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A Glorious Day Dawns Tomorrow

Spare a thought for the losers in tomorrow’s elections.

We already know who most of them are. 849 people have nominated for 150 seats in the House of Representatives. Another 349 have nominated for 40 Senate seats. Of these 1,198 candidates, 1,008 will lose.

We know that around 400 of them will also lose their nomination deposits because they will poll less than 4% of the primary vote.

In the House of Representatives, only about 30 seats are likely to change hands. Most of the sitting members know they will be returned. In the Senate, proportional voting and the Group Ticket system means that we already know at least 25 of the 40 winners.

One of the losers will be Nick Eden. He’s the Labor candidate in my seat, Goldstein, in Melbourne’s eastern bayside. He needs a swing of 6.05% to defeat the Shadow Finance Minister, Andrew Robb. It’s possible but it won’t happen. Goldstein is blue-ribbon Liberal territory.

Eden is a Financial Administration Manager at Monash University. He has taken his annual leave to campaign this week. He’s spent about $5,000 of his own money to print and distribute leaflets. It’s going to be a challenge to get enough people to man the polling booths tomorrow. No big names have come to help him campaign. Only the local state members have given him assistance.

Providing a voice for people who feel unrepresented in a safe seat gives Eden some satisfaction. He’s proud of his work with Brighton Secondary College, a school that had some difficulties with the building work it received through the government’s stimulus package.

Eden has been doing the usual things candidates do in elections, such as handing out campaign material at railway stations and shopping centres. Local media coverage has been scant.

He attended a Bayside Climate Forum. Andrew Robb didn’t show up. Julia Gillard’s Citizens’ Assembly idea was voted down. Eden says people are blaming the government because nothing is happening on climate change, even though they understand that a hostile Senate blocked the government’s ETS legislation. He thinks the government should have gone to a double dissolution at the beginning of the year.

No-one has really heard of Nick Eden. He’s one of an army of people who have committed themselves to some form of political involvement during this election. If there has been a theme of these campaign notes, it’s that these people should be honoured and respected for their participation. After tomorrow’s choice is made, most of them will fade into the background again.

And tomorrow’s choice?

It is well understood amongst people who know their history that first term Federal governments have a difficult time getting re-elected. Howard nearly lost in 1998. Although securing a comfortable majority, Hawke went backwards in 1984. Whitlam’s majority was trimmed in 1974.

The opinion polls tell us this government is in trouble. Deep trouble. Defeat looms. Victory is not impossible but fading by the minute.

The final day movements and messages of the political leaders tell you a lot about where this election campaign is at. At the National Press Club yesterday, Julia Gillard spoke of the economy, industrial relations, education and health. She announced a new policy on parental leave for fathers and partners. She continually attacked Tony Abbott as a risk and as the leader of a coalition that has no plan for government.

Assistance to families, education and the pursuit of a strong economy are Gillard’s campaign themes.

Like Gillard, Abbott has been focussing on NSW and Queensland. In his final non-stop, no sleep campaign marathon, he will only visit seats in those two states. His themes are familiar. Repay the debt, stop the waste, stop the big new taxes, stop the boats. At his campaign stops yesterday, he talked about the insulation program, BER waste and the mining tax.

Abbott’s general message is that this has been a bad government. It has disappointed. Kevin Rudd’s dumping lingers over it. Put the adults back in charge.

The two sides have had five weeks to perfect these lines and they have become very good at delivering them, often creatively blending them into all manner of unrelated discussion.

Gillard’s message differed from Abbott’s in one important sense. She was at pains to promote her “positive plan” for the future of the nation’s economy. She decried the cynicism so often heard about this election. “Tweet, tweet, tweet,” she jibed at her journalistic audience at the Press Club.

Gillard is hoping that optimism will trump fear tomorrow. But has she trumped Abbott?

Women remain an important factor in the election. A poll this week showed support for Gillard at 53% amongst women, compared to 28% for Abbott. Whilst many women are rightly offended at the idea they would vote for someone on gender grounds, there seems little doubt that a reservoir of good-will towards the first female Prime Minister may deliver a small but vital advantage to Labor.

The opinion polls are mixed. The national vote seems to be tied with some giving Labor a slight edge. The latest Newspoll shows the ALP’s primary vote dangerously low. Marginal seat polling indicates significant losses for the government.

Graham Richardson appeared on television yesterday and said that the number of swinging voters has risen to around 30% of the electorate. Many of them really don’t like either side, he said.

It sounds like a reasonable figure to me. Around 35% of voters are rusted on to Labor and another 35% are rusted on to the coalition. When they are well and truly on the nose, that 35% may fall, as it has done in NSW where Labor support in the Penrith by-election numbered about 25%.

The Labor government should be cruising to a comfortable victory in this election. That it is facing defeat is a damning indictment of its political failures and misjudgements.

With the benefit of hindsight, the government’s decline can be traced to Tony Abbott’s election as Liberal Party leader. He immediately wrong-footed the government with his oppositionist mentality, rejecting the Emissions Trading Scheme in the Senate and embarking on a wholesale denunciation of the government’s performance. The sheer brutality of his approach caught them all off-guard. Abbott was too often written off as an accidental, unelectable, extremist.

Then Kevin Rudd blinked and instead of returning to work around Australia Day and calling a double dissolution election, the government cowered in the face of the Copenhagen debacle, the Climategate emails and Abbott’s escalating depiction of the ETS as a “great big new tax”.

If the moderates in the Liberal Party wilted in the face of the conservative onslaught that Abbott unleashed, the weakness of their position could at least be understood. What could not be understood is the weakness of the Rudd government at precisely the moment when it should have been capitalising on its political strength. The chance to crush its opposition at the polls was passed up.

Rudd failed to even make a public statement or a report to Parliament on the outcome of Copenhagen. He failed to make an issue of mounting Senate obstructionism. It was a massive failure of leadership and nerve.

Then came the insulation debacle and the mounting allegations about waste in the BER program. It is of little consequence that these supposed scandals were mainly beat-ups. In fact, it only accentuates the powerlessness of Rudd and his ministers in handling the political crisis that began engulfing them in the summer.

When the ETS was slyly placed on the political backburner, the government was further weakened by a crisis of identity, its political willpower now questioned by its most ardent supporters.

The ensuing debacle of the mining tax highlighted how ineffective the government was in prosecuting its policy positions. Its most avaricious enemies outgunned it.

The polls plummeted. The party panicked and decapitated Kevin Rudd, leaking to the world the unsurprising news that he was a control freak, a micro-manager, an obsessive, dismissive man running an arrogant, dysfunctional government.

However, the clinical precision of the strike against Rudd caught most Australians by surprise. The political professionals admired the skill of the kill but the public was bemused. Who are these people, they began to say. Who’s in charge here? What happened to the government we elected? What was so bad about Rudd?

And so the Gillard government began with most of its electoral strengths undercut by a failure of courage. A government that had performed impeccably during the financial crisis – read “Shitstorm” by Taylor and Uren and be impressed – was now seen by many as unstable and unreliable. Gillard lacked legitimacy.

Worse, it was now portrayed as under the control of mysterious factional and union leaders, ambitious members of Caucus and the soulless amoralists from the NSW branch of the Labor Party. Sir Robert Menzies could be heard chuckling in his grave as “The Faceless Men” were reborn.

The government’s disastrous election campaign was crippled from the start by a new leader who disappointed many of her admirers as she gambolled down the low road on asylum seekers, dog whistling as she went. No-one really believed her new spin on population. For different reasons, voters on the left and right peeled off again.

Nothing more was said on climate change and more Labor votes bled away to the Greens.

The government’s election campaign became a joke. The do-nothing cynicism of the climate change Citizens’ Assembly sent the polls into freefall. New Julia emerged and cynicism became derision.

The stench around the NSW government and the abysmal state of the Bligh government in Queensland appear to have done deep damage to the ALP. It reminds me of 1990 in Victoria when the Hawke government lost ten seats on the back of voter anxiety about the state government.

Yes, voters do distinguish between State and Federal elections, but sometimes they are invited to see them as one and the same.

Through it all, Tony Abbott has pushed a simple message of startling clarity and power.

He has offered few policies. His grasp of complex issues is questionable. He has been an Opposition Leader who opposed. The government attempted to make him the central issue but in the end the election has been about them.

Of course the coalition isn’t ready to return to government. Even they don’t believe it.

But the hoary old cliché is right: governments lose elections, oppositions don’t win them.

History says Gillard. But the ALP has turned history upside down.

Until last night, the polls said Gillard – just. The gut says don’t bet on it.

Tomorrow is a glorious day. We decide.

This article first appeared on The Drum.

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Malcolm Farnsworth
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