Day 27: What Are They Thinking?

Day 27 of my election campaign began with a hair-cut.

The salon I visit lies close to the boundary between the safe Liberal electorate of Goldstein and the safe Labor electorate of Hotham. The local members, Andrew Robb and Simon Crean, are leading lights in their respective parties and one or other man will be a senior minister after the election.

Paul, my hairdresser, tells me interest in the election has tailed off in the past couple of weeks. The political talk around the time Gillard deposed Rudd has been replaced by other concerns.

A lot of people are annoyed with both sides, Paul says. Some are saying they won’t vote or will vote informal. I tell him the electoral statistics show that most of these people won’t do what they say they will. Nevertheless, he says they’re disillusioned with what’s on offer.

“It’s as if two apprentices are after a craftsman’s job,” is Paul’s interpretation of the mood.

Some of his clients think Abbott dithers, stutters and stumbles. They think Gillard is more confident and able to handle all kinds of questions thrown at her. One client worries that a voting decision will hinge on personality judgments, not policy.

WorkChoices is still an issue with many voters, Paul tells me. Some feel Abbott is a bit of a “nutter” who could do anything. Some Liberals would prefer Malcolm Turnbull. His smartness outweighs any perception of arrogance. Gillard earned “brownie points” for the way she handled Mark Latham last weekend. The Greens are not popular around here – people think they’re extreme and “loony”.

Paul leans to the Liberals. I know him as a small-l Liberal on social issues. Abbott’s parental leave policy is a vote changer for him. It taxes business and rewards people on higher incomes. A standard minimum payment to all recipients would be fairer.

It’s hardly a representative sampling of opinion. And this is Melbourne, not Queensland or the fabled Western Sydney. But still, they’re straws in the wind.

Back home, the continuous news coverage tells me that Tony Abbott has visited a school to inspect the “waste” from Building the Education Revolution. Earlier, he’s announced a policy to index pensions for former members of the armed services.

Gillard has been in Launceston, throwing the switch on the National Broadband Network. Television images show her engaged in one of those silly picture opportunities where VIPs in hard hats all gather around the big red button.

It’s also a day for debates. Minister Stephen Smith and his Shadow Julie Bishop are debating foreign affairs at the National Press Club. Bishop seems hesitant in her opening address but fires up over doubts about who will be Foreign Minister in a re-elected Labor government. The spectre of Kevin Rudd lingers.

Smith says the government’s foreign policy is based on the three pillars of the American alliance, engagement with the world through the United Nations and other multilateral bodies, and engagement in our Asian region.

Smith and Bishop argue about the efficacy of Australia’s pursuit of a seat on the UN Security Council but this debate is low-key and seems to be a going-through-the-motions exercise.

At one point, Smith is asked why there’s been no debate about Australia’s relationship with China. He says this is the first time in the election that he’s been asked about it. It was a telling comment that revealed much about the nature of Australian political debate and leadership.

The day before, Nicola Roxon and Peter Dutton debated health at the National Press Club. Policy wonks have been well-rewarded this week with a series of debates. Their influence on the election is questionable.

With just over a week to go, the television debates obscure the political reality that the election is now all about local contests, local announcements and local organisation.

The overwhelming bulk of people have long since decided how they will vote. A majority of the population will vote as they did last time. Indeed, most people will vote the way they have all their lives. Policy debates, political advertising and the myriad activities that make up an election campaign will have no effect on most people.

But the political parties are working overtime to protect their sitting members and to laying siege to their opponents in a handful of seats around the nation.

The word of the week is “sandbagging” marginal seats and it could be seen in a series of announcements from the Labor Party yesterday. A GP Super Clinic for Caboolture. A wind farm in Macarthur. Respite and palliative care facilities for Bribie Island. “More support” for older residents of Caloundra. Investment in schools in the Macedon Ranges. Action against illegal timber exports.

This is the real election campaign. It’s made up of local announcements targeted to specific regions, towns and suburbs. Locking up local media coverage in the last week of the election is just as important as the nightly national television message. All this activity is reinforced by an avalanche of direct mail to electors around the country.

On the ground, door-knocking campaigns, phone banks and the plethora of local events are designed to reassure the committed and motivate the waverers. It’s not about converting the other side. At best, it’s best about scaring off the potential deserter and keeping them in the fold. Control of the pork barrel helps.

And all this activity is directed at a tiny proportion of the population.

As yesterday afternoon dragged on, the television stations returned to their staple diet of sensation and confrontation. Lo, Mark Latham was back. This time he confronted Tony Abbott at the veterans event, peppering Abbott with questions about his role in the years-old prosecution of Pauline Hanson.

To the extent that the commercial television news covered the election campaign last night, Latham’s appearance dominated. Irrelevance met and merged with diversion.

I headed out to attend a candidates’ forum in the Melbourne electorate. The possibility of the Greens candidate, Adam Bandt, winning this traditionally Labor seat makes it one the genuinely interesting contests of the election.

On the way, I had a quick coffee with an old friend in the city. A resident of the safe Liberal seat of Casey, she’s a Labor voter who is angry with them now. Very angry. As I’ve been hearing so much this past month, the reason is the ALP’s attitude on the environment, especially climate change. Gillard is a disappointment. She’s no better, if not worse, than Rudd.

The candidates’ forum is very much an inner-Melbourne event. Held at the State Library, it focuses on foreign aid and poverty. The Liberal candidate fails to attend. Adam Bandt and the Labor candidate, Cath Bowtell, are both keen to extend the debate to other issues. The 150 or so audience members are similarly keen to help.

There are questions about disabilities, about housing for the poor, about climate change. Bandt attacks the ALP’s ETS deal with Malcolm Turnbull. It wasn’t “better than nothing, it was worse than useless”, he tells the auditorium. Bowtell responds that the ALP hasn’t abandoned its support for a price on carbon.

At one point, Bandt says he thinks that Gillard will “romp home”. Bowtell demurs. It’s much closer than that, she says. It’s in the Greens’ interest for Labor voters to be told that Gillard is safe from defeat. It gives them permission to support Bandt.

The debate is an irrelevance. To me, the crowd seems fairly set in their allegiances. For the candidates, other concerns dominate. Bowtell is off to open a school building in Fitzroy in the morning. A low-income housing project is to be opened in the next day or so. There’s a rally outside the State Library on Saturday.

Bandt tells me that volunteers handing out how-to-vote cards at the pre-poll centre in Melbourne report that people are taking a long time to vote. It’s as if they are teetering on the edge of a decision. Deserting the Labor Party, possibly after a lifetime’s support, isn’t easy, particularly when you know that it can really make a difference. Is there enough anger to make the switch this time?

There are many young people at the forum. I speak to Nick Allardice, General Manager of the Oaktree Foundation, an organisation of young people working together to end global poverty. It sounds naïve when put like that but Allardice reels off a list of projects that are anything but naïve posturing. The organisation is involved in education programs in Africa, East Timor and elsewhere. It trains its members in how to lobby politicians. Tony Abbott might recognise the direct action.

It’s reassuring to meet people like this. Commitment and idealism are not dead.

Home again and there’s a debate about population on the television. Mark Latham still dominates the news.

A Morgan Poll has been released which says the ALP is polling 57.5% of the two-party-preferred vote. No-one believes it.

There’s a week to go.

What are they thinking out there?

This article first appeared on The Drum.

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