Election blog: Spin and reality

One week out from election day, the gloves are well and truly off and the spend-athon begins, says our election blogger, ANU Professor John Wanna.

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Spin and Reality – November 16

Both leaders made very dissimilar pitches to voters in their official campaign launches (both held auspiciously in Brisbane).

Howard filled his launch (and the TV package drawn from it) with a bevy of Coalition characters – hoping to show a united team but risking looking like a gaggle of dissenting voices.

Rudd was the sole performer at his launch, leading from the front and looking presidential. He chose to keep his shadow ministers securely in the shadows.

Howard rolled out another $9.4 billion in electoral bribes – many in the form of direct payments to voters’ households – some universal and not means-tested.

Rudd, by contrast, spent far less in his follow up act, giving just $2.3 billion away to schools, training schemes, university scholarships and energy programs. He chose not to fritter money on individual families. Labor clearly feels confident it does not need to bribe voters further – beyond the ‘me-too’ tax cuts of $341 billion.

The so-called ‘educational revolution’ seems to be running on the smell of an oily rag rather than anything substantial.

So, with both sides pumping out +/- $60 billion in electoral commitments we now see them a little embarrassed by their largesse.

But politicians are not politicians if they allow reality to get in the way of a good argument.

We are now seeing the mother of all prize-fights about who is the most responsible party – after the most profligate of all election campaigns.

There are signs electoral advertising is getting dirty and desperate – especially from the Coalition’s side who are at their wit’s ends about why the polls won’t move in their direction.

The Liberals ran out former ALP MP Brian Courtice claiming Rudd is incapable of standing up to union heavies. Courtice said Rudd couldn’t go ‘3 rounds with Winnie the Pooh’.

Meanwhile Labor is turning up the heat on John Howard personally. Initially Labor ran respectful ads but reminded voters Howard was departing. Now it has cranked up the momentum asserting that you can’t believe anything the PM says and can’t trust any of his commitments he has given in the campaign.

The shadow boxing is over and the fight is on for real.

Behind the Messages – November 12

John Howard argues Labor are unelectable because they lack experience. This is reminiscent of Paul Keating’s assertion of 1996 that Asian leaders would not talk to John Howard as PM. To follow the Howard logic we would never have a change of government – surely not consistent with democratic practice – and, of course, Howard and Costello were themselves once inexperienced.

Kevin Rudd’s argument that Howard lied in 2004 over interest rates ('we'll keep interest rates down') is a little dubious given the key commitment from the Coalition was that they would keep interest rates lower than Labor – an untestable proposition now. Both parties have been going back to 1992, or even 1982 (and earlier) to prove their cases – surely an arcane gesture.

The most bizarre claim over the past week has been the statement by Howard that divorce rates would rise under a Rudd government and that there would be more broken homes and fewer children born! Howard chose to endorse Dick Blandy’s intervention that up to 400,000 jobs would be at risk if Labor came to power. Blandy is a conservative economist – so apparently his views are preferred by the government over those of other industrial relations scholars.

The 'sorry-not-apology' charade from Howard was an attempt to mollify the mortgage belt – but it drew parallels to the lack of an apology to Indigenous Australians for their historical treatment by white settlers. The resulting muddle just reminded people of the culture of plausible deniability that has beset this government periodically.

Finally, Kevin Rudd's message that he would set up a 'Razor Gang' to cut back the public service took us back some years (to Malcolm Fraser and Bob Hawke's tenures) but perhaps sensibly he provided no detail of where the cuts would fall. He promised $3 billion in savings. Even if Labor abolished all political advertising ($300 million – and which is most unlikely) he still has to gouge out another nine-tenths to meet his target ($2.7 billion). Disbelief seems to have been the most common reception to his announcement – although there would be some machinery of government changes if Labor won.

These mid-campaign messages have been lame concoctions – indicating both sides are getting a little desperate to inflict some damage on the other side and have it show in the polls.

Half-time but no respite – November 2

November 3rd is exactly half-way through the 42-day campaign. There's still 21 days to go and there's not much sign of excitement or movement in the campaign.

So far the election has been a succession of scoreless draws – lots of midfield play, lots of defensive errors, but no real howlers bouncing into the net.

The 'great' debates have usually been rehearsed and flat; no one really tying their opponent up in knots; and protagonists playing defensive politics rather than going for winners. Earlier in the week, the Nicholson cartoon that showed the 'worm' nodding off surely said it all.

Inexplicably, Tony Abbott did not take seriously enough his debate with his counterpart Nicola Roxon, and she was given a dream run playing alone.

