Bill Shorten in front of Save Medicare banner
(Image: AP/Rob Griffith)

For most of the election campaign, we saw no movement in the polls. Those of us paid to report on what polling was telling us strained to see any movement that wasn’t larger than the margin of error. 51-49. 50-50. 49-51. Everyone was agreed Labor would pick up seats — and almost everyone (including Labor figures, speaking either candidly or with an agenda to lower expectations) thought it wouldn’t be enough.

But the last two weeks brought changes that would end up having a huge bearing on the result. Two weeks out, Labor unleashed its Medicare privatisation campaign at the Labor launch. This was no desperate last roll of the dice for Labor, having carefully laid the groundwork with ads featuring Bob Hawke and a large spending commitment early in the campaign to end the controversial GP rebate freeze. They’d planned all along to go hard on Medicare at the end of the campaign; the ad with Hawke had been shot weeks before. It was a shameless scare campaign, and it instantly bit, forcing Malcolm Turnbull to retreat from any private sector involvement in the repair of the Medicare payments system.

The media universally condemned Labor for the campaign (the sort of universal condemnation we never heard of Tony Abbott’s scare campaigns). On 7.30, Leigh Sales repeatedly badgered Shorten about the campaign, demanding he admit it was based on falsehoods. By the following weekend, when Turnbull held his own, low-key launch, it was felt the Coalition had managed to stabilise itself in the face of the campaign, which was now flagging. Turnbull and others began attacking Labor for “union thugs” ringing elderly voters to warn them about the privatisation of Medicare.

[Essential: Labor keeps lead as Mediscare hits home]

Last Thursday night, Crikey received Essential Research’s final campaign poll, taken from Monday evening through to that day. Essential had shown the Coalition vote falling the previous week, but not by enough to be outside the margin of error. Consistent with the “vibe” of the week, its final poll showed a late swing back to the Coalition, with a primary vote shift outside the margin of error that put the Coalition back to 42%. It was enough to get the Coalition ahead, 50.5 to 49.5, calculated using 2013 preference allocations, although the result was more like 50-50 based on stated preference intentions.

But the Medicare scare campaign had a final and, perhaps, crucial twist. Among a host of what looked, in retrospect, to be ill-thought decisions, Turnbull had picked the day after the start of the financial year for the election. And because of freezes to Medicare rebates but also, simply, normal general business practice, large numbers of GPs were planning to raise their fees on July 1. Labor had been collecting fees notices in clinics across Australia as evidence that the government was attacking Medicare. There were no union thugs making midnight calls to Gran lying about the demise of Medicare — here was nice Dr Smith telling Gran she would be raising her fees would be rising as of July 1. The RACGP had for months been running a high-profile campaign against the Medicare rebate freeze; the Australian Medical Association — despite its new head, Michael Gannon, being seen as more Coalition-friendly than his predecessor, Brian Owler — was talking about GPs abandoning bulkbilling, even as he criticised Labor’s campaign.

And then Malcolm Turnbull — who’d by and large run a disciplined campaign that stuck closely to the Liberals’ chosen messages — screwed up, badly. Talking on Sunrise on Friday morning, he was asked by Samantha Armytage, “Can you guarantee our viewers will not pay more to see the doctor due to this freeze?” Turnbull answered, “Sam, absolutely, and bulk billing is at its all-time high.”

[All aboard the ghost train for Labor’s Mediscare campaign]

Turnbull could engage in some Howard-like casuistry to explain why he hadn’t said why he appeared to have said, but he looked to have guaranteed no GP fee rises because of the freeze. Suddenly, Medicare funding was a live issue again — even The Australian was forced to remark on what Turnbull had said. Later that day in Sydney, after an on-again-off-again hesitancy about whether to hold a media conference, Turnbull fronted up to journalists and was asked about his comments, twice. “What I said was this,” Turnbull said. “Let’s be very very clear about this. Doctors can charge what they like – there is no cap on what doctors can charge.” Asked again, he said:

“The point I am making is that the freeze in the indexation, which is not a justification, or not a cause, to charge the sort of increases that you’re talking about or some doctors have been talking about, of $15 or $20 or $10 or $15. That is simply not the case. We’re talking about 60 cents … If a doctor wishes to charge more, he or she may attribute that higher charge to whatever they like, but they cannot credibly attribute it to not getting an extra 60 cents this year.”

So, it was the doctors’ fault they were charging more, nothing to do with the freeze.

Who are voters, especially voters who use GPs a lot, like the elderly, going to believe: nice Dr Smith or Malcolm Turnbull?

The campaign was almost over, but Turnbull himself had made sure the last day was about exactly what Labor wanted it to be about: Medicare and the end of bulk-billing. George Wright and Bill Shorten couldn’t have scripted it better. Voters would go to the polls with cuts to Medicare fresh in their minds. There might have been a late swing to the Coalition during the week, but by Friday night, Labor had been given some momentum of its own, right at the business end of the contest.