Is Labor being smart, subtle – or clueless?

A federal Labor government would make the Liberal Party refund the costs for current advertising found to be political, Iron Bark declared Sunday morning.

The Opposition leader said that if becomes Prime Minister, he will ensure political parties rather than the government of the day pay for any advertising found to have any electoral advantage – and promised to backdate the move to that very day.

“All this advertising material here is being developed by the Government to assist its election prospects in the future when the money would be better spent on the basic services needed in the Australian community,” Iron Mark said.

He called the advertising a blatant attempt to buy votes for the coming election.

It was about the most concrete policy offered by Labor all week – other than, of course, the pharmaceuticals backflip. Stephen Conroy – one of Iron Mark’s more competent shadows – stayed fiercely mum about the party’s much awaited tax policy when he appeared on Sunday Sunrise, although he assured us it would be a real bobby dazzler. Ditto Wayne Swan on Insiders.

All of which begs the question: when it comes to policy and pitches, is Labor being smart and subtle – or stupid.

Three major columnists raised serious doubts over Iron Marks’ approach this weekend.

First, Paul Kelly spoke from the mountaintop in The Weekend Australian.

“This week the Labor Party was mugged by political reality – that caring and nice Mark Latham who empathises with you, from children’s reading to obesity, suddenly joined the mean Howard Government to jack up the price of medicines…

“Peter Costello nailed it, dead centre – the magic pudding mentality was out of control. The hardheads on the ALP frontbench knew there had to be a reckoning. But they waited too long. In the interim, Latham’s pitch became surreal – he pledged the nirvana of bigger tax cuts, better services and an annual budget surplus. Everybody cheered, then cheered again. It was brilliant stuff. Costello taunted Labor, saying it couldn’t be done. But what would he know, anyway?

“Now the accounting has begun. Labor is desperate for savings. It is in a fiscal fix; how bad depends on the reach of its election pledges. But the internal aggravation will intensify. Just wait for the Left to attack Latham’s tax cuts for being financed by higher drug prices…”

“Is Latham losing his balance,” Shaun Carney asked in the Age on Saturday,

“Has Mark Latham blown it, or has he reached some intangible but important electoral beachhead,’ he wrote. “The past three weeks have been among the strangest witnessed in federal politics in recent years.

“Here we are possibly as little as six weeks and at most four months away from an election and the alternative government has recanted on a position it has held on the pricing of pharmaceutical goods for almost two years. It is an act of total self-harm. The immediate consequence is a paradox: Labor gets the blame for a Government policy…

“While the Government announces spending initiatives of tens of billions of dollars, puts large sums of money into the bank accounts of all manner of voters, soaks the airwaves and newspapers with advertising to win kudos for doing so, and belts the Opposition around the head every day in Parliament, Latham lobs soft parliamentary questions about children and integrity, engages in some easy-peasy bank bashing, and does a policy U-turn that disadvantages and disillusions a slab of its traditional base.

“It is not unreasonable to look at all of this and start to form the conclusion that Latham is losing it. Time is running out for the release of the big policies, especially on tax. Every day is a day he cannot afford to waste. And so on…”

Come Sunday, Michelle Grattan was blunter. “Once a warrior, now more of a worry,” was the title of her item, “In the federal caucus, they’re becoming more critical of Mark Latham’s style, and not quite as sanguine about Labor’s prospects,” she stated.

Then there was Bob Carr’s spectacular bastardry over Iraq. Recanted. But not recanted particularly quickly. Last week we asked in a sealed section if the media may have woken up to Iron Mark’s lack of policy and decided to ignore him. We talked about how his debate proposals had been largely ignored.

The media like debate stories as they’re essentially stories about the media – the media’s favourite topic always being themselves. The question, however, goes to the very heart of Labor’s tactics. Clearly, the official viewpoint, put somewhat cynically, is that even if Iron Mark produces no policies and the media do ignore him, it won’t make a smattering of difference to the result.

Here’s how the thinking goes:

* Only a small percentage of the voting public are politically aware and explore more than what is put forward in the headlines and actually want to know some detail before they make up their mind on an issue.

* Policy is important to these people – but they don’t really count, as the vast majority of them have already made up their mind who they will vote for in the next election. The genuine swinging voters in the key seats that decide elections are different.

* Iron Mark is pitching “values”, not policy, and to those who aren’t among the political cognoscenti, there is no difference. They don’t read policy details, so a pitch at the values is actually a much more effective way to communicate to the people who actually make a difference each election. “Values”, rather than politics as usual, seem fresh – particularly when compared to the pitch of a Prime Minister who has been in the job for eight years and in parliament for three decades.

* John Howard tried this tactic – no policies but the vague “headland” speeches.

* Iron Mark is actually much better at the values thing than John Howard is. His “values” are more coherent and strike a greater resonance than the ideas Howard offered in 1995 – and have novelty value.

* Beazley and the ALP mistook the small target strategy and tried it themselves. They released very little in policy, but unfortunately Beazley couldn’t maintain a debate on values and he seemed to have no guiding vision. Like Howard, he had been there forever, too.

* Values are much more important in the electorate than policy detail. The vast majority of the population just don’t care about anything beyond the headlines. If Iron Mark can continue to strike a chord with people – as he has – he is very much a viable alternative.

* Finally, the media can’t ignore an opposition leader in an election campaign, even if he has no policies. He will have a message. That’s all that’s needed.

Labor is running on subliminals. They are running on marketing techniques that used subtle differentiations to sell the same product under different names. Kleenex or Sorbent. Rinso or Omo. They risk infuriating the commentariat – let alone the Government – but John Howard took that punt in 1996.

The actual campaign period will be the make or break. If Labor can avoid any huge gaffes, there is going to be one abiding image through the whole campaign – that of a younger bloke with energy and ideas who sounds different to other politicians, compared an older, duller man with no real fourth term agenda and a sneaking suspicion that he is there for the power, not to actually do anything with it.

Iron Bark set this up brilliantly in his Budget Address in Reply speech.

“I’m sensing that the people want to move past this Prime Minister. They are not really interested in his one obsession: his place in the Guinness Book of Records. They want to get on with the future. Not the past, the future.”

It’s a good start. It won’t stand up if there are any more backflips a la PBS, but it has power if handled correctly and competently and if Iron Mark and his troops hold their nerve.

Expect more. Much, much more – if Labor thinks the election can be carried on the vibe alone.

Hillary Bray can be contacted at hillarybray