However, the fact that Abbott is seen as a bit of a buffoon by both sides means the negative publicity may not switch many actual votes. He can assuage himself with the adage that all publicity is good publicity to some degree.

Gaffe hunters

The media generally has been preoccupied with gaffes and stumbles – they have been rewarded not only by high profile senior politicians (Tony Abbott, Peter Garrett) but also by some local candidates who have upset their own applecarts (eg. Labor’s Garry Parr in redneck Hinkler and Nicole Cornes in languid Boothby, or the Nationals Bruce Scott and Barnaby Joyce campaigning on draining the inland rivers even further).

Family First candidates seem to have mastered the knack of self-imploding, generally due to perverse sexual antics or viewing pornography on the web.

But these are all par for the course – part of the normal ebb and flow of election campaigns. They happen with unerring regularity only now are getting more attention by the intense touring media scrum.

The 'me-tooism' is becoming predictable and uninteresting. Some claim that almost 40 policies have been 'me-too-ed' by Labor so far.

Having said that this is an intentional strategy from the Opposition – not to give voters any reason to go back to Howard at all – even for the most small-scale policy bride or a few dollars here-and-there for pensioners. Hence, matching commitments are the order of the day. Consider just how much work for the Opposition’s backroom staff this intensive, rapid-reaction matching strategy entails. Their heads must be spinning as they replace the letterheads on the daily press releases.

The danger for Labor is that they do not look to have undertaken any original policy work themselves to ‘attract’ voters, and are instead relying on disaffected voters coming across from Howard. This segment of the electorate is largely undecided, soft in its support either way and as we go towards the final week is highly unpredictable in its final determination. The polling swings are not over yet and there is scope for a last minute drift enough to see the government hold on.

Interestingly the veteran Malcolm Mackerras said the only real interest in this election was who won the second Senate position in the ACT – either the Liberals Gary Humphries or the Green’s Kerry Tucker – a slightly uneven race but one made more open by the intense campaign by Get-Up with Save Our Senate.

When politicians turn chasers – October 25th

The strategies in week two of the campaign have focused on chasing the demographics. Targeting voters who have not yet made up their minds or whose support for one side is soft.

Pollsters are acutely aware which slice of the demographic pie their party is not reaching or is less warm to their messages. Hence, selective packages have been released to assist childcare and young parents, [wwww.worldnewsaustralia.com.au/region.php?id=140917®ion=7|the aged and frail, long-term carers, the disabled and self-funded retirees.w]

The grey vote in particular seems to be far more volatile this election, with the Coalition only conjuring some 45% of the over-50 vote. This is low by historical standards – as it usually attracts 52-55%. There is a perception in the aged demographic that this government has not done much for them in positive terms since pensions were set at 25% of the weekly wage, but have saddled them with the GST. Self-funded retirees may be profiting from the share market boom but feel the government has not really directed benefits their way.

Hence, the rash of cash handouts to specific groups. It is blatant vote-buying by politicians who suddenly pretend real concern about the plight of the groups targeted (but what about other non-targeted groups?). Its not 'policy' but straight out bribery and, naturally, it will work in many cases where voters trade off their support for tangible promises.

Every politician worth his or her salt is now out in the stumps pressing flesh and invading community venues where they may never have shown a face. Make no mistake, Kevin Rudd is right when he says this is going to be a tight race that will probably hinge on the last week – even last few days.

In such circumstances, meeting the voters is a crucial strategy – corny perhaps but evidence shows that people (especially undecided voters and those somewhat apathetic) will give votes to candidates they have met and who seem pleasant. Hard working politicians can attract up to 4-6% of the local vote according to some sources (although there is a real debate about how much a local member can shift the vote relative to the general swing). Put another way, voters can spot duds even if they are minor celebrities.

So it’s a case of 'après the Great Debate, now onto the electorates'.

The Great Debate – October 22

The Great Debate was punchy and reached beyond the rehearsed banter.

This was certainly a pugilistic bout. Straight-talking and impressive. There were episodes of direct engagement and feisty personal attack ('I don’t blame others as Mr Rudd does', 'the Treasurer did not have the commitment to argue the case to the cabinet'… etc)

The format was balanced with time for interrogation and counter-questioning.

The main themes boiled down to future commitments from Labor with much talk of ‘new directions’, versus the previous record of the government (and Howard’s defence of it). For most of the debate the discussion was about the pressures on Australian working families – despite the economic boom and full employment.

Howard did best when he stuck to his main script and centred his message on the economy. He performed worst when he moved onto Rudd’s policy strengths and tried to match Labor’s policy commitments (such as the education revolution, Iraq). Howard looked to be having an instant makeover when he pretended to have more serious policies on climate change and was about to talk to defence chiefs about our troops in Iraq.

