What are we to make of this campaign – easily the most interesting and least predictable since 1975?
Conventional wisdom had it that Labor was weak on national security, economic management and leadership, but was strong on a range of domestic issues – especially health, education and the environment. Punditry concluded the former would easily beat the latter and the bookies, markets and taxi drivers concurred.
At the half way point of this campaign conventional wisdom is rewriting the rule book: Labor is losing the domestic issues but winning or defusing the Liberal strengths.
This is an extraordinary development and most experienced observers, perplexed at the contrariness of the campaign, are reluctant to call this one yet.
With the first third of the campaign so dominated by dramatic international terrorism in Russia and Jakarta and by a hypocritical government milking the situation for all it was worth, many in the Labor camp were prepared to throw in the towel and concede to Mr ‘Steady Hand on the National Tiller’.
But thanks to a stellar debating performance, redirection of the cut and run line, and a dispassionate but electorally astute judgement about the need for regional rather than Middle Eastern security priority, Mark Latham has largely defused the government’s big issue of national security.
Beazley and Latham are even attacking Howard from the right on security and as each day goes by Latham is ever more hardline (most recently, a bigger army under Labor).
Labor may yet be found wanting on the overarching issue of voter confidence in an experienced leader on a very big security issue, but at the tactical level Labor is winning the hand-to-hand campaign combat on national security.
In addition, Labor was supposed to be beaten to a pulp over economic management. The party was extremely vulnerable on interest rates – especially in the seats that matter, but the Liberals fired their best shots too early and the issue is running out of steam.
It is Labor preaching whiter-than-white fiscal discipline, and it is Labor, against the advice of many conservative economists, sticking to budget surpluses in times of recession. And it is Labor vociferously cracking down on some aspects of middle class welfare to the extent of picking up losers along the way. Both sides are dishing out economic bribes – but the Liberals are doing it big-time.
And what about the other key Liberal strength: the calm, resolute, experienced leader versus the erratic maddie who could not possibly last a six week campaign without imploding?
Contrarian rules win again. After an initial period following his attaining the leadership, where Mark Latham captured the electorate’s imagination with an array of values based messages, he retreated for a long hibernation where the one time maestro morphed into just another politician. Latest indications are, particularly after the hugely significant tv debate, that a re-energised Latham is back with cut-through relevance and broad appeal.
John Howard may yet be right: Latham may turn feral and step over the fine line between feistiness and sour stroppiness, but at this stage he is grabbing the voters’ attention and is out-campaigning Howard. (Early days however, as far as this writer is concerned.)
So if Labor is winning or drawing on its Achilles Heel issues, why is it still behind? Newspoll has Labor suddenly jumping to a 5% point preferred vote lead. This is nonsense, although Labor is certainly gaining momentum after a very poor campaign start. Its start was poor because contrarian rules deemed Labor lost its issues of supposed dominance.
John Howard outmanoeuvred Labor on Medicare and Tony Abbot is managing to keep a straight face by repeating his mantra of the Liberals being the true friend of Medicare. This fellow could sell the Sydney Harbour Bridge but he is getting away with it and Labor’s great trump – bulk billing – is an issue of reduced significance.
Labor’s big domestic policy pronouncement, the tax-family package, was a policy winner but a marketing shambles. Maybe Mark Latham can prove John Howard’s famous $600 illusory by campaign’s end, but he will have wasted so much valuable selling time that Pyrrhus would be acknowledging the effort. This policy is still a big potential plus for Labor, but it will not sell itself.
Even the environment, long positioned as a big Labor strength is being neutralised. Ignoring the arcane machinations of preference deals with the Greens, Labor’s hold on this issue in the key marginals is softening. Bob Brown, contrary to compliant media reporting, has watched the issue slip in salience in recent years. Much of what is left of the environment issue is the soft side (suburban ‘niceness’, anti-development, housing prices, opposition to old growth logging from the vistas of Mosman and Toorak). Labor’s lead on this issue is small.
The final killer domestic issue for Labor was education. Unlike the tax policy, it may be an issue that does sell itself because Labor is getting traction despite its marketing. The policy’s release, dominated by hit lists, organised talkback opposition and bad headlines was not what Labor would have wanted. The champions were scarce and the public school lobbies and teacher unions – in true dog-in-the-manger outlook – largely sat on their hands while 95% of the electorate tried to work out why they didn’t like the policy.
Just as well Labor had the bumbling headmaster of The Kings School to act as its de facto salesman.
So in this contrarian campaign Labor has confounded most by winning its weaknesses and losing its strengths. Labor’s campaign is at last showing signs of greater professionalism, and with a resurgent Latham pushing a sellable product the result is not clear.
John Howard’s team would still be confident but a tad nervous.
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