Here’s something to consider: how many nine-year-olds are registering their intention to vote with polling organisations? A friend heard her son answer the home phone last week. Curious about the long silence, she put her head around the door, saw his concentration, and before she could intervene, heard a declarative “Greens” as he pushed a button. Who says the young aren’t politically engaged?
The next few weeks are likely to bring more activated robots (robo calls), and absent a question that makes a preliminary inquiry about whether the real person on the other end is actually on the electoral roll, the responses are likely to be quixotic and unreliable.
As for those official polls, well, it’s the darndest thing. An Essential 50/50 result at the halfway point. We’ve had it all — the frenetic activity, the criss-crossing of the country, endless radio interviews, killer 4.30am starts for media minders, Proustian attention to detail in the daily composition of talking points, and the desperate search for the visual in a virtual world. Just how do you film “agile” and make it look convincing on social media? Millions spent, and we still seem to be saying in relation to the main players none of the above.
And let’s not forget the mesmerising contributions from the official party spokespersons Penny Wong and Mathias Cormann. These guys are not allowed to improvise as they are the keepers of the sacred script, the one everyone supposedly agreed to back in HQ at the start of the whole mad show. Both are competent functionaries, but after a while you might as well be listening to one of those programmed robo calls. The evenness of Cormann’s deep flat monotone is something of an aural wonder — it must take astonishing discipline to sound that consistent and that boring every day.
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For those us crying please release me, it was hard not to see the weekend’s wild weather, which ripped down the eastern seaboard, as something of a comment on all this. Here was a genuinely dramatic event requiring a solid hands-on response. What a contrast compared with the faux contrivances of the past month. And the published polling couldn’t be clearer. Voters aren’t buying what is being served up. The primary votes of the Coalition, Labor and the Greens are all down. Ditto support for Shorten and Turnbull. That well-known political cohort of “others” has got a figure of 15% sitting beside it.
So with pre-polling starting in a week and with everyone having had a decent look at what’s on offer, the early verdict is a weary what else have you got for us?
Turnbull has burned up political capital at an astonishing rate. I certainly thought he would give the promise of “advocacy, not slogans” a red-hot go, but instead he has shown a real aptitude for the standard conservative repertoire of demonising Labor: soft on refugees, beholden to unions, big spending, anti business, yadda yadda. All to no avail.
Now the man who would be king is trying a little self-definition by reminding voters that he was a motherless child brought up by his hard-working dad. All lovely authentic stuff but a tad late. Kevin Rudd handled the “who am I?” question in a series of videos that were run at the very beginning of 2007. It worked so well that, come polling day, 11 months later, even the breakfast TV hosts knew the recipe for Rudd’s favourite chocolate cake, the one his mum always made him.
And Shorten? He is running more of a textbook campaign and making fewer mistakes. He has learnt to speak in a coherent understandable way and doesn’t ramble on. His answers in both debates have been sharp and well delivered. He is competitive because Labor appears to have picked the issues of health and education and they are resonating with voters. So why does this week’s Newspoll show voter satisfaction with him on the slide, from 37% to 33%?
George Megalogenis makes the point that time matters in politics. In our system, this means time spent in the Parliament, and he argues that both Turnbull (class of 2004) and Shorten (class of 2007) are at least a decade short of the necessary grounding to run the country. I agree, and for Shorten, the problems are the legacy issues from the time he has spent in Canberra. If there is an abiding image that voters have of Shorten’s nine years in Parliament, it’s of an ambitious bloke wielding two phones and doing over a prime minister or two.
One could say this is the modus operandi now for Australian politics and we’ve absorbed it as part of the new normal. But imagine what you could do if you wanted to flip this and get voters to think about something else.
There is surely immense power in a Labor leader talking about a critical issue such as education in terms other than a bald pledge “to deliver the full Gonski”. Of course the money is desirable, but how about saying something meaningful about the state of our schools and the importance of targeted investment?
It’s taken John Vallance, the head of Sydney Grammar (Turnbull’s alma mater), to spell out what’s at stake. In a recent interview with the Australian Financial Review, Vallance acknowledged the aberrations in our funding mix, noting that the maintenance budget for an entire public school can be less than a private school spends on a basketball coach.
In the same interview the principal of one of Australia’s most prestigious schools questioned the value of our obsession with metrics, the importance of learning time for teachers, and thrillingly, the need for schools to send students into the world who are “courteously insubordinate”.
Sounds a lot better than the reductive nonsense we are getting at the moment.