Day 4: On Message

In Papua-New Guinea yesterday, armed police patrolled Parliament House. There was talk of the Prime Minister being toppled. The Parliament met, but the Opposition lacked the numbers and 74-year-old Michael Somare remained in control. There was much activity but nothing much happened. The old pro who first became Prime Minister in 1975 lived to fight another day.

On Day 4 of the 2010 Australian election campaign, it was much the same: lots of activity but a sense that the real events were taking place elsewhere.

For Gillard and Abbott, it was time to focus on bread and butter issues. Time to shake off the distractions and target the message. Time to ready for the grind that is coming.

Abbott began and ended the day well. On Channel 7’s Sunrise, in an interview that lacked the danger of Monday’s encounters with the media, he once again killed, buried and cremated WorkChoices. The Channel 9 evening news in Melbourne led with Abbott cycling the streets and announcing expenditure savings.

Julia Gillard also appeared on Sunrise, her lines now perfected and rolling forth in a torrent. “I don’t want to see a big Australia … I want to see a sustainable Australia… we’ve announced a modest measure to take a bit of pressure off … Tony Abbott is strongly supportive of WorkChoices…”

Later, she gave a speech on urban congestion and population to the Western Sydney Regional Organisation of Councils. The speech was all but identical to the one she delivered in Brisbane on Sunday.

At a media conference at Richmond High School, Gillard announced a National Cadetship Program aimed at extending earlier initiatives in providing more places for apprentices. The cost will be modest. There will be no “old-fashioned spendathon,” she said. As Gillard spoke on live television, restless students in chefs’ clothing stood behind her, talking, shuffling and uninterested in the media event taking place nearby.

In Melbourne, Abbott appeared with Joe Hockey and Andrew Robb to announce more spending cuts and budget savings under a coalition government. In announcing a further $1.2 billion of expenditure cuts, they said they were taking the axe to “bureaucracy”, not to programs or services. Community Cabinets would be gone. The Carbon Capture and Storage Institute would be axed.

The careful message of fiscal prudence and general good management under a Liberal government was briefly derailed when a female reporter took issue with Joe Hockey’s assertion that “Wayne Swan is to surpluses what Paris Hilton is to celibacy”. She pointed out that Abbott had laughed when Hockey said it and demanded to know whether “you think it’s right to use a woman’s sexuality for your political fodder”.

In a sense, the incident was trivial. Hockey was repurposing an old joke, albeit one that contained some dubious assumptions. But at that moment the Liberal Party seemed like a boys’ club, an institution frozen in times past. Three of its most senior representatives looked both exasperated and appalled that they had been caught out, accused of demeaning women. Hockey, in particular, looked fit to explode. His face said it all: we can’t take a trick with this lot.

Later in the morning, Abbott ventured into Melbourne’s eastern suburban heartland to declare open the Ringwood East campaign rooms of Phil Barresi, the member for Deakin defeated in 2007 but seeking re-election this year. It was an occasion to throw red meat at the assembled party members and supporters. The die-hard Liberals oohed and aahed in all the right places as Abbott retold the story of Julia Gillard’s political boning skills. They tut-tutted at the memory of the shabby treatment meted out to the elected Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, and nodded approvingly at calls for less spending and borrowing.

And then Abbott was off to a fruit shop to talk about the cost of living, government debt and borrowing, and the continuing irresponsibility of his opponents. His message was meat and potatoes, delivered confidently and repeatedly. It has been much rehearsed since last December.

A reckoning is coming when Abbott will have to garnish the meal with something extra. But yesterday was not the day. Yesterday was the day to consolidate, to steady for the battle ahead.

Adjacent to Deakin is the Liberal-held seat of La Trobe. In 2007, Jason Wood withstood a 5.3% swing to hold on by 871 votes, a margin of 0.51%. The Labor candidate this time round is a commercial lawyer with Holding Redlich, Laura Smyth.

When I spoke to Smyth she recited a list of impending campaign events. There are candidates’ forums, other public meetings on specific issues, such as education, and the daily campaigning at railway stations and shopping centres. She has been doorknocking the electorate for the past seven months.

Candidates like Smyth and Barresi are busying themselves with a plethora of campaign tasks. There’s the postal vote campaign to organise. My local member wrote to me yesterday, generously inviting me to avail myself of his assistance should I need to vote by post. There are polling booth rosters to compile, posters to display, leaflets to be printed, websites to be maintained. There are meetings to be held with local interest groups, schools to visit, fundraising events to organise. It’s a massive operation, often conducted on a shoestring budget.

There is a rhythm and a pattern to election campaigns. We have just come through that initial burst of excitement and enthusiasm. The party leaders have jostled for position, practising their lines, finding their feet, testing the waters of public interest. The debate has been arranged, “MasterChef” accommodated. Now the grind begins, the endless round of events and speeches repeated ad nauseum.

The public sees little of this. The political coverage on commercial television would have you believe an election campaign is all about kissing babies, or foolish young men running through shopping centres clad only in red budgie smugglers. Last night, Channel 7 News even produced another clairvoyant octopus.

Behind all this theatre lies a deadly serious contest for elected office. And so yesterday ended with one of those ritual encounters on Lateline. The tyro union leader Paul Howes debated Michael Kroger, the one-time, and perhaps still, Liberal Party powerbroker. There was nothing much in it, just a rehashing of the lines about Kevin Rudd’s execution by factional warlords and the mortality of WorkChoices.

But at one point we were cast back a quarter of a century to the Dollar Sweets case. It wasn’t an anti-union case, the 53-year-old Kroger told the 28-year-old Howes, “it was about protecting the interests of small business.” And then, his voice rising in exasperation: “It happened before you were born. You weren’t even born.”

For all established power there is eventually a reckoning when it cleaves to youth, ambition, decay, violence, or an idea whose time has come. Fortunately, it happens peacefully in our political system. In their brief encounter, Kroger and Howes exemplified the contest of generations, ideology, political style, ambition and experience.

This article first appeared on The Drum.

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