Day 33: The Dying Moments

The rhythms and rituals of the election campaign have played out as they always do.

In this final week, the cacophony of advertising has reached its peak and is now banned from the airwaves.

The party leaders continue to rush from one media appearance to another. Television and radio programs stage last-minute interviews and debates. Extended on-location visits to towns, suburbs and shopping centres allow for the appearance of taking the election to the people. These programs feature “final appeals” from the parties.

The set-piece speeches at the National Press Club are given due deference by those who take their politics seriously. The leaders need an opportunity to restate their cases and make one last attempt to promote their vision.

Opinion polls dominate the final week as never before. This time around, we even have “mega polls” of marginal seats. The statistical experts dissect the figures to tell us what we’re going to do this weekend.

Political scientists and amateur psephologists opine on the historical chances of a first-term government being defeated. Commentators intone on the two Australias showing up in the polls. The conservative north is facing off against the progressive southern states. Or so we’re told.

And then there’s the ritual debate over the costing of election promises. There’s not much time left to haggle over the minutiae of policies but arithmetic will do nicely.

We’ve been waiting for the final week catastrophe for one or other side. In 2007, there was the wonderfully mad episode of the Lindsay leaflets, where Liberal Party apparatchiks letterboxed bogus flyers from an imaginary Muslim organisation. It completely derailed John Howard’s final Press Club appearance and stopped the Liberal Party’s campaign in its tracks.

Back in 2001, the Howard government released Defence Department video of the notorious Children Overboard incident. Even through the video did little to support the government’s stated position, the so-called “hard heads” understood that it put asylum seekers back on centre stage in the final two days when late deciders are making up their mind.

In 2004, the final week saw an inept Mark Latham completely outfoxed by John Howard on the issue of logging forests in Tasmania. The bizarre scene of union members cheering Howard in Hobart whilst Latham exited through a back door was one of those campaign moments to savour.

It looks like there will be no such drama in this election, unless something dramatic happens today.

All we’ve had is the fracas over the leaders’ debates. The closest we’ve come to final week madness is a spate of letters between Labor and Liberal campaign directors. Breathlessly reported by the 24-hour media, it didn’t quite cut it in the drama department.

Abbott and Gillard appeared separately at the Bronco Leagues Club in Brisbane last night, an encounter dubbed #rootyQ by the Twitterati.

Neither leader could be said to have soared or failed. Both presented their cases without hiccup. Both responded to a series of questions that canvassed a wide range of issues.

We will never know whether the event influenced anyone’s vote. It reminded me of something I once heard the former Liberal leader, Bill Snedden, say many years ago: “if we knew what worked, we’d only do that thing, but because we don’t know we do everything else just in case.”

The encounters with the voters were nevertheless revealing. At one point a small business owner demanded of Gillard: “what’s in it for me?” He wanted to know if the Labor Party would withdraw from the electoral contest next time if it failed to bring the budget to surplus as promised.

A man involved in light manufacturing wanted relief from the financial burdens of maternity leave. A chartered accountant with a fine sense of historical ignorance wanted reassurance that death duties would not be reintroduced. A student wanted to know when she would get an increase in her Youth Allowance payment. A fundraising coordinator who wants to start a family wanted Gillard to offer her something. A landscaper wanted a guarantee from Abbott that the GST would not be increased. Another woman in small business wanted to know what the coalition would do for high income earners. A self-funded retiree wanted an incentive to vote for Abbott.

There was something unedifying about this naked display of self-interest and selfishness. It showed that for some people politics is simply about getting the best deal from the politicians.

There were moments of altruism. A woman asked Abbott about funding for medical research. A retired man questioned the treatment of asylum seekers and Aborigines. A recent graduate was concerned about validating the fear of refugees. Gillard was asked about same-sex marriage rights. A teacher wanted Gillard to visit her school without media or minders to witness the difficulties of teaching students with disabilities.

In truth, it’s unfair to characterise the questions as simply self-serving or high-minded. There is a fine line between the two and much overlap.

The responses from Gillard and Abbott were also revealing.

The Opposition Leader is incapable of answering any question without taking a swipe at a Labor policy or person. Abbott is shameless in his negative, oppositionist approach to political combat. It may yet cost him dearly for there is little in what he says to make you want to support him. His message is simply about what’s wrong with the government. It’s a message laced with self-praise for his work in the Howard government.

With Abbott there is always the nagging sense that he wants to bring John Howard back to political life. A return to the comforting days of Howardism pervades all that Abbott says. It’s a double-edged sword for it suggests that Abbott is backward-looking. It casts doubt on whether he leads a coalition that is ready to return to office. It gives sense to his campaign against the competence and management capacity of the government but it is a one-dimensional approach to politics. Vote for us because we’re not them.

But, equally, it’s not hard to see why some find Abbott politically attractive. He appears direct, although last night it took some prodding before he could bring himself to tackle a question on abortion.

He’s affable, able to disarmingly joke about himself and his situation. Of course I worry about my image, he told a student at last night’s forum. “I’m a politician, I worry about my image every day.”

But there’s a brooding, even menacing, air to Abbott. It reveals itself in his attitude to moral questions about individual behaviour. When push comes to shove, you wonder, is this man an authoritarian?

And always with Abbott there is the sense of a politician who doesn’t have a good grasp of issues. His stumbling last week over broadband was replaced last night with a confident but simplistic argument about wireless technology.

The sense of disengagement from the detail was evident a couple of hours earlier when Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey and Shadow Finance Minister Andrew Robb released the coalition’s election costings, audited not by the Finance Department but a private accounting firm. Delayed several times during the day, the announcement came late in the day as media deadlines came and went. No-one at the Bronco Leagues Club would have been aware of it. Abbott excused his non-involvement in the announcement with a vote of confidence in his “responsible” shadows.

If Abbott had more of the sunny optimism of a Ronald Reagan, his broad sweep approach to politics might work for him. His campaign instead has been about what he won’t do. It has been about what he will stop. It has lacked the vital ingredient of optimistic endeavour.

It may yet work, although the polls seem to be moving only so far in his direction and not far enough.

Julia Gillard knows it too. Her performance last night suggested she may have moved beyond the manner of her elevation to the prime ministership – although there were four questions about Kevin Rudd – to be able to concentrate on bread and butter issues.

Relentlessly, repeatedly, Gillard talked about a strong and growing economy. She pounded health and education. She linked them to the technological future with a broadband network. It was bread and butter stuff, Labor’s strengths. She contrasted these with the naysaying of Abbott’s Opposition.

Still, the questions about government competence and waste hung over the proceedings, as did the sense of disappointment that Gillard is just another packaged, managed, highly spun politician.

You sense that people want to like her, want to support her, want to bask in the satisfaction of finally having a woman in the top political job. But they wonder about what she represents, a wonder fuelled for some by sexism and for others by suspicion of Labor Party culture.

Gillard will have a last chance to capture some television time and project a winsome and winning persona with her appearance today at the Press Club.

The election is all but over. Perhaps nothing Abbott and Gillard do or say in the next thirty-six hours will have any effect.

The polls suggest a close result with heavy Labor losses in Queensland, New South Wales and Western Australia. A patchy swing, some good local campaigning and Labor gains in Victoria and South Australia will see Gillard’s two month old prime ministership endorsed by the electorate.

But just possibly one of them will catch a wave of momentum which the campaign professionals believe is possible in the dying moments of an election.

This article first appeared on The Drum.

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