A listless campaign finally delivered some engagement last night, at a town hall debate in Brisbane where Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott took questions from ordinary voters. Rudd prevailed comfortably, while Abbott stumbled with a snipe at Rudd’s verbosity. But will it be enough?
The Government is on long odds to win on 7 September. Labor and Rudd have shuffled through the campaign to date, rolling out a string of small announcements but failing to weave together a larger narrative that explains why they deserve a third term. In contrast, the Opposition under Tony Abbott has stayed disciplined. Abbott has stuck to the basics: simple slogans and manufactured media opportunities. His tactics are about defending a lead. Still behind in the polls and apparently unable to win further territory in crucial swing seats, Labor looks headed for defeat.
This late in the campaign, the Government needs a game-changer that could reset the terms of the contest. While it will lift spirits among ALP faithful, last night’s debate wasn’t it.
That’s not to say it wasn’t a clear victory for Rudd. Unlike the first debate in front of the Canberra media, he looked rested and was well-briefed. He answered questions fluently and there was much less of the bureaucratic waffle that so often gums up his talking points. Perhaps the home ground in Brisbane helped him feel more relaxed.
Abbott was Abbott – cautious and at times defensive, but typically on-message and succinct. There was no knock-out blow, but there was a flash of Abbott anger, when he snapped at the Prime Minister, “does this guy ever shut up?” There were some nervous laughs from the crowd, but the moment was also shared around social media and replayed on the television news this morning. Of course, nothing can stop the Murdoch newspapers from attacking the Prime Minister.
It’s instructive that the exchange occurred during a discussion about costings. There’s no doubt Abbott is sensitive on the issue – as well he might be, given the knots Joe Hockey has tied himself in over the budget numbers. Rudd’s argument that the Coalition’s gold-plated paid parental leave scheme was “unfair and unaffordable” was a good one; the idea that millionaires will be entitled to $75,000 under the scheme is the sort of statistic that would ordinarily arouse howls of condemnation from the populist press. That is, if those newspapers weren’t comprehensively committed to an Abbott government.
On the policy particulars, we learnt little. A town hall debate was hardly the place for the Coalition to release detailed costings; understandably, they were not revealed. But Abbott did admit that the cut to company tax would cover only around half of the cost of the Coalition’s parental leave scheme, a point that Guardian has picked up on this morning.
The general tenor of the debate’s questions, especially on health care and the potential spending cuts of an Abbott government, played to Labor’s strengths. Rather late in the day, Labor is trying make health and education the centre of its campaign, but it’s not getting a lot of traction. This is despite the fact that the Coalition has no health policy to speak of, and its position on Gonski schools reforms is a pale simulacrum of the Government’s.
And that’s the broader problem for Labor. ALP campaign strategists still seem unable to settle on what Labor’s narrative should be. They are distinctly uncomfortable about many first and second term achievements, such as economic stimulus and pricing carbon. The National Disability Insurance Scheme, for instance, has barely been heard of. Extra funding for schools and hospitals, issues the ALP wants to highlight, have not been communicated particularly well.
Instead, Labor is going negative, doubling down on an anti-Abbott strategy that warns of the likely cuts to government services under a Coalition government. At this stage of the campaign, it’s probably Labor’s best hope, but also underlines their mixed message. What started as “a new way for the future” and a commitment to positive campaigning in contrast to the Coalition’s negativity, has descended into a traditional scare campaign about the GST, job losses and spending cuts. By going negative, the Government has more or less conceded the big picture policy agenda for its third term. Northern Australia, after school care and Medicare Locals don’t really add up to a coherent campaign.
It’s not as though Labor hasn’t had plenty of time and plenty of help to craft a reasonable message. Indeed, somewhere in the cubicles of Labor HQ, a reasonably good campaign message has emerged. If you scroll below the fold of Rudd’s Facebook page, you can find the germ of an excellent campaign slogan: “We build up, they tear down.” The video is basically a gee-up to long-suffering ALP volunteers, but it’s the best and clearest message I’ve yet heard from the Labor campaign. Why it’s not being put front and centre of Labor’s advertising is beyond me. “We have a battle-plan,” Rudd tells the 20-somethings in the video. One wonders if Labor is implementing it.
Whatever the interior reality of Labor’s campaign, the good showing by the Prime Minister in last night’s debate is clearly a shot in the arm. Rudd was out and about on the hustings today with a spring in his step, telling supporters in Geelong that “people have written me off before, I have a habit of coming back.” Labor will need that blind faith in Rudd’s ability to win elections. This far down with two and a half weeks to go, there’s not a lot else the ALP can cling to.
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