Sean Kelly
Negative reinforcement for Super Saturday

We are in a period of barren, defensive politics. The byelections that take place today bring to an end a long campaign – it has been nine weeks since we learnt the date – and lines have been locked down. At an event in Tasmania this week Bill Shorten used the phrase “before banks” eight times, to explain where Labor would put hospitals, Medicare, patients, doctors and pensioners. There was, admittedly, some variation – three times Shorten swapped the order of the words, to describe his opponent’s priorities.

This is not unusual in the last week of a close contest. Neither side wants to risk mistakes. Ramming home existing messages becomes the main game. And with a crazy-making five byelections under way, it’s no surprise this has something of the feel of a full federal campaign.

I would go further, though, and say it feels like a specific federal campaign, namely the previous one we lived through, in 2016.

That vote, like this one, was held in winter. That campaign was also absurdly long, at eight weeks. Most distinct, to my mind, is the fact that very, very little of significance actually occurred. Both sides had announced some policy earlier and they continued to debate it. Mostly though, it was a dreary campaign, devoid of new offerings. That was one of the reasons Labor had such success with its Mediscare campaign: there was little else around.

In an interesting piece in The Australian Financial Review this week, Andrew Tillett looked at the parties’ current messages. Reading it, I was struck by how negative the approaches were on both sides. This was not just negative campaigning as it is usually understood – attacking your opponent rather than focusing on your own strengths. Instead, each side put its case in terms of what couldn’t be done if the other side got its way. On company tax cuts, a Liberal source told Tillett, “If you don’t have a strong economy, you can’t afford to fund hospitals”. On the same topic, a Labor source said: “When you tell people you can’t give any more money to health care because it is going to the banks, that goes down badly.” This campaign is literally twice as negative as usual.

That defensive positioning isn’t limited to the past few weeks. It’s been going on for some time, in some ways since the night of the 2016 vote, when the prime minister’s anger got the better of him as he attacked Labor for “some of the most systematic, well-funded lies ever peddled in Australia”. Labor wasn’t the only party trying to fill a vacuum in that campaign with speculative attacks on its opponent. In the absence of policy, the Coalition expended enormous effort trying to whip up fear around whether Labor’s asylum seeker policy would remain its asylum seeker policy in government. 

Neither party has forgotten the harm done by those arguments and both parties are set on preventing it happening again. Their efforts seem to have been somewhat successful. A Fairfax Ipsos poll this week showed Labor’s lead on the question of which party would better handle health has halved. The government’s lead on asylum seekers has fallen by even more, from 15 to 4 percentage points.

This points to both parties having invested an enormous amount of time in minimising their vulnerabilities. This effort, perhaps inevitably, has come at the expense of grand policy adventures.

Consider recent announcements. Minister Josh Frydenberg is working very hard to get the national energy guarantee (NEG) across the line. It might be reasonable policy, and it may provide a way forward for our deadbeat climate debate, but it is not ambitious – a report this week found 97 per cent of our emissions target will be met without the NEG. The aim is to end the fighting. The same goes for Scott Morrison’s expensive GST plan, which has one purpose: to fix a political problem in Western Australia. Meanwhile, Labor has been busy fixing its own problems on company tax, private health insurance and dividend imputation. It is defensive play all round.

Even the hyped provocations of Anthony Albanese, touted as a leadership rival to Shorten, have been largely framed in terms of what shouldn’t be done. On boat turnbacks, he wouldn’t change existing policy. Unlike Malcolm Turnbull, who sets unions and businesses against each other, Labor’s job is “not to sow discord”.

The most daring piece of policy from either side over the past few years has been Labor’s negative gearing foray. After it was announced, Labor rose in the polls. The policy itself may no longer be a clear political winner, given recent falls in property prices, but the specifics were only ever half the story. There was energy behind it, and it gave voters the sense that Labor had a bigger vision for the country. This is much more important for Labor. The Liberals can win from opposition with blandness (John Howard in 1996) or negativity (Tony Abbott in 2013). Labor has always won government on a wave of excitement, driven by dramatic policy offerings.

It would be wrong to say that neither the government nor the Opposition has any policy. It would also be incorrect to say the two sides are the same, or even close. Labor in particular has put forward important proposals along the way: a federal independent commission against corruption, significant changes to donations laws and action on a republic. But none of these policies has a real footing in the national contest. For most voters that battle appears to have narrowed to the terms the parties have lately chosen: company tax cuts, health, and a fair whack of immigration thrown in over the past fortnight.

In other words, exactly the same battles as the last – fairly hollow – election campaign.

As sterile as this leaves things, there is logic behind it. Turnbull only recently passed his income tax cuts and it is reasonable to pause before moving on. Shorten, who can only guess at the date of the actual election, can’t afford to use all his ammunition now.

A difficulty for Shorten is that he has two battles to watch. One is the actual election. The other, depending on the results of the byelections, is that with Albanese. If that battle comes to a head – and the possibility may yet fade away – it is likely to happen in the next couple of months. Shorten might need that wave of excitement sooner rather than later.

Asked about a YouGov Galaxy poll suggesting he could have led Labor to victory in the byelections, Albanese dismissed it, saying the poll “that counts is the one that shows that Labor would be elected to government if the election was held last Saturday or this Saturday coming”.

Albanese is right, but his straight bat will become harder to keep straight if Labor’s consistent poll lead vanishes. This week’s Ipsos poll showed it had narrowed to 51–49. As I flagged two weeks ago, the most worrying figure for Labor should be Turnbull’s approval ratings. Ipsos had them rising significantly.

One way of avoiding tricky questions is simply to go on holiday. That, at least, was the approach of Pauline Hanson, who – as former One Nation adviser Sean Black was sentenced for rape and assault this week – skipped the country for a cruise around Ireland.

Not that it reduced her influence on Australian politics. It has by now become clear how coordinated was the Coalition’s immigration push. We have heard about a population inquiry, a values test and new figures on asylum seekers and migration. There has been a despicable ramping up of rhetoric around Sudanese gangs in Victoria. Peter Dutton says he might not sign up to a United Nations compact on migration that Australia helped negotiate. Yes, the Victorian election has something to do with all this, but I will not be surprised if the hysteria falls away after the byelections. On this issue, too, Labor is playing defence, this week flagging a crackdown on student working visas.

Elsewhere, the My Health Record alarm bells began to ring a little louder. Liberal MP Tim Wilson will opt out of the national online database, joining 20,000 Australians who left on the first day. Health Minister Greg Hunt claimed police could only access records with a court order – he turned out to be wrong. A genuine disaster here could derail the government and Turnbull should be dispatching his best people. And while we’re on unfolding problems that are hard to predict, Labor MP Emma Husar, facing an investigation into serious allegations about treatment of her staff, took personal leave.

Not everything fits into my neat frame. Labor became more aggressive on the NEG, indicating the government’s offer of a review after five years was not enough to win its support. Former Victorian premier Steve Bracks called on Labor to take a stand against the prosecution of Witness K and his lawyer, Bernard Collaery, for whistleblowing over East Timor gas negotiations, and suggested the party might be preparing to do so. We should hope that it is.

But these are exceptions. Mostly, right now, our politicians are preoccupied with shutting down attacks, minimising weaknesses and fixing problems before they spiral. I tend to think Turnbull will hold the election next year, as he keeps promising. That gives both major parties time to shift gear. We’ve lived through the 2016 election twice already – let’s not do it a third time.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 28, 2018 as "Negative reinforcement".

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Sean Kelly is a columnist for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, and a former adviser to Labor prime ministers.

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