Think back to April, to those advertisements with smiling, well-funded nurses and recuperating patients. The panoramic views of freeways, roads and workers in hard hats. The happy families and smiling school children brimming with Doris Day innocence.
All that is largely gone in the final week of the election campaign. In its place, competing fears: ‘Labor can’t manage money’, versus ‘Three more years of cuts and chaos’. Darkness and shadow replace images of light and colour. Orchestral fanfares give way to a foreboding, deep bass.
Now it is just a visceral battle to survive and win. We so easily forget that these elections are hard. They’re not won easily. Put away your moral outrage over tactics, this is politics unmasked: kill or be killed. It’s not worse than it was, it’s always been like this.
The media allege disengagement among the populace. Maybe. More disgruntled than disengaged. On the first two days of this week, over 800,000 voted. Over three million people have already pre-polled. That’s the equivalent of about thirty seats, all of Queensland, or Tasmania, South Australia and Western Australia combined. The electorate is doing its job. The overwhelming bulk of voters will turn out on Saturday, so the campaign is still with us, and it’s willing.
The polls say it’s close. Labor optimists think it’s still there for the taking, some predicting 80 seats, others more. Liberals talk hopefully of a ‘pathway’ to victory, but what seems clear now is that the Liberal campaign is running on empty.
Even the coalition’s support crew is flailing. The Australian, the inky old whore that once knew how to pack a punch, today suggests an ‘unholy war’ has been declared. Free speech, religious freedom and same-sex marriage come together in a Shorten jihad. It’s so da Vinci code, so conspiratorial: everything connects to everything else. ‘Australian political leaders agree gays don’t go to hell,’ the American NBC network reported incredulously.
At one level, the coalition is going down fighting, but at another they’re just going through the motions. There are squabbles over voting below the line for Jim Molan. Liberals help Clive Palmer distribute how-to-vote cards and argue still about Malcolm Turnbull. More candidates come unstuck over social media posts. Mario Cuomo was wrong: we campaign in doggerel, not poetry.
Everyone looks desperate. That noise is the knife-sharpening for the contest to come.
Sir Robert Menzies, the founder of the Liberal Party, winner of seven elections on the trot, eighteen years prime minister, died on this day in 1978, aged 83. Forty-one years later, his creation stands at a crossroads.
It appears that attitudes to climate change may have reached a tipping point. We saw it with same-sex marriage. A non-issue was brought to life and then took hold to the point where the voters were ahead of the politicians. It’s not happening everywhere but it may be happening in enough places to rend the fabric of today’s Liberal Party in some of its heartland.
Will it be a landslide? In a word, no.
Landslide is an abused term. We often hear the victories of Menzies, Hawke, Howard, Rudd and Abbott described as landslides. All these men had big victories at various times, comfortable and impressive victories, but not landslides.
It’s a question of definition. If every change-of-government election is a landslide, the word has no meaning. Psephologist Malcolm Mackerras set the bar. A landslide occurs when the winning party or parties secure over 55% of the national two-party-preferred vote AND at least 60% of the seats in the House of Representatives.
On those criteria, we have had six landslides since Federation: 1917, 1929, 1931, 1943, 1966 and 1975.
Malcolm Fraser’s 1975 landslide delivered 55.7% of the two-party vote and 71.7% of the seats. He slipped to 54.6% of the vote in 1977. By contrast, the highest two-party vote since then was John Howard’s 53.6% in 1996. In terms of seats, Menzies cracked 60% on three occasions but couldn’t meet the vote criterion. Similarly, Hawke managed 60% of the seats in 1983, Howard 63.5% in 1996 and Abbott 60% in 2013.
Except in a relatively small number of cases, Australian elections are evenly matched. A two-party vote of 52% can deliver a handsome majority. All of the currently published polls are showing the ALP on 51% or 52%. The margin of error renders the whole thing meaningless but the coalition has not won a single poll since the last election. That probably tells us something.
There are 1,514 candidates contesting Saturday’s election. Only 191 of them (12.6%) will win. We can already name around 145 of the winners.
The other thing we know is that most seats won’t change hands on Saturday. In 2016, twenty seats changed hands, meaning that 86.7% of the seats returned a member from the same party that already held it.
That 58 seats in the House (38.7%) have not changed hands once in the past 35 years demonstrates stability, redistributions notwithstanding. And here’s the important distinction with this election. Whereas the band of marginal seats is relatively narrow, this election brings into play Liberal seats that would once never have been considered in contention.
If just one of Warringah (Tony Abbott), Farrer (Sussan Ley), Kooyong (Josh Frydenberg), Higgins (Katie Allen) or Flinders (Greg Hunt) fell, it would be note-worthy. More than one would be cataclysmic. It may yet be none.
Throw in uncertainty over Kerryn Phelps in Wentworth and Helen Haines in Indi. Keep an eye on Mallee, where another independent may snatch it. Ponder the possibilities in Queensland where Hanson and Palmer are strongest, but weaker than before. Remember that Tasmania has been volatile for the past few elections. Don’t forget Western Australia, which could provide the icing on the cake.
In short, there are many seats to watch. Predictions are fraught. Clairvoyance is a dying art. But the arithmetic looks too hard for the government.
This week everyone is lying to us about their chances. The data arrives on Saturday night. We can work it all out next week.