You might have noticed that the first official week of the election campaign has been a little … well, light-on in terms of policy announcements on either side. Clearly both sides are pacing themselves for the long weeks of June still to come. The government of course produced its budget last week — OK, not a budget, but an “economic plan” — and is framing the first stage of its campaign around that. Labor, unusually, has also already issued much of its policy agenda.

Part of the government’s week was devoted to cleaning up some mess left from the budget. Superannuation retrospectivity is still a festering issue, all the more so because of the government’s pig-headed “2007 isn’t in the past” defence. The smarter mainstream media commentators are starting to explain that the economic benefits of the government’s huge company tax cut are negligible even over the long run (in response, the government and its media supporters have bizarrely tried to argue there are no economic benefits from better spending on education). But Turnbull started the campaign at a strategic level — talking about a “national economic plan”, hit-and-run visits to state capitals, no one-on-one interviews with major outlets — almost reminiscent of the early days of Julia Gillard’s 2010 election campaign, before Kevin Rudd blew it up.

If Turnbull’s early campaign has been high level, Bill Shorten’s has been grassroots, almost guerrilla, focusing on marginals in north Queensland, throwing an absurd, shameful $100 million at a stadium in Townsville (which might actually buy that seat and consign the splendid LNP member, Ewen Jones, to one-term status). Education and health are never far from Shorten’s lips. Those are Labor’s strong points, and they’re also, generally, the second and third most important issues for voters in influencing how they vote — or what they say influences how they vote. Turnbull is using the Liberals’ strong suit, the economy, which voters say is the most important issue. It’s first versus second and third.

An unexpected silver lining for the government, however, is that the tight polls have led to well-founded speculation about what happens in the event of a hung Parliament. Given it’s less than six years since we had one of those and the polls are 50-50, 51-49 or 49-51, it’s a valid question to ask about what happens in the event of a minority government. It’s also a highly damaging question for Labor because it automatically leads to discussion about working with the Greens. Given it’s the only way the Greens will ever achieve some semblance of actual power, they’re very keen to talk about how much they’d like to work with Labor (except for the Greens candidate in Anthony Albanese’s seat of Grayndler, who would prefer an Abbott government).

But for voters anxious not to have to endure a repeat of febrile 2010-13 period, such talk is about as enticing as a trip to the dentist. It was Chris Bowen who hit on the clearest formulation of Labor’s position – it would “govern alone or not at all”, but that’s not necessarily going to stop undecided voters from tipping the way of the government in order to avoid another hung parliament.

Against that, Mike Baird is doing the Liberals no favours in NSW with his cack-handed council amalgamation process. Bearing in mind the animosity held by most voters for politicians as a class, it’s impressive that Baird has managed to turn a process for reducing the number of politicians into a political negative, and then exacerbated it yesterday with a decision so blatantly geared to serve the interests of Coalition marginal seat holders that even the commercial evening news bulletins discussed it. NSW was supposed to the government’s firewall against a Labor victory — even with poor polling, there was a widespread view Labor simply wasn’t going to win enough seats in NSW to reach the 19 it needs, given the popularity of Mike Baird. The only upside is that Baird did it now, still many weeks away from polling day.

And so to the first leaders’ debate tonight, in western Sydney, conducted by Sky News and The Daily Telegraph. Sky is a legitimate, quality news outlet with excellent journalists like David Speers and Kieran Gilbert. The Telegraph is partisan cesspit that isn’t trusted even by its rapidly declining readership who mostly buy it for the footy coverage. You’d think we’d be mature enough to establish a proper, independent election debate arrangement; certainly the press gallery has been trying for years to create one, but it still ends up the plaything of self-interested media organisations. Turnbull will perform strongly — this should be his ideal format. Shorten will have to rely on policy substance instead of style. But that’s served him well so far.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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