The Dirty Business Of Winning Votes Begins


And so it begins…

The 2013 federal election campaign kicks off with the major parties running neck and neck. Most polls have Labor, the Coalition and the Greens sitting at 39, 44 and 9 per cent respectively. This puts Labor and the Coalition very close to parity in two-party preferred terms – if it’s not 50-50, then it’s 49-51 with the Coalition slightly ahead. Had an election been held this weekend, voters would most likely have returned another hung Parliament.

The coming campaign will thus be as competitive as any in recent decades, with the final result likely to hang on a few votes in a few marginal seats. The Ruddmentum is with Labor, but the Coalition has been working toward this campaign for three years. It still has powerful forces championing its cause – including the Murdoch newspapers, which signaled their intent with the Daily Telegraph’s lurid anti-Labor headline today. 

Now that the shadow boxing is over, the hard and dirty business of winning votes has begun in earnest. As in any election, the ground campaign in marginal seats will be crucial. Much has already been written about the crucial role that Queensland will play in the campaign. Labor simply must win back a swag of seats in the Sunshine State if it has any hope of retaining government.

But there are marginal seats all over the country, and there is no magic formula for putting 76 members on the floor of the House of Representatives. Alongside traditional bellwethers in western Sydney and outer Melbourne, there will be closely fought races in the suburbs of Adelaide and Perth, as well as the regional centres of Tasmania.

All other things being equal, federal elections are generally fought on federal issues and respond (or don’t respond) to federal campaign tactics and advertising. But in politics as in other walks of life, those other things never are equal, and marginal seat voting patterns will reflect a complex overlay of local, state and federal concerns.

The Coalition retains an advantage in old media, with the big guns of the tabloid press lining up against the government. But many think Labor’s social media and micro-targeting tactics are better, having brought on a couple of Obama campaign gurus for precisely this task. Labor also has a considerable advantage in the form of Kevin Rudd himself, consistently one of the biggest stars of Australian social media.     

Of course, in these days of permanent campaigning, you might ask why we bother with a formal campaign period at all. The answer is partly constitutional. With the Prime Minister’s trip to see the Governor-General and the dissolution of Parliament, the government enters the so-called “cartetaker period” in which major policy decisions are not meant to be taken. In this respect the election campaign is still important, if only because it denies the ruling party the full resources of government for the last month leading up to election day.

Election campaigns also have meaning for ordinary voters, many of whom only tune in to the political process in the weeks leading up to the ballot. While it’s true that voting intentions are shaped by preceding months and years, political parties take campaign periods seriously because they know that this is a rare window when citizens are actually paying attention to politics. As we saw in the US presidential elections, campaign gaffes and debate performances can have a meaningful impact on the final outcome.

We saw another aspect of the caretaker convention late last week, with the government in particular racing to finalise a number of economic and social policies before Kevin Rudd made his call on Quentin Bryce. The result was something of a house-cleaning exercise for both major parties.

On Friday, far too late in the week for the major media organisations to give it effective scrutiny, the Government delivered an “economic statement” that was effectively a mini-budget. New Treasurer Chris Bowen had the now-traditional task of explaining that taxation revenue was much lower than expected, thereby blowing another multi-billion dollar hole in the budget forecasts.

The new forecasts (which most of us have stopped paying attention to) have the budget deficit remaining deep in the red until 2016-17, with this year’s deficit now at $30 billion in underlying cash terms. The economy was also forecast to be weaker than expected, with unemployment now thought to head above 6 per cent sometime next year. To help raise some extra revenue, Bowen announced a big new slug on smokers, which he defended in terms of its undeniable public health benefits.

The usual charade of debt and deficit scare-mongering from Joe Hockey followed, but much of the negative reaction was overshadowed by the calling of the election on Sunday afternoon. As a result, today’s media cycle is being led by the campaign itself, rather than Labor’s economic management. Mark down the first tactical victory of the campaign to Labor’s war room, led by veteran operative Bruce Hawker.

The Coalition was also taking out the rubbish, with Tony Abbott announcing a sizable backflip on schools funding reform. Abbott has decided to back key aspects of the government’s Gonski reforms, although not to the full amount and not with the same guarantees of matched funding from the states and territories. Given the Opposition’s longstanding opposition to the entire Gonski process, led vociferorously by Education spokesperson Christopher Pyne, the backflip is undoubtedly a tactical ploy. But it has value for the Opposition by enabling it to claim it will increase funding, while still retaining local control of schools.

The major parties thus enter the campaign in surprising agreement on a number of previously divisive issues. On asylum seekers, for instance, the government has so successfully raced the Coalition to the bottom, the main difference between the two parties is the level of cruelty they can inflict on seaborne refugees. On education and the NBN, the Coalition has also moved closer to the government’s position. As for other key Coalition policies, like health … well, we’re still waiting.  

The biggest difference between the parties in policy terms thus remains economic management, with the Coalition continuing to promise deep cuts to government spending in what can only be described as a policy of austerity. In contrast, Labor continues to try and balance economic growth with fiscal responsibility, despite the pain the constant budget downgrades are causing.

Labor remains vulnerable on the issue of economic management, particularly with recent data showing the economy to be slowing. But the Coalition has so far proved woefully incapable of getting its sums to add up. If Joe Hockey and Andrew Robb can mount a better effort than their dismal showing in 2010, Chris Bowen and Kevin Rudd might have some difficult weeks ahead. 

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.