The Victorian election campaign is coming to a close and it still seems hardly anyone has been awake for it. Drowned in its early stages by the Spring racing carnival, election day arriving just after the first Ashes test starts, it’s been continual election interruptus. Nuclear inquiries/PR stunts, Thorpie retiring and of course drought, climate change and G20. The Bracks and Baillieu show just never really took off.

Traditional opinion would be that such an environment favours the incumbent, especially when structural factors such as a good economy and a federal Liberal government still largely in mid-term cycle are factored in.

Yet I would argue this has actually worked very much to the advantage of the Opposition leader. The government has run negativities on him and harked back to the Kennett years, all promising small fire ammunition. At the same time it has presented an earnest business as usual face to the electorate, “don’t rock the boat” “you can trust us” “slow and steady” and so on. These are solid emotional chords in Victorian political culture.

However the current situation where the election is nearly always, at best, the second news story, has been well used by Baillieu. His tactic has been to project himself, first by constantly issuing new policies and pledges and also by a series of camera grabbing stunts. Unlike Bracks and co, the Liberal leader has been very much out and about.

The result: he gets a fair bit of airtime in which to insert soundbites but rarely has to cope with in-depth interviews. When it’s hard to get any penetration with your story, an increase in quantity can actually be a real dividend in quality. More than anything Baillieu has succeeded in making himself a presence, indeed more of a presence than the ever wooden Premier. Moreover, because the media and electorate aren’t really switched on, Baillieu has continually been able to get away with being vague.

His desalination plant as a water supply solution is a clear case in point. It actually seems pure pie-in-the-sky but it has a created good emotional resonance and grabbed scare copy inches. He’s perceived to be doing something big about something everyone’s worried about. And without hard questioning the good emotions this generates may carry the day.

This style also actually makes an advantage of the fact he’s relatively unknown to the electorate. Pundits often speak of a politician’s honeymoon period and this backburner campaign context has actually helped prolong it.

When people don’t know someone, they begin with their feelings about him/her. Baillieu is succeeding because he’s presenting himself as nice guy with a non-threatening and engaged manner. In the absence of perceived negatives people tend toward positive feelings. When we feel positive about a leader but don’t know much about them vis-à-vis behaviour or policies, they can act as an all-purpose empty vessel, one into which desires, trusts and hopes can be poured.

Whether Baillieu can gather enough of these to win the election on Saturday is a moot point, but he has certainly out-punched his opponent and the campaign context has, surprisingly, suited him.

Peter Fray

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