Government and governance | Australia

29 March 2016

History shows that long campaigns favour the Opposition, and this one could be tough for Malcolm Turnbull’s government, John Hewson writes.

Australia is soon to endure the longest Federal election campaign in its history if the Senate doesn’t pass two pieces of legislation, a failure that will give Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull the essential trigger to call a double dissolution election for 2 July.

Of course, if the Senate does pass the Australian Building and Construction Bill, and the Registered Organisations Bill, the election will be pushed out even further, probably until September or October – heaven forbid!

Either way it’s a very long time to have to watch on from the sidelines as our politicians and aspirants slug it out against each other, with claim and counter claim, offering a barrage of promises, many undeliverable, or which simply won’t be delivered. Elections tend to bring out the worst in our political leaders and in our political process.

Government is basically set aside for the duration of the campaign, and genuine and substantial debates about policy alternatives are eschewed.

Long campaigns also tend to favour the Opposition. I recall Bob Hawke’s 10-week campaign in 1984, where Opposition Leader Andrew Peacock performed unexpectedly well, winning some nine seats from Labor, even though Hawke went into that campaign with an ACNielsen rating of 75 per cent. It was said that if the campaign had gone on another week, Peacock could well have won.

Nowadays the electorate is also much less tolerant of poor or uninspiring government performance. Gone are the days where a government could essentially count on a minimum of two terms. There are some significant lessons to be learned from recent State elections in Queensland and Victoria where governments were dismissed against expectations, especially Queensland where the Opposition held only nine seats, and Annastacia Palaszczuk’s team was largely unknown and clearly not ready to govern.

The key to these unexpected State victories was essentially the focus on bread and butter issues – issues of direct significance to voters. For example, Daniel Andrews in Victoria focused much of his campaign on vocational training and level rail crossings.

I suspect that Opposition Leader Bill Shorten will build on this approach, focusing on basic issues such as schools, hospitals and childcare, while dramatically elevating issues such as climate change, where he will hope to wedge Turnbull, locked in, as he is, to former prime minister Tony Abbott’s climate policies. Also expect that independent candidate Tony Windsor will do the same in his campaign for New England, hoping to wedge Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce, who will also be hamstrung by Cabinet solidarity.

Turnbull can be expected to talk a lot about innovation, technology and infrastructure, and the transition from an economy based on a resources boom, to whatever. Of course, if it is a double dissolution election, he will focus on union governance, but just briefly at the beginning of the campaign.

Turnbull will clearly begin with the edge, even though his personal satisfaction rating is now net negative in the polls, with voter surveys suggesting that the contest will probably be neck and neck. Although he has burned a lot of political capital by failing to match initial expectations, and through apparent inactivity, many will still want him to do well.

However, the electorate finds it hard to accept how much he has changed, and how much he traded in deals with the backbench to get the leadership. They are looking for the original Malcolm to reappear.

In this regard, I couldn’t help but recall the conversation between Alice and the Caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland.

“Who are YOU?’’ said the Caterpillar.

This was an encouraging opening for a conversation. Alice replied, rather shyly, “I – I hardly know, sir, just at present – at least I know who I WAS when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.’’

“What do you mean by that?’’ said the Caterpillar sternly. “Explain yourself!’’

“I can’t explain MYSELF, I’m afraid, sir,’’ said Alice, “because I am not myself, you see.’’

“I don’t see,’’ said the Caterpillar.

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Hewson, J. (2016). The trials of a long election campaign - Policy Forum. [online] Policy Forum. Available at: