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Day 31: Sound And Fury

One of the most revealing pictures of the election campaign appeared on the front page of The Age last Thursday. It showed two women knitting whilst ignoring Julia Gillard who appeared behind them on a large television screen at the Rooty Hill RSL.

Yesterday, Gillard “launched” her campaign and the parties squabbled over holding another leaders’ debate. The Prime Minister was interviewed on the 7.30 Report and Tony Abbott appeared on QandA.

The rest of this final week of the campaign will see Gillard, Abbott and Greens leader Bob Brown make appearances at the National Press Club. A leaders’ forum in Brisbane seems likely. Abbott will be interrogated again on The 7.30 Report. Wayne Swan and Joe Hockey will debate each other on a breakfast TV program.

So much activity, but is anyone taking any notice? Is the electorate in fact engaged in a mass equivalent of those two women knitting?

Yesterday, it was reported that China has overtaken Japan to become the second largest economy in the world.

China is projected to overtake the United States as the world’s largest economy as early as 2030. The political consequences of China’s ongoing rise to global economic dominance are profound.

There was no mention of this in Gillard’s campaign speech in Brisbane. Her address to the party faithful, possibly including Kevin Rudd, was all about her values and her “vision for this country”. The vision seems to consist of songs of praise for hard work, combined with her mantra about the “transformative power of education”.

From one perspective, it was a superb speech, effectively mounting the economic case for the government’s re-election. Australia emerged from the global economic crisis, “stronger than any other major economy in the world,” Gillard said. We created jobs. We have low debt. It’s Abbott you need to fear because he opposed our job creation plans and he still supports WorkChoices.

From national curriculum, via trades training, an Australian baccalaureate and incentive pay for teachers, Gillard claimed to have “started the journey for the Education Revolution”. She portrayed herself as the person who understands that “for Australians right around this nation it can be tough”. She talked of child care and keeping teenagers in school. From the “party of Medicare”, she offered better health facilities.

She constructed a picture of the National Broadband Network working to bring health services to remote areas. She conjured a picture of “a child with a rash, in the middle of the night a child with a swelling,” and juxtaposed it a picture of parents video conferencing with a GP.

Abbott, Gillard said is a man of slogans. His Budget numbers don’t add up. He wants to put company tax up. “I stand for tax cuts, tax benefits, tax relief for every Australian business.”

She concluded with a new Obama-like slogan: “Yes we will.” It merged with “moving forward” to suggest future action by the government. Yes we will keep the economy growing stronger day by day. “Yes we will move forward together.”

It was a speech pitched perfectly to everyday concerns: jobs, tax, education, health. It was wrapped in homilies about her hard-working migrant parents. It was a speech that may hit the mark in these final few days of the campaign. In delivering it, Gillard played to the Labor Party’s strengths.

But it was also a god-awful speech.

In the final minute, Gillard said: “Yes we will work together and tackle the challenge of climate change.” And that was it for the one policy area that led to the collapse of support for her predecessor and his ultimate downfall.

It was a speech of very limited and shallow vision. You could watch it and wonder whether it was politically skilful, pitched and targeted to perfection. But you also couldn’t fail to watch it and wonder: “Is this it? Is this all this person has to say?”

There was nothing on Australia’s place in the world. Nothing on agriculture. Nothing on the arts. Nothing on the environment. Nothing on constitutional, legal or political reform. Nothing on economic reform. Nothing on so many areas.

It was a speech for the apparatchiks, a speech for the pollsters, a speech from a leader struggling to stay alive.

Gough Whitlam and Paul Keating weren’t in attendance at the launch and just as well. The reminder of their ability to inspire would have made for an invidious comparison.

Bob Hawke was there, his attendance drawing attention to the possibilities of long-term Labor government. The 80-year-old Hawke reminded the crowd of his record as the longest-serving Labor Prime Minister and wished for Gillard to break his record. Who knows, the wily old fox may see in Gillard a leader of great longevity, if only she can survive this weekend.

The gnawing questions remain. Why did we have to wait till yesterday for the government to paint a picture of the economic and health benefits of a national broadband network? Why haven’t we been seeing Nicola Roxon and Stephen Conroy on our television screens for the past three years selling the benefits and building support? What does this tell us about the government’s capacity to articulate its policies and carry them through?

The biggest gnawing question of all was there in Brisbane in the form of Kevin Rudd. Unsmiling, he nodded as Gillard acknowledged him. His presence spoke of the dark possibility that the election was lost that night less than two months ago when he was deposed.

Rudd’s presence hinted at a government which turned to Gillard because it lost its nerve and panicked in the face of poor polling, just as it lost its nerve on a key policy, the ETS. Rudd’s mania for control and micro-management of the government, and his inability to sustain good relations with the people and forces that could sustain his leadership, point to the Gordian Knot of dysfunction which has been a hallmark of the past three years.

As we near election day, we wonder more about what motivates people and what guides their voting decisions. Background, experience, habit, information and mis-information all coagulate to form a mark on a ballot paper.

Talk to enough people and you soon discover that many don’t know the difference between a donkey vote and an informal vote. Some don’t even know which party Abbott and Gillard belong to. These are the people who didn’t see yesterday’s speech. They are the disengaged voters who may decide how to vote this week. Some may even decide on the day. They may be influenced by their perception of who is going to win, or by an impression they have gleaned from an advertisement or a conversation with a friend or a colleague at work.

Many years ago, I saw a television vox pops with voters in the Tasmanian electorate of Franklin, held for the Liberals for eighteen years by Bruce Goodluck. A little old lady spoke highly of Goodluck as a wonderful local member for whom she had always voted. Then she told the interviewer that she’d always voted Labor.

Finding these disengaged, disinterested and confused voters is what this hectic final week of the election campaign is all about. The purists who want to see learned debates between the party leaders miss the point. The time has passed for that.

The media appearances of the main political players this week is a sideshow to the real action, most of which is taking place under the radar.

The real election continues apace, hidden from the view of the media packs, scurrying blindly around the nation, captive to the itinerary and the messages imposed on them by the political parties.

Perhaps Gillard did indeed hit the mark yesterday. Perhaps the ALP has rescued this disastrous election campaign in the nick of time. Maybe Gillard will be re-elected on the back of a sound economic performance and a sense that the government hasn’t done a bad job on the things that matter and Abbott is too much of a risk. If that happens, the result may not even be close.

Last night on 4 Corners, the market researcher Rebecca Huntley described the trap political parties fall into when they attempt to pander to the views people express in focus group polling. Huntley says many of these people say: “This is what we think, but what do we know? We’re not running the country. We’re not experts. We’re not seeing all the information. We want people to convince us otherwise.”

That’s what you call a cry for leadership. Yesterday, Gillard may have moved forward to victory but she didn’t offer any leadership to make us feel good about giving it to her.

This article first appeared on The Drum.

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Malcolm Farnsworth
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