Turnbull trades on economic uncertainty: stick with the Coalition and its plan for innovation and tax cuts. Shorten emphasises Labor’s social policies – especially those with which Turnbull might agree. By Karen Middleton.

Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten’s final pitches

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten during the campaign.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten during the campaign.

1 . Malcolm Turnbull: ‘We need to make our own luck...’

As a federal election campaign nears its end, it generally becomes clearer which contender thinks he or she is going to win.

While the likely loser keeps fighting for every vote, the probable victor begins looking beyond, to the challenges ahead.

Liberal leader and incumbent prime minister Malcolm Turnbull is that guy in this election. 

Should he be returned, Turnbull has begun laying down markers for afterwards, insisting he will have a mandate to pass the May budget. 

He argues that given the election’s proximity to budget day this time around, there can be no mistaking the electorate’s view on his economic plan if he wins.

“We are living in a time of volatility, so our economy has to be as resilient and competitive as possible,” Malcolm Turnbull told The Saturday Paper. “That is why I have clearly set out an economic plan which is focused on innovation, technology, advanced manufacturing, and on supporting business and supporting investment and, of course, budget repair. So what we have done is create an economic plan that suits the tenor and the nature of the times in which we live. We’ve got to live within our means. We have always been a lucky country – but today more than ever we need to make our own luck.”

That plan includes small business tax cuts and further cuts to welfare eligibility, and expanding the definition of “small” business from one with a $2 million turnover to a $10 million turnover, and eventually more.

This week, Turnbull sought to harness Britain’s Brexit verdict, telling Australian voters both that everything will be fine and that, if they choose carelessly, it might not be.

He wants voters to feel uncertain enough to stick with the Coalition.

Turnbull also began addressing other issues he will face if today’s vote returns him to office. 

“Given that uncertainty, my strong sense is that what Australians are looking for most from this election is a step up in political culture – strong, decisive, resolute leadership, yet with a focus on what unites rather than divides,” he told the National Press Club on Thursday.

It was a message to his own colleagues as much as everyone else.

Win or lose – but especially if he wins – Turnbull faces troubled times on the issue of same-sex marriage, with some colleagues determined to oppose it in parliament, regardless of what the nation says through a plebiscite.

It is likely to be the issue that most symbolises the divide between the Liberal Party’s progressive and conservative sides.

Aware there’s a range of concerns within his constituency, Turnbull is also appealing to those who might think they can afford to give the government a kick.

“This is not the time for a protest vote,” he told The Saturday Paper. “Leave it to independents and preferences to decide, and Australians will find themselves this time next week with no clarity about their future. I say to Australians: If you only really know the leader of a minor party, but you don’t really know their candidates, and you don’t really know their policies, don’t vote for them.”

The Coalition’s superannuation policy has angered some traditional supporters and Turnbull may face a protest on that today and pressure later to amend it.

From July 1 next year, the reform plans to cap at $1.6 million the balance that can be transferred from low-taxed accumulation accounts into tax-free retirement accounts during the “retirement phase”. The cap would apply to existing funds and future transfers.

There would also be a $500,000 lifetime cap on non-concessional after-tax contributions, including all contributions made since July 1, 2007.

That is expected to also affect people using the “transition to retirement scheme” in which they transfer a portion of their salaries into superannuation accounts – therefore lowering their taxable income – and draw some of it back out as a low-taxed pension. The scheme is designed to encourage people to ease into retirement, but it’s being used as a means of tax minimisation. 

The longer-than-usual election campaign has had its pluses and minuses for Turnbull. He had to adjust his messages in the last weeks of the campaign to promise he would not sell off Medicare in the face of a no-holds-barred Labor advertising assault.

It’s been personally gruelling, too. The heavy campaign cold that descended about the time a campaign would normally be ending did not help.

Some of his colleagues complained privately he was putting in a lacklustre performance, prompting speculation from Labor that he was just “running down the clock” to polling day. 

“I’m consistent, committed, and I’m principled ... I love this country,” Turnbull told Radio 3AW late this week. The polls have swung more firmly his way in the past fortnight.

Although Turnbull insists voters already know him well, his elevation came late in the cycle, so he’s had to reintroduce himself – including making an online video about his relationship with his father, who brought him up – as Labor suggested he was “out of touch”.

The man he replaced as prime minister, Tony Abbott, has maintained a low profile other than bursts of criticism at the beginning and end. 

Abbott observed on Sky News this week that the Coalition had not campaigned hard enough on either economic management credentials or national security – areas in which it traditionally attracts public support.

As Turnbull announced his challenge in September last year, he declared the Coalition had lacked “economic leadership”.

Abbott was effectively suggesting this week that Turnbull had not provided as much as he might have.

Turnbull has resisted making national security an election issue, beyond emphasising the Coalition’s immigration policies.

The party is sticking to its existing border protection policies, including detaining asylum seekers offshore, refusing them access to Australia and offering proven refugees already onshore access to only temporary protection visas and not permanent residency.

But community unease about the humanitarian dimension – and Papua New Guinea’s court ruling forcing the closure of the Manus Island centre – means this issue, too, won’t go away.


