Thirty years ago this month, Azaria Chamberlain disappeared. Thirty years ago this October, the Fraser-led coalition government was elected to its third term in office.
Yesterday’s News Limited daily papers splashed the story of jury notes from the Chamberlain trial all over their front pages. If newspaper front pages matter, what might have been the topic of conversation in work places and homes yesterday? Might the enduring mystery of what happened to an eight-week-old baby attract more attention than the federal election?
Last night, Julia Gillard appeared on the ABC’s QandA program. She performed well. The appearance came at the end of a day the ALP would have been pleased with. Just as the Fraser government fought back against a resurgent ALP in 1980 to win comfortably despite losing seats, there was a sense yesterday that the Gillard government is finally on the offensive.
However, on a good night, the television ratings show that upwards of 600,000 people may have watched QandA. Are they swinging voters in marginal seats? No-one really thinks so. Might viewers of QandA talk to their family, friends and workmates about Gillard’s performance? Possibly.
As the election campaign reaches its climax, it helps to remain conscious of the often tenuous links between what happens on the campaign trail, the media reporting and the electoral impact of those events.
The former Labor leader, Mark Latham, was back on television last night also. On Sky News, he excoriated Laurie Oakes and Kevin Rudd. Who was watching? I would guess no more than 10 or 20 per cent of the enrolment in one federal electorate.
Check your newspapers today to see how much of the content of the Latham interview has been reported. Those of us who diligently follow anything to do with Australian politics may know all about it but the chances are few others do.
So, judgments about how the campaign is going for either side are fraught with assumptions that may bear no relationship to what people are actually thinking about.
Listen to the outstanding reports from the AM program as it travels the Australian countryside talking to different communities about the election and note the differing preoccupations and concerns. Yesterday, Tamworth voters were concerned about issues ranging from wind farms to council amalgamations to health and broadband services.
But we already know the result in Tamworth. These residents of the New England electorate are undoubtedly about to return the independent member, Tony Windsor, for his fourth term. His 24 per cent majority is unlikely to change much.
Over in Perth yesterday, Prime Minister Gillard addressed a gathering of primary school children, parents and teachers. Standing before a screen with a laser pointer, she employed a PowerPoint presentation to deliver her speech about the government’s education reforms.
I sometimes wonder whether Gillard knows who she wants to be. She seems to enjoy teaching, whether it is this kind of presentation or those occasions when she corrals the media pack and directs their questions. On other occasions she affects the persona of an antipodean Margaret Thatcher. She can be the process-driven industrial lawyer. She can be the laughing, ocker Western Bulldogs fan, staring up at a towering Barry Hall.
Yesterday, she was simply the consummate, winning, politician. She announced an Australian Baccalaureate, performance pay for teachers and online diagnostic tools. The virtues of these are arguable but her political performance was not.
She spoke to one of the ALP’s strengths, its commitment over many decades to improvements in education. She took questions from small children and their teachers and parents. She was expansive, detailed, warm, engaging.
During her presentation, a young child cried periodically. I joked that this was one of the ALP’s adolescent campaign strategists. Yesterday was the first day of this election campaign when you could feel that the adults had taken charge of the government’s election campaign and wrenched it away from the smarties and the spivs who have so mis-managed it to this point.
In truth, if the ALP is back on track and can rescue this near-disaster over the next two weeks, the victory will have many parents, including the usual assortment of hacks and self-appointed heavies.
Gillard’s appearance on QandA was masterful. She gave a simple and persuasive account of the mining tax. She dealt with a wide range of policy issues without faltering. She dismissed Mark Latham with a witty put-down. She refused an absurd invitation to apologise to Kevin Rudd. There could be little doubt that this was an impressive and prime ministerial performance.
Another television event yesterday featured the Deputy Prime Minister and Treasurer, Wayne Swan, in debate with his Opposition shadow, Joe Hockey.
The sometimes hesitant and dry-mouthed Swan was not invited to this debate on the economy. In his place was a feisty and confident Swan who lambasted Hockey and the coalition for their opposition to the stimulus program. Swan threw out facts and figures in a display that dripped with contempt for his opponent.
Hockey affected a Reagan-like optimism and spoke expansively about a “bountiful” economic future built on productivity, innovation and sound financial management. In one of the few moments of internationalism in this campaign, Hockey talked of Australia’s engagement with Asia.
But the day belonged to Swan, I thought. He berated Hockey over the coalition’s unannounced budget cuts. He demanded to know why they had not yet submitted their election promises for Treasury and Finance Department costing. He ridiculed the task force Hockey said would be set up in government to find budget savings.
Like Gillard’s appearances yesterday, Swan gave a performance that suggested the government was fighting back on economic issues. After all, the story they have to tell about the economy is a good one. Swan drew attention to comments from the Reserve Bank governor and others which support the thrust of the government’s economic policy.
But why have we waited so long to hear these arguments put so forcefully? We all remember the absurd sight of government ministers refusing to utter words like “debt” and “deficit”.
There remains the nagging doubt about the capacity and willingness of the government to fight for what it believes. It is easy for Swan to be so confident now when the fruits of his management of the global financial crisis are evident. What this government needed was a similar performance eighteen months ago.
There are significant differences between this election and that of 1980. Then, the ALP propped up a struggling Bill Hayden with NSW Premier Neville Wran and a man seeking election to the House of Representatives, ACTU President Bob Hawke. It was bound to fail. In 2010, the Opposition is resurgent, with an Opposition Leader who is performing beyond all the expectations of his party and his enemies in the ALP.
A similarity between the elections is the scare campaign. For Fraser in 1980, it was a major fear campaign built around the simple notion that the ALP wanted to tax the family home. Newspaper and television advertisements showed aerial shots of suburban rooftops and intoned gravely about the threat from the Opposition.
For Gillard in 2010, the campaign is about sowing doubts about Tony Abbott. It may yet work. Yesterday’s Essential Report poll suggested that significant hostility to Abbott exists amongst voters.
As Day 24 ended, reports of a hole in the Opposition’s budget figures emerged.
The reports indicated an Opposition thin on detailed policy. It’s a line the government is pushing for all it’s worth.
But is it too late?
This article first appeared on The Drum.