Rudd was more impressive when he focussed on the government’s shortcomings and sketched out his convictions and aspirational goals for the future. But on many key issues Rudd did not sufficiently differentiate himself from the Coalition, preferring a bob-each-way. He sold his very similar tax policy well, which eliminates the tax cuts for those earning over $180,000 in favour of an educational subsidy for the costs of schooling.

Both leaders did less well explaining why their tax cuts would not feed directly into higher inflation and interest rate hikes.

Howard will draw some succour from the event because he did not lose and matched it mostly point-for-point with Rudd. The Labor leader will take heart because he has put his wobbly start to the campaign back onto an even keel. He did not overwhelm Howard but certainly gave viewers a much better view of his style and approach.

While Howard looked a bit tense and wooden, Rudd looked relaxed and a little impish.

I suspect this will be the one and only formal leaders’ debate in this campaign.

Fear, tax and a bit of loathing – October 18

Although both sides committed themselves to a positive campaign, it didn't take long for them to get down and dirty.

Negative advertising commenced from the first days of the official campaign with the Government highlighting both the lack of experience of the Rudd team and the union domination of the front bench – an attack that will probably raise concerns among Labor’s softer supporters and peel off some of its lead in the polls.

Labor nationally has adopted the 'victim' pose – claiming every response from the Coalition is part of an orchestrated 'fear campaign' .

Labor has taken a more positive approach in its national advertisements but under the radar has run local campaigns attacking individual Coalition members. Interestingly, both leaders have used the Internet to make lightening responses to attacks – often recycling the attack with the intention of lampooning it with a countering message. US campaigning tactics have arrived with a bang.

ALP YouTube site

Liberal YouTube site

Tactically, the government has been challenging Labor to front up with its policies early. It wants to dictate to Labor when it should release its major policy statements (such as its tax plan). This is despite John Howard fighting the 1996 election (when he was last in Opposition) stating categorically that he was managing the campaign according to his own logic and timing. Touche.

Labor announced its first non-policy with a three page lot of waffle on supposedly reviewing the $6 billion worth of

Commonwealth land assets that may be released for housing estates.

There is no detail, no figure of how much would be released, no sites indicated, and no consideration of the problems involved (eg Defence firing ranges, custodial landholdings etc). The non-policy was further undermined perhaps maliciously by the Coalition venturing that a Labor government would sell off treasured army bases close to the CBD of the major capital cities. Perhaps an own goal.

The Coalition raised the stakes for Labor with an ambitious set of tax cuts that managed to make everyone winners to some degree. It is premised on massive surpluses occurring into the future –- with the government proposing to give us around half of the additional revenue back through tax relief.

The biggest issue here (and this may reflect the fact that this policy was put together in a hurry after the leadership turbulence at the Sydney APEC meeting) was that the Treasurer was only prepared to fiddle with the tax scales rather than commit to a more fundamental reform of the tax system generally.

Even under Costello's scheme the Commonwealth government will still be taking more tax than it needs, and more tax than it is currently taking today. The tax policy is a major splurge of money $34 billion over the forward estimates) but hardly a major reform.

However, the Coalition's tax gambit poses problems for Labor. It cannot allow the Coalition to have a free run on this issue and not counter with anything. Labor was planning a more complex set of changes – perhaps like last time when they went to considerable lengths to appear to be offering tax relief when they were not giving anything back in aggregate terms.

Last time, too, clumsy calculations undid the package and showed Labor was either amateurish or deceitful. Labor can match the package but then look to be doing another ‘me-too’ which will play into the government’s hands. Or it can craft an alternative and hope to sell it as a better bribe, but this will be expensive and consume the money Labor was hoping to spend on other priorities.

If Labor delays while it 'studies' the government’s proposals, it risks handing over the momentum to the Coalition.

The opinion polls early next week will determine how both sides continue to respond to each other. If the Coalition have regained ground, Labor will be pressured to release its own taxation policy and perhaps begin more attack ads, if there is little movement, Labor may feel it can stick to its schedule and get a lift later in the campaign with a set of cuts.

Although the great debate is early in the piece – it will give us a better idea of how the two major parties are intending to fight this fight. With few real policies out in the marketplace, we can expect most discussion to focus on their comparative records, experience, visions for the future, aspirational spin.

In previous elections these debates have not involved much in the way of personal attacks on rival leaders, but with so much at stake this time around, it may be a very different story. It will be velvet glove stuff.