Did yesterday’s breathless media coverage of the ritual of calling an election for July 2 leave you underwhelmed? The aerial footage of Yarralumla? The close-up shots of idle cars, the incessant talking heads discussing nothing because even when something was happening, it wasn’t especially interesting?
Remember, there are eight weeks — eight — to go.
What’s funny, by the way, is the way we in the media, by focusing so minutely on the detail, tend to miss larger absurdities. There were two things wrong with yesterday’s pictures: putting aside the silliness that we’re actually in week four of an epic campaign that began the moment the Senate rejected the ABCC bill back on April 18, a system that gives a leader, outside of exceptional circumstances, the power to dictate timing of elections is not merely unfair but damaging to business confidence, that much-treasured adornment of the economic debate name-checked by Turnbull yesterday. And then there was the peculiar ritual of the nation’s elected leader having to travel to the representative of a foreign monarch to ask his permission to call elections.
The rituals continued once the silly theatricals were over, but they were more political in nature. Malcolm Turnbull gave the traditional prime minister’s election-calling media conference. That’s normally in the Prime Minister’s Courtyard at Parliament House, but the first worthwhile rain in weeks in Canberra put paid to that, so it was moved inside to the sepulchral Main Committee Room. Noticeably, Turnbull was upbeat. Yes, he devoted the latter part of his remarks — which went on at some length — to attacking Labor, but the first part was an extended dose of positivity (that phrase made an appearance) and how the government’s “economic plan” would deliver prosperity in a world of greater opportunities. Stopping the boats made an appearance later, when he accused Labor of conducting “experiments” with border security, but it’s difficult to imagine Tony Abbott making such a positive opening to a campaign. Turnbull also had a good line on multinational tax avoidance, a weakness for the government it has been determined to ring fence lately, when he said “we believe in lower taxes. But it is not optional to pay them.” What was missing, as quite a few noticed, was any reference at all to climate change, although given the government literally has no functional policy on carbon emissions abatement — the omission might have been disappointing, but not surprising.
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Bill Shorten was in Launceston, on his way to nearby Beaconsfield — today is the 10th anniversary of the rescue of Brant Webb and Todd Russell after the Beaconsfield mine collapse, where Shorten first came to prominence outside Labor and union circles. His formal remarks were somewhat stilted, and fortunately short, because he was much better off-the-cuff in response to questions. His themes were unsurprising, except in one regard. Fairness was his central message, with strong supporting roles for hospitals and education. But he also repeatedly and deliberately hammered trust, which despite predictions had not been a major feature of Turnbull’s pitch.
The Prime Minister looked and sounded better than his opponent, but one thing rankles: Shorten has a simple message, around fairness and schools and hospitals, while Turnbull has a narrative: these are times of great opportunity and he has a plan to enable us take advantage of them consisting of an innovation agenda and defence manufacturing and free trade agreements. Turnbull’s message is more appealing to a wonk like me — it might be jury-rigged with chewing gum, string and the leftovers from the shambolic policy process Turnbull has pursued since last September, but I can appreciate the story he is telling. Shorten doesn’t have a narrative, he has a goal (fairness) and a way to get there (health and education). It’s much less intellectually engaging, but, I suspect, more likely to cut through.
Cutting through, of course, is more difficult than ever. It might be cynical and self-satisfied to profess boredom with the prospect of an eight-week campaign but the great mass of Australian voters are politically disengaged. Politics bores them rigid. Many of them, especially younger Australians, in fact aren’t even voters — they don’t bother to enrol. Informal voting is on the way up, and so is voting well before election day, as if voting is an unpleasant chore that must be gotten out of the way as quickly as possible. The dramatic rise in pre-poll voting — in some seats this election may see more than a third of all ballots cast before election day — will mean late-campaign developments, advertising and even polls will be significantly less meaningful than in previous elections.
A seemingly never-ending campaign will only exacerbate this trend. The cynicism of politicians is reinforcing the cynicism of voters, and the result might be quite different to what politicians imagine.