Mike Steketee. Election 2016: Beware the (very) long road to ruin

The risk with such a long election campaign is that unanticipated events can scuttle a party’s chances. And in the 2016 campaign it’s the Coalition that has everything to lose, writes Mike Steketee.

Elections can throw up many imponderables and the longer the campaign runs the more likely they are to do so.

After Bob Hawke won in 1983 against Malcolm Fraser, his personal popularity and that of his party kept rising. The drought broke – although not even Hawke claimed credit for that – and the economy was on the way back up after the worst recession since the Great Depression.

Hawke called an election for December 1, 1984, only 21 months into his first term. Most prime ministers announce the election date close to the minimum time required by law, which is 33 days.

But with the polls showing a swing to Labor, Hawke was so confident that he declared the date almost eight weeks before polling day. After all, voters loved him, and his opponent, Andrew Peacock, was a political pygmy whom he would cut down to size further during the campaign.

Or so it seemed. But it did not turn out that way. Instead of a swing towards the government, there was a swing against it of 1.5 per cent after preferences. Its majority in the lower house was almost halved after taking into account an increase in the size of parliament.

Hawke was reduced from political messiah to mere mortal. Paul Kelly records in his book The End of Certainty that Peacock started the campaign with a leadership rating of 19 per cent and finished on 54 per cent.

Labor’s campaign director Bob McMullan said in his election post-mortem, quoted by Kelly, that:

I believe it would be universally agreed that the election campaign period was too long … the party did not examine the implications of the length of the campaign for its strategy.

This week Turnbull as good as announced the election almost 15 weeks before polling day, making the campaign nearly twice as long as in 1984. While the formal election period will not start until Parliament is dissolved, on the current assumption that the Senate will fail to pass the Australian Building and Construction Commission bill, Turnbull already has lost one advantage the system gives prime ministers – an element of surprise over the date of the election. With the election so far off but the date known, his opponents can ensure they are fully prepared.

True, July 2 had been prominent in the speculation because of the mechanics of double dissolution elections. But long campaigns mean there is more time for things to go wrong. When British prime minister Harold Macmillan was famously (or apocryphally) asked the greatest challenge he faced as leader, he replied “events, dear boy, events”.

Unanticipated events can damage or favour either side but the frontrunner, which is the government, has more to lose. The reason prime ministers generally call an election close to the minimum time required is to maximise the chances of a winning position holding until election day.

One of the things that went wrong for Labor in 1984 is that the opposition set the agenda and the government spent much of the time on the defensive. Peacock seized on a theme and stuck to it: promising a Coalition government would abolish the assets test on pensions and the tax on lump sum superannuation, both introduced by the Hawke government, and running a scare campaign against a capital gains tax and death and gift duties, which he said Labor would bring in “as certain as night follows day”. (He was proved correct on the first but not on the others).

Hawke countered with the promise of a tax summit after the election, which left Labor’s options commendably open – today’s political parties please take note – but also gave Peacock more ammunition for his scare campaign.

Peacock repeated his core lines ad nauseum, to the point where he was ridiculed. But it proved the truth of the saying that once the political cognoscenti were completely sick of hearing the same message, voters were just starting to take notice.

One consequence of firing the starting gun for an election is to raise the standing of the opposition leader. He or she is, after all, the alternative prime minister and the media provides increased coverage.

In particular, the traditional leaders’ debate or debates will put Bill Shorten on an equal footing with Turnbull. Given their relative position in the polls, expectations of Shorten’s performance will be low so that, if he comes anywhere close to matching Turnbull, he will have gained.

Then there are the policies. How will voters possibly be kept engaged over the remaining 14 weeks? Of course the answer is that they won’t. Undecided voters – the ones that election campaigns are all about – are making up their minds later and later – often in the last week or two. That is why in recent times the official election launch, one of the major media events, has been pushed closer and closer to the election date.

Moreover there are more undecideds than in the past: major parties used to be able to rely on about 40 per cent of voters sticking with them through thick and thin. Now it is closer to 30 per cent, leaving a potential swinging vote of 40 per cent.

But even when voters are not paying much attention, the election space has to be filled and the onus to do so rests more heavily on the government. Leaving a vacuum by having nothing much new to say for days or weeks is dangerous. It provides an opening for your opponents and it robs you of momentum. A government perceived to have run out of ideas can feed into a broader re-evaluation by voters.

The polls suggest that there is a strong underlying sentiment that it is too early to bring back Labor and that it needs to do much more before voters are prepared to entrust it with managing the economy again.

It does not even need the increased media attention of an election campaign for that to occur. Labor gained ground recently, at least for a while, by announcing a definite policy on taxation while the Government was dithering, as it still seems to be, over what to do.

Turnbull has started by campaigning on the need for the building commission to police thuggery and criminal activity. The Heydon royal commission has provided him with plenty of raw meat with which to flail trade unions and Labor.

But the Liberals have not gained a great deal of traction from union bashing in the past, perhaps because that is what voters expect the Coalition to do. Certainly Turnbull will need more arrows in his quiver to maintain momentum.

The Government has the advantage of handing down a budget on May 3 – a major opportunity to seize the initiative and sell its wares. No doubt the Government will have a bag of goodies to deliver but how widespread will be their appeal is another matter.

The latest in a numbing series of changes of thinking on tax policy is that the budget will not have much room for income tax cuts but will include a reduction in company tax as the best way of stimulating economic activity and higher wages. Humphrey Appleby would call that a “courageous” decision. It would be a tough sell, particularly with the stream of revelations about the creative accounting used by businesses to minimise their tax, not to mention screwing their customers.

Besides, the budget will be two months before the presumed polling day. In election campaigns, that is an eternity.

Elections can create their own dynamics and sometimes throw up completely unexpected outcomes – most recently the defeat of the first term Newman government in Queensland, despite its record majority, and before that Jeff Kennett’s loss in Victoria in 1999 and Paul Keating’s victory over John Hewson in 1993.

Nevertheless it is rare for first-term governments to be defeated and in the end, none of the potential hurdles facing Turnbull may amount to much.

In 1984, Peacock generally was judged to have won the campaign but he still lost the election. Currently, the polls suggest that there is a strong underlying sentiment that it is too early to bring back Labor and that it needs to do much more before voters are prepared to entrust it with managing the economy again.

Turnbull’s task will be to keep those sentiments predominant in people’s minds.

Mike Steketee is a freelance journalist. He was formerly a columnist and national affairs editor for The Australian. This article was first posted in The Drum on 25 March 2016.

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