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Days 1-2: On Message As The Election Skirmish Begins

The first couple of days after an election is called remind me of the first ten minutes or so in an AFL Grand Final.

On MessageEveryone is toey, nervous, keen to get into it. There’s muscling up to one’s opponents, a bit of what Mark Latham would call biffo, some aggressive elbowing behind the main play. The key players on each side are keen to get the first kick, control the direction of the ball and then score the first goal.

An election begins with a similar battle to kick the message straight and squarely into the goal square of the evening television news and the front pages of the daily newspapers. Minor players on both sides make their appearances but are swamped by the political ruckmen.

And so it was this past weekend when the nation’s 27th and first female prime minister came to the courtyard in Parliament House to announce that the nation’s 25th and first female Governor-General had accepted advice to dissolve the 42nd Parliament and hold the nation’s 43rd general election.

John Howard was a master of these occasions. He understood the critical importance of defining his opponents from day one, as he did repeatedly with Kim Beazley and Mark Latham. The weak flip-flopper and the L-Plate leader images were quickly established to frame the direction of the entire campaign.

Gillard spoke from a prepared script. The message was direct.”This election is about the choice as to whether we move Australia forward or go back.” She spoke of conviction, confidence and of embracing new ways of thinking. As she has done on several occasions now, she asserted her values, her belief in the dignity of work and the importance of respect for other people.

It was a skilful message, if fraught with contradiction. Whilst defending a raft of Rudd government policies, she was also moving forward by backing away from several key policies, or at least the perceptions held of those policies.

Her message was one of economic prosperity and stability; of returning the budget to surplus in three years and keeping it there; of the transformative power of education; of health and other essential services; of sustainability.

But there were in excess of 20 renditions of the expression “Moving Forward” and it was here that Gillard may have made the first linguistic blunder of the campaign. By day’s end, those two words were being routinely ridiculed by television and online commentators.

It isn’t as if the slogan is especially bad but it IS cant and a prime example of what Don Watson calls “weasel words”. Is it “moving forward” or simply “next”? On Insiders, the journalist Dennis Atkins said Moving Forward is “a slogan in search of a destination”.

One wonders whether Gillard and the ALP appreciate what appears to be a deep abhorrence of this kind of language. For many it represents the remoteness of the political class. For Labor devotees it represents the abandonment of principle on issues such as climate change. For swinging voters it makes Abbott’s arguments about Labor spin and incompetence potentially deadly.

Whilst she reads a speech well, Gillard is at her best when responding to questions and interacting with her inquisitors. She directs these media occasions like a teacher taming an unruly Year 9 class. Her performance on Saturday gained animation during the question and answer period. She would do well to showcase this and dispense with Moving Forward.

Abbott’s appearance in Brisbane was scratchier than Gillard’s. Appearing before a drab background bedecked with two lifeless Australian flags, he was interrupted by journalists before he’d finished his opening remarks. He left with questions still being shouted at him. It was a bad look.

Along the way, aggressive questions about industrial relations produced a hostile atmosphere. Abbott then appeared to fluff a query about what the coalition’s campaign slogan would be.

Nevertheless, Abbott’s message was simple and clear: you can’t trust Labor. Why, not even Kevin Rudd could trust Labor. And Gillard was there all along – she helped create the problems she now seeks to rectify. The coalition has a plan of real, direct action.

Abbott is a shameless political operator. At one stage, he gravely intoned that “this election isn’t about glib slogans”. A few seconds later we got: “The Coalition will stand up for Australia. We’ll stand up for real action. We’ll end the waste, we’ll repay the debt, we’ll stop the new taxes and we’ll stop the boats.”

This message is of the utmost clarity and simplicity. Whether it will last five weeks of electioneering is a different matter.

The danger for Abbott lies in the assumptions he works from. Who seriously argues Australia has a debt problem in relation to the rest of the world? What of Abbott’s own proposal to increase taxes to pay for his parental leave policy? How will he stop the boats?

At some point, the bones of this message will need flesh in the form of policy specifics. Whilst some Liberals believe an oppositionist campaign can secure victory, others will be fretful that the Opposition runs the risk of being painted as policy lightweights.

By Sunday, both party leaders were more settled. The ALP second stringers – Wayne Swan, Nicola Roxon and Tony Burke – appeared on the morning political talk shows whilst Gillard addressed a think-tank.

Gillard’s speech on population to the Eidos Institute was strikingly clear and replete with vivid imagery. She is good at painting word pictures. She can reduce a complex issue to an individual or family level.

In the speech, she conjured up a picture of her own migrant background, a 10-pound Pom from a family of hard workers who came to an Australia of 11 million people and watched it grow to 22 million. The empty spaces disappeared, the suburbs proliferated, the pressures grew.

I am one of you, she seemed to be saying. I don’t want a big Australia, I want a sustainable Australia. She held up a straw man in the form of Ziggy Switkowski and condemned his call for a population of 100 million. It was reminiscent of her straw-manning of Julian Burnside a couple of weeks ago. The imagery is there but so, too, is a ruthless political positioning.

Unlike the ALP, the Liberal Party decided to field no big player other than their leader on Sunday. Abbott appeared on Sky News in an extended interview and discussion. He does well in these settings, more so than when he faces a solo interviewer. They allow him to display a warmer, more congenial persona.

Later, speaking with the newly pre-selected Liberal candidate for the western Sydney electorate of Lindsay, Abbott was obviously more in control than on Saturday. He fielded questions with aplomb and delivered his lines with new focus.

Abbott’s mantra is that Moving Forward means “moving forward to more spending, more taxes, more debt and more boats.” He denies that he is exhuming WorkChoices because he has cremated it. He may not use imagery the way Gillard does but he is no slouch at honing a sharp line.

Last night, Gillard appeared on Channel 9’s 60 Minutes, giggling and laughing her way through a series of banal questions. I cringed as I watched it. Abbott gave a stilted interview on the SBS news. I lost attention as I watched it. It was the end of a strenuous weekend. How will we all react as the five weeks drag on?

If this week is the political equivalent of the first quarter of the football, the weekend was indeed only the first few minutes of skirmishing. Gillard and Abbott both set out their messages. They both came under attack – she about the manner of her deposing Rudd, he about seeming contradictions over WorkChoices – but they finished the weekend with their key messages established.

Now for the tricky bit.

This article first appeared on The Drum.

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Malcolm Farnsworth
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