For more than 60 years, since opinion polling became important in shaping election strategies, there has been for the Australian Labor Party one awkward but stubborn consistency.
Rightly or wrongly the Australian Electorate, with very isolated and brief exceptions, has always preferred and trusted the non Labor side of politics, the Liberal-National Party Coalition, as managers of the National economy.
Incredibly, the present Government, which came to power on the strength of a supposed debt and deficit calamity retains that favoured regard on economic issues despite the fact that it has, in just three years added more than 100 billion to the National debt and trebled the deficit – the two things they claimed were threatening Australia’s future.
Economics, then, and associated issues, from an electoral campaigning viewpoint, continue to provide a distinct home-ground advantage for the Coalition.
Given this long history and weekly reminders through issues polling, one wonders how Bill Shorten and Labor’s most exposed spokesmen, Finance and Treasury shadows Burke and Bowen, have allowed Malcolm Turnbull and his Government to fight the first weeks of the political campaign largely on their comfortable home ground.
The first half of this marathon campaign has seen repeated clashes over the costings of both sides, the wisdom of a company tax cut for the nation’s biggest businesses, changes to superannuation, deficit sizes, dates for the first surplus in years and other economic issues – an ‘away’ match for Labor given the unexplained built in trust for their opponents in this area.
The early days of the second half of the campaign have shown little sign of movement by Labor to shift the focus to areas where their strength is considerably greater.
While overall polling indicates that Labor is capable of winning this election it’s surprising to Labor followers that its potential election strengths remain largely unexposed.
The polls which indicate a strong preference for the Coalition on economic issues are showing, as they have for many months, a strong preference for Labor on other key issues high in the consciousness of voters like education, health and climate change.
Clear statements by Prime Minister Turnbull indicate that his Government is either unwilling or unable to match Labor and its programs in any of these areas.
In the case of health and education, the polls show that despite comparative lack of exposure, support for Labor has actually grown in these areas since the start of the campaign more than a month ago.
Any bid therefore to move these issues to the centre of the remaining campaign would be extremely discomforting for Malcolm Turnbull.
There is, however, so far no sign that Shorten is making the effort to move the contest on to these grounds far less disadvantageous to the Labor Party.
For months the polls have indicated that the electorate needs no persuasion on these issues – the majority are there already. All Labor needs, it seems, is emphasis.
Australians overwhelmingly oppose the privatisation of Medicare a measure which Malcolm Turnbull has refused to rule out. Such a move would go a long way to achieving the Liberals long held determination to kill off one of the world’s best health schemes.
To beat this drum with a promise not to allow Medicare to end up in the hands of one of Malcolm’s rich mates, would seem to be far more of a winner for Labor than a continued drawn out argument on economic issues where the Liberals are most comfortable.
Labor also has a built-in advantage in promoting its Gonski education reforms. Again there is support here from educational authorities nationwide and even from the New South Wales State Liberal Government.
Again Labor has no need to persuade voters of the merits of their education policy. They are already in strong support. It would seem again that only emphasis is required.
There are many grounds and opportunities for Shorten to be offensive rather than passive in conducting his campaign. If Shorten’s refusal to sanction further tax cuts for multinational companies constitutes a ‘war on business’ as Malcolm claims does Malcolm’s preference for company benefits while preserving cuts to health and education constitute a war on school children, schools and education or a war on hospitals and the patients they serve.
And it seems certain that Labor has clearly won the contest in the public view on climate change. Here again Malcolm is jammed by the refusal of his party to take a stronger course – one that Malcolm himself advocated to his political disadvantage when Opposition Leader seven years ago.
It would seem therefore that if Shorten is to maximize his party’s performance come July 2 he, not Turnbull, should set the grounds for political debate in the weeks that remain. There is, alas, no sign so far that he is prepared to do this or even aware of the need to do so.
Shorten attacking Turnbull and the Government and vigorously promoting Labor’s own agenda would be a far better look to voters than Shorten and his spokesmen passively responding to the Government’s economic probes.
Even here on the Government’s central theme of a $50 billion company tax cut eventually applicable to all companies, Labor is weak in response.
Countries with similar economies to ours, Britain and Canada, went through the company tax experiment in recent years with no significant benefit to their economies – only to the companies paying less tax.
Turnbull and some of his troops have tried to impress voters by recounting how successful Malcolm has been in his private affairs before entering Parliament.
In his one endeavour since, as a manager in Government, he has been a conspicuous failure.
Malcolm as Communications Minister had one major responsibility, the management of the introduction of Australia’s National Broadband Network. His efforts have provided Australia with what promises to be below the 60th fastest networks in the world at a price more than double that being faced when Malcolm took over.
What most people rate as an exceptionally boring and uneventful campaign would be enlivened considerably if Shorten was suddenly to become the aggressor.
There might even be a few votes in it for Bill.
Warwick Elsche, Canberra correspondent.