! ran advertisements against Abbott advising women not to vote for the Coalition. Millions of women rejected this advice. And millions of men and women failed to respond to warnings from the likes of Professor Robert Manne and the author Paul Collins that Abbott did not deserve support because he is a conservative Catholic. This used to be called sectarianism.

The inner-city intelligentsia could not understand the Opposition Leader’s appeal and the likes of Bitar believed what they wanted to believe. But whatever the outcome of the election, Abbott’s achievement has been substantial.