2 . Bill Shorten: ‘I’m proud of our plans...’

Labor leader Bill Shorten put himself into training for this federal election campaign more than a year before it began.

A regimen of walking and then running with a personal trainer paid off in the form of better endurance and the loss of 10 kilos. And the experience of addressing and fielding unscripted questions from voters at dozens of town-hall meetings for months gave him practice at expecting the unexpected.

Shorten is widely seen as having run a better-than-solid campaign and has revealed more of himself in a more authentic way during the past eight weeks than voters might have seen before.

“I’m proud of my team and I’m proud of our plans for Australia,” he told The Saturday Paper.

Labor’s risky early release of some of those plans was designed to tell voters it was not afraid of scrutiny. That appeared to largely pay off, with some of its proposals – including a proposed crackdown of tax avoidance by multinational companies – being adopted by the Coalition.

Labor managed to reset the debate mid-campaign with a focus on its popular promise to set up a royal commission into the banking sector, a pledge that struck a chord with angry customers. It also swung the national conversation onto its traditionally safe turf of education and then health, especially with a promise to lift the freeze on Medicare rebates that the government had said it would continue.

Bill Shorten boasted he would release 100 positive policies. “I didn’t ask for an eight-week campaign, but I’ve relished the opportunity to talk to so many people,” he told The Saturday Paper.

“I’ve met tens of thousands of people and listened to thousands of Australians – it’s been brilliant. I’m confident that we have the best ideas for Australia. People want to see Medicare protected. They want to see better schools for their kids. They want to see a government prepared to stand up for jobs in Australia. That’s what Labor is offering.”

But Labor’s sudden switch to a scare campaign about the privatisation of Medicare in the final fortnight, while apparently effective on the ground, also attracted criticisms of dishonesty after the Coalition flatly denied the allegations.

And Labor’s belated admission that it would endorse some measures from the now-infamous 2014 Coalition budget, which it had steadfastly opposed in parliament, as well as confirmation it would deliver yawning deficits before the budget headed back to balance, reignited debate about its economic credibility.Its policy to restrict negative gearing tax concessions to the purchase of newly built homes also proved controversial.

Shorten sought to address that as the campaign rounded the final bend this week. “Labor will serve the interests of all Australians,” he told journalists on Thursday. “I want to make it very clear to Australians that we are ready for government.”

While the Liberals are believed to have outspent Labor in campaign advertising, Labor was able to mobilise both human and financial support from the union movement, which had members staffing the phones and cold-calling voters in marginal seats, emphasising the negative as much as the positive.

While Labor has sought to associate itself with some of the Coalition’s policies – and its reputation – on economic management and immigration, it has also deliberately tried to differentiate on other issues, including climate change.

Shorten announced a plan to re-introduce an emissions trading scheme – the issue that became pivotal in the demise of the previous Labor government. The policy was spruiked because Labor supports it and because Malcolm Turnbull does, too, but can’t say so.

Labor has tried wherever possible to highlight areas in which it believes the Liberal leader has had to walk away from, or modify, his own beliefs to appease the conservatives in his own party.

“Australians are disappointed in Malcolm Turnbull,” Shorten told The Saturday Paper. “The man hasn’t matched the hype.”

But, according to the published opinion polls, despite some improvement on the Labor leader’s part, Turnbull’s approval rating has remained higher than Shorten’s throughout the campaign.

Some policy issues have proved problematic for Labor, factionally and geographically. The party has had to manage strongly differing views among its own constituents on the pace and nature of urban development, primarily the WestConnex road project linking Sydney’s west to the city. Many inner-city residents oppose the project, while support is much stronger in the western suburbs among those facing a long commute.

In inner-city seats in Sydney and Melbourne, Labor incumbents have faced a serious Greens threat, making their policy pronunciations more complicated.

The fraught debate over asylum seekers has also raised questions over whether members of Labor’s Left faction will continue to support the party’s policy to allow boat turn-backs, adopted at its national conference last year but still causing concern for some.

Senior left-wing frontbencher Anthony Albanese voted against it. He says he will abide by the party’s policy.

As it does for the Coalition, this issue threatens to re-emerge after the election and more fully reveal divisions that have been papered over.

As Shorten’s campaign drew to a close, he faced criticism for telling the National Press Club that the “defining moment” was Turnbull’s remark that political parties didn’t always do what they promised, when the comment was actually made in relation to the Labor Party. The message was reinforced by so-called robocalls to voters – automated calls that played a recording of the Turnbull comment and then followed it with a voice saying “It’s hard to believe he said that, isn’t it?”

It prompted the Coalition – and some journalists – to suggest it smacked of desperation. Shorten is already facing questions about his own future, which assume he won’t win today’s election.

Under Labor Party rules pushed through during Kevin Rudd’s second run as prime minister, an election loss automatically triggers a leadership ballot.

Albanese, Shorten’s former rival for the leadership, may decide to recontest. He’s declining to say. 

If Labor loses, the closeness of the result – that is, the size of the loss – will determine whether Shorten’s colleagues believe he’s done enough to deserve another go.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 1, 2016 as "Turnbull and Shorten's final pitches".

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Karen Middleton is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.

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