Bill Shorten

For six weeks now, the major parties have spent huge amounts of money and devoted massive effort to trying to shift the electorate in their direction, but voters have remained resolutely, frustratingly unshifted.

The polls have been superglued to 50-50, with the occasional shift to 51-49 or 49-51, well within the margin of error. The insider expectation — one that Crikey has shared — is that Labor will win seats, but not enough to seriously threaten the Coalition’s grip on government.

[Essential: Labor maintains lead, voters split on Captain Cook’s ‘invasion’]

The greater interest has been instead been on how the Greens and NXT would fare in the House of Reps, and whether Malcolm Turnbull’s margin of victory would be small enough that his authority would, instead of being reinforced by a win that would enable Real Malcolm to emerge, be undermined. That would allow the feral right — which seriously thinks Tony Abbott should be back in cabinet, and that someone like Peter Dutton is leadership material — to send politics back into the turmoil of the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd-Abbott years.

To break this extended arm wrestle, Labor this week dramatically ramped up its scare campaign about the privatisation of Medicare, a combination of outright lie about actual privatisation with a skerrick of truth about funding cuts, in a bid to turn the election into a “referendum on Medicare”. If you can’t inspire voters, it seems, then try terrifying them.

The result was a palpable hit on the Coalition — despite most of the media criticising Labor for the lack of any substance to its claims, Turnbull was forced to walk away from any plans for private sector involvement in the overhaul of the antiquated Medicare payments system and deny, over and over, that he was going to privatise Medicare.

The Coalition, of course, hit back. It has been running a number of scare campaigns of its own, without anywhere near as much success, on negative gearing, on the rural Victorian firefighting, and most of all on boats, and the boats returned, literally, on Tuesday, with a combined Coalition/News Corp attack on Labor and a sudden enthusiasm on the part of a government that invented the fiction of “on-water matters” secrecy for talking about on-water matters.

Labor won’t be too fussed about that. According to Essential Research a fortnight ago, on which party is trusted on “ensuring the quality of Australia’s health system” Labor leads by 13 percentage points over the Coalition, and has increased its lead during the campaign. On trust on “treatment of asylum seekers”, an issue the Coalition should own lock, stock and detention camp, the government leads by just four points, and its lead has shrunk over the campaign. In the battle of the scare campaigns, Labor is, surprisingly perhaps, on stronger ground.

[Rundle: come next week, our democracy will reform, or corrode further]

Meantime, Scott Morrison has been working hard on a scare campaign about negative gearing, but it keeps blowing up on him. This week it was some new modelling suggesting that, in a worst case scenario, housing prices might fall a little as a result of Labor’s proposed negative gearing and capital gains tax reforms. So skewed is Australian politics by our obsession with real estate that the idea of housing — the average price of which in Sydney has gone up by more than a quarter over the last three years — becoming slightly more affordable is taken as some kind of arch economic heresy.

But Morrison’s efforts faltered somewhat when one of the authors of one of the reports he was relying on clarified that house prices would still go up. It didn’t help Morrison that Mathias Cormann released a lengthy tract called “Labor’s War on Business — Volume One” (and we salute the winner of the battle for the best election concept prog-rock album title) in which the attempt to assail Labor’s negative gearing and capital gains tax changes had a cameo in which the subject enjoyed a $400,000 windfall.

Morrison, however, followed up the negative gearing scare campaign with his own personal scare campaign, in which he suggested that criticism of his hostile views toward same-sex marriage was equal to homophobic abuse dished out to LGBTI people. Whoever is the winner on July 2, it’s clear Morrison has been one of the biggest losers of the campaign: his bungling performance on Labor’s “black hole”, his inability to land a blow on one of the most politically risky opposition policies in a generation, his poor-little-powerful-guy whine about abuse, his inability to prosecute any sort of coherent economic narrative, have all confirmed he may well have been over-promoted when Turnbull made him Treasurer. Once touted as a possible leadership rival to Turnbull, Morrison is now starting to look Hockey-esque — although at least Ambassador Joe knew his portfolio, something Morrison hasn’t yet achieved.

Can Labor make it Medicare scare campaign last one more week? Ghost-train rides rely on jump scares — the shock of something leaping out at you that, if you look closely at it, is a fairly shabby bit of string and plastic whirring about in the dark. Labor might need a few more BOO! moments to keep voters from noticing there’s about as much to their scare campaigns as there is to the government’s.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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