Odds Starting To Shorten As Labor Gets Nervous

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The 2019 election campaign has so far struggled to inspire, writes Ben Eltham. That’s a problem for Labor, because Labor needs inspiration.  

It hasn’t been much of a campaign so far, has it? While no-one with any familiarity with Australian politics would have expected a bold and substantive contest of ideas in this federal poll, the dumbed-down tone and the consistently insulting dynamic of much of the political debate must be disappointing to all but the most hardened of cynics.

As we observed last week, this election does indeed present a significant choice for voters, between a mildly progressive policy agenda set out by Labor and a deeply regressive and negative vision advanced by the Coalition.

With few genuine policies and a notable dearth of political charisma, the Coalition has run negative from the beginning, perhaps from necessity as much as design. Travelling in south-east Queensland last week, I was struck by the number of anti-Labor, anti-Shorten campaign billboards the Coalition is running. They are utterly negative, targeting Labor’s ‘retiree tax’ (there isn’t one, but whatever) and the ALP’s promises to deliver slightly less tax relief for high-income earners.

Negative campaigning is a time-honoured strategy. The Coalition clearly believes its message is cutting through, perhaps more than it expected given the ALP’s significant lead in the opinion polls at the start of the campaign. Scott Morrison has been campaigning hard, and his energy on the hustings appears to be impressing Liberal stalwarts in the Coalition base.

Labor has also had a few stumbles. Although Bill Shorten has been working hard too, there have been a few slips that may or may not turn out to be significant. Shorten, for instance, struggled to explain Labor’s superannuation tax policy (which will increase taxes for very wealthy superannuants). More substantively, green-leaning voters would have be disappointed to learn that Shorten still can’t decide a position on Adani’s Carmichael mine, and is also backing a big expansion of Australia’s gas industry to boot. This may play well in north Queensland; it may be considerably less popular in Victoria. It also means people are talking about Labor’s position on coal mining, when the ALP would prefer to be talking about policies like health.

How much this matters is anyone’s guess. Campaign momentum is often an evanescent thing. That’s not to say it doesn’t exist, but it can equally be a figment of the fevered imaginations of journalists desperate for a narrative. Sunday night’s Newspoll doesn’t really tell us anything new: despite a headline figure of 49-51 to Labor, once the primary votes are looked at carefully, the true position is still 48-52, an election-winning lead for the ALP. Labor is ahead, but the Coalition is certainly still within striking distance.

The dominant news story of the second week of the campaign was the sudden eruption of a scandal around water buybacks in the Murray-Darling Basin. The controversy relates to an $80 million purchase of water rights by the Commonwealth under Barnaby Joyce, when he was the Water Minister in 2017. The water purchase is terrible value for money for the taxpayer, as it appears to be an exorbitant price for water that doesn’t actually exist.

The purchase relates to a type of water entitlement called an “overland flow license”, which in the context of a Commonwealth buyback is essentially an option to allow flood waters to flow downstream. Water experts and many locals point out this will have essentially no environmental benefit, as the Commonwealth can’t capture the water without owning the property and building a dam, and downstream farms and irrigators can still capture the water anyway.

The company that sold the water license, Eastern Australia Agriculture, is owned by a shell company domiciled in the notorious tax haven of the Cayman Islands. Notorious union buster and Coalition backer Chris Corrigan was the owner of the farm. Even more suspiciously, Eastern Australia Agriculture was originally set up by Energy Minister Angus Taylor in his lucrative career pre-politics as a management consultant specialising in agribusiness. Labor and the Independents have demanded an investigation; Taylor, Joyce and Scott Morrison insist that there is nothing amiss.

The water scandal emerged on Twitter and was kicked along by defamation threats by Taylor against independent journalists. It spurred fevered claims for a royal commission into the entire Murray-Darling. But it now seems clear it won’t derail the government’s campaign. In a mediascape fractured by partisanship and disrupted by technology, it is increasingly unlikely that a single scandal can destroy a government’s legitimacy, even one as seemingly damning as the water controversy. 

There’s no doubt that water management in the Murray-Darling is a national scandal: the Commonwealth has invested billions in dubious schemes that have produced limited environmental benefit. But this particular deal is probably not true corruption, at least in the narrow criminal definition. Rather, it is simply the latest in a long line of cosy deals between the Commonwealth and well-connected business interests, deals that benefit the businesses involved to the cost of the taxpayer, whether it be building concentration camps for asylum seekers in the Pacific, or lucrative travel contracts for a firm run by a Liberal Party office holder.

The problem for the government is that the stench of malfeasance is getting more pungent. After all, there have been a string of scandals and controversies in the past year, many of them unedifying, some of them skating rather close to misconduct. The problem for Labor is that many voters either don’t know, or are so cynical about politics in general that they no longer care.

The problem of cynicism might just be the main problem faced by Labor’s campaign, which has so far struggled to get out of second gear. Labor’s dilemma is how to return the election debate to substance – away from fear, and towards policy, where it has an undoubted advantage.

Labor has a swag of good policies, especially in health policy and around higher wages for workers, and it has the makings of a unifying theme: fairness. But so far, it hasn’t really put the jigsaw pieces together. That is starting to worry Labor insiders, who can see the ALP’s advantage eroding. One party source I spoke to lamented the party’s performance in Queensland, where the ALP is reportedly not making any in-roads. The source also questioned when Labor’s vaunted digital and social media blitz would begin.

One of Labor’s perennial problems, common to left-of-centre parties everywhere, is the difficulty of calibrating its ambitions. Bill Shorten says he wants “a fair go for all”. Labor’s policy platform will certainly reduce inequality and improve the fairness of Australian society. But Labor presents this vision in staid and stolid terms. The fair go for all is an incremental and even boring plan for topping up funding to schools and hospitals, “easing pressure on family budgets”, “standing up for workers”, and “building a strong economy that works for us all.” It’s hard to see Labor’s base getting too excited by this, let alone swinging voters in marginal seats.

But Labor needs excitement. In order to counter the inertia and fear from the Coalition, the ALP needs to build and sustain an electoral coalition of disparate groups: middle and working class voters, Millennials and Gen-Xers, the regions as well as the cities, the hopeful as well as the wary. In this respect, Shorten might be better advised to go big than to go small.

We saw a hint of that larger ambition on Sunday, with the release of two big Labor policies, one on dental care for pensioners, and another for child care. The child care policy in particular could be a game-changer. Out of pocket expenses are a massive issue for working families, and Labor will throw $4 billion at the problem over the forward estimates in an attempt to make child care affordable again.

The full policy details will be interesting. Shorten said that a Labor government will raise child care subsidies for low-income families up to 100 per cent, essentially making it free for working parents under $74,000 a year to send their kids to long day care. Subsidies will slowly taper of as family income rises, but there will be plenty of help for middle-income families too. Child care workers, perennially underpaid, will also get a government subsidy to up their wages. It’s the sort of big, potentially transformative idea the election has been crying out for.

As week three of the campaign begins, the outlines of the dynamic are beginning to resolve. The Coalition has a simple message and is sticking to it doggedly. Labor has a strong and substantive collection of policies, but a muted message that it is not communicating as well as it should.

Voters are now back from their extended Easter holiday incorporating Anzac Day. With pre-polls open, the election campaign proper is now on. The next fortnight will prove critical.

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Ben Eltham

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.

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