When it comes to election campaigns, it’s easier to sell the negative over the positive – at a massive cost to taxpayers. By Mike Seccombe.

The $250 million federal election question

Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten during the leaders’ debate at the National Press Club.
Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten during the leaders’ debate at the National Press Club.

Whatever the outcome today, one thing is already undeniably clear: the result will represent a triumph of fear over hope.

It’s a pity, because the election started out so full of hope.

Officially, the eight-week campaign has been the longest in half a century. In reality, it has been much longer. The start and finish dates of the campaign were known long before Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull officially announced them. Karen Middleton reported the July 2 date in these pages as early as February 27.

Arguably, however, it has been going since September 14 last year, when Turnbull explained his reasons for challenging Tony Abbott, pointing to this election and saying: “Every month lost is a month of lost opportunities.”

He promised hope then.

“We need a style of leadership that explains those challenges and opportunities – explains the challenges and how to seize the opportunities. A style of leadership that respects the people’s intelligence, that explains these complex issues, and then sets out the course of action we believe we should take, and makes a case for it. We need advocacy, not slogans,” said Turnbull, the popular hero of September.

The man he was up against, Labor leader Bill Shorten, also promised a high-road campaign. He would not resort to the small-target strategy of a Howard or the relentless negativity of an Abbott, but offer us 100 “positive” policies, thoroughly thought through and independently costed.

The prospect of a campaign structured around a contest of ideas was novel but not, in the end, sustainable. The longer the campaign ran, the more negative it became. And it has run an inordinately long time, becoming inordinately negative.

The long campaign was made necessary by quirks of the constitution. Turnbull wanted a double dissolution, but section 57 specifies that a double-dissolution election cannot be held within six months of the expiry of the house of representatives. Thus the election had to be called before May 11.

However under the provisions of section 13, if the election were held before July 1, the senators’ terms would have been backdated to July 1, 2015. A half-senate election – and likely a house of representatives election – would then have to be held in the first half of 2018. Turnbull would lose a year of government.

Given the way things are panning out, the idea of going to a double dissolution looks silly in retrospect. The putative reason – the current senate’s refusal to pass legislation reviving the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) – has hardly rated mention during the campaign. And the government’s hopes of cleaning out the obstructionist elements in the senate appear doomed. The portents are that the new senate will be at least as unmanageable as the old senate, if not more so.

The actual make-up of the senate is anyone’s guess. It’s tough enough to predict in a normal election, but far harder in a double dissolution where the vote share necessary for victory is roughly halved. The electoral commission has already warned it could take more than a month to determine the final few senators.

But the assessment of Peta Credlin, Abbott’s former chief of staff, is entirely plausible: the government will win the election with a slim majority in the lower house, but there will be so many non-government senators that the ABCC bill will not get through a joint sitting of the two houses.

And if that comes to pass, the whole eight-week election gambit will be seen as a long, costly error of judgement.

Very costly. The tab to be picked up by the taxpayer is likely to be in the order of a quarter-of-a-billion dollars.

To be fair, every federal election is more expensive than the one before, for various reasons, including population growth and inflation. The total cost of the 2010 house of representatives and half-senate election was $161,342,861. The 2013 reps and half-senate election cost about $32 million more, at $193,774,374.

Of that 2013 election cost, about $135.6 million was the cost of actually administering the poll. The Australian Electoral Commission estimates the cost of administering this double dissolution at somewhere between $160 million and $170 million. Another $58.1 million was paid to political parties and candidates as public funding in 2013.

To be entitled to public funding a candidate must receive at least 4 per cent of first preference votes. For a senate group, the group as a whole must receive at least 4 per cent of first preference votes in the state or territory in which they stand.

The great rort in the system is that parties are not simply compensated for the amount they actually spend on campaigning. Instead, they receive a flat rate per vote, indexed to increase every six months in line with inflation. At this election it will be a little under $2.63 a vote.

Factoring in population growth, payments to the parties are likely to be close to $65 million this time round.

Then there are the campaigning costs. Under the rules, the taxpayers pick up the cost of that until the parties have their formal campaign launches. That’s why the parties – counterintuitively – defer their launches until the final couple of weeks before the election.

Obviously, the more time politicians spend flitting about the country campaigning before the “launch”, the greater the cost to the public purse. In this election, that cost is likely to be about twice that of a normal-length campaign.

Bottom line, Turnbull’s decision to go for a double dissolution will cost taxpayers many, many millions of dollars.

The statistics on the advertising spending of the parties give an enlightening perspective. Figures from the advertising monitoring firm Ebiquity, which captures perhaps 80 per cent of the parties’ total spending on print, radio and television ads, trace the arc of the campaign from positive to negative.

Before the end of May, Labor advertising was more positive than negative, although the total spend was relatively small. Then it went strongly negative.

As of Tuesday this week, on the eve of the electronic advertising blackout, the ALP had spent roughly three times as much on negative as on positive ads.

Liberal advertising was all positive until the first week in June, and spending on attack ads did not really ramp up until we entered the final two weeks. Still, it was relatively more positive than Labor, a ratio of roughly 2:1, positive to negative.

The Greens have been the most positive of the lot, spending nearly four times as much on promoting themselves as they did on attacking others – although their overall expenditure is much smaller.

The other interesting thing in this campaign is the extent to which the ad spending was loaded into the back end of the campaign: the major parties spent almost nothing and the Greens spent literally nothing until the final three weeks.

Richard Basil-Jones, CEO of Ebiquity, notes that spending ratcheted up sharply on June 12, just ahead of the start of pre-poll voting on June 14.

“And this week,” he says, “between the two major parties they’re spending roughly $1 million a day.”

As of Wednesday, Labor had spent about $4.7 million, and the Liberals $6.1 million.

The saddest costs of the campaign, though, are the policy ideas that have been shot down for no reason other than partisan advantage.

Consider reform of the negative gearing and capital gains tax regimes, the interaction of which served to give huge tax breaks to wealthy investors in property, inflate the real estate market, make it ever harder for younger and less affluent people to buy homes, and increase the risk of a bursting property bubble.

Both sides accepted the need for change. But when Labor put forward a policy prescription, the government mounted a ferocious, fundamentally dishonest scare campaign against it. Likewise the government’s plan to make the Medicare payments system more efficient, now abandoned as a result of Labor’s scare that it amounted to the privatisation of Medicare.

There are plenty of other examples.

We can in part blame the politicians for this, but we should not absolve ourselves, either.

Before the campaign turned negative, people pronounced it boring. The truth is, getting our heads around positive policy requires an understanding of detail. Most people don’t bother.

And in the absence of understanding, it is human nature to be distrustful of change.

Psychologists and behavioural economists have long known this. They call it “loss aversion”, and studies suggest the fear of loss is twice as powerful, psychologically, as the hope of gain.

Applied to politics, the concept simply means that you have a better chance of winning by persuading electors they will be harmed by an opponent’s policies than you do by persuading them of the benefits of your own.

And the tools of modern political communication – focus groups, polls, mass media, social media, short attention spans and instant feedback – only encourage the exploitation of public opinion to negative ends.

The irony is, of course, that the more adept politics becomes at exploiting negativity in the electorate, the more negative the electorate becomes about politics. Hence the low approval ratings of our leaders and the democratic system itself.

In 1906, United States president Theodore Roosevelt sat in a barber’s chair, being interviewed by a journalist, who speculated about the trend of public opinion.

“I do not represent public opinion,” Roosevelt responded angrily. “I represent the public.”

If only our contemporary leaders had the courage to do likewise.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 2, 2016 as "The $250m question".

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Mike Seccombe is The Saturday Paper’s national correspondent.

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