The theatricality of an election campaign is unavoidable. A nationwide appeal to fifteen million voters needs a touch of showmanship. A good act helps to alert voters to their civic responsibility. Throwing the switch to vaudeville, in Keating’s memorable phrase, is a useful skill for the leading actors in the drama.
But the six-week election campaign, with its frantic movement and manufactured events is an elaborate confidence trick. A conspiracy between political parties and their willing accomplices in the media, abetted by myriad barrow-pushing groups, the campaign is not what it pretends to be.
Voting is compulsory, after all. Most voters will show up. But the charade of releasing policies and pretending to debate them is transparent in its fakeness. The idea that voters are tallying lists of commitments and drawing up balance sheets that determine their vote is ludicrous.
The campaign is built on the pretence that everyone is taking notice and that everything—including the throwaway quips and impromptu insults—has the capacity to shift votes.
Filling large amounts of blank space in newspapers, on radio and television airwaves and online is part of the collusion. For the media, it’s a commercial proposition with abundant content. And making your contribution to democracy is oh-so important. There’s fruitful work for talking heads and plenty of scope for memes on social media.
Many decades ago, the former Liberal leader, Billy Snedden, was asked about election campaigning. ‘We don’t really know what works, so we try everything,’ he said with disarming frankness.
And so, in the first week of the 2019 campaign we’ve had a search for the compassion vote: cancer, mental health and hospitals featuring prominently. For the sceptical, it’s a soft and cuddly beginning to a campaign that will turn brutal soon enough.
Is it an Adani election? Perhaps it’s a climate change poll. No, it’s all about cost of living—again. No, it’s Medicare. What about the drought? Don’t forget the bastardry of the big end of town. It’s all about tax. On and on. At least everyone is being heard…
There’s shape-shifting by the leaders, the forked tongue. ‘He lies, he lies,’ Morrison says of his opponent. Shorten struggles to say whether Julian Assange is a journalist or not. Best not offend the zealots on your own side. Peter Dutton is shamed into apologising for a thuggish remark about his opponent’s disability. Remember, it’s all been taken out of context. Worse, it’s fake news.
Words must be parsed. ‘I believe in a fair go for those who have a go,’ says Morrison with careful qualification. Ah, yes, WE will decide who has been having a go in this country. Then Shorten stumbles over the fine distinction between ‘we have no plans’ and making a ‘commitment’. Tricks of language are vital in a long con like this one.
They all have a t-shirt, red or blue. Elections are colour-coded now. The earnest loyalists turn up to Shorten’s community forums, nodding sagely at every wise word. They chant ‘ScoMo’ at Morrison functions and worry about the tax grab coming their way. And at campaign events, the local lobby groups and rent seekers stand alongside the political partisans, all decked out in high-vis vests. Venality wrestles with idealism. The sad thing is that a lot of good policy work gets lost in this farce.
Is anyone listening to any of this? We’re told repeatedly that the voters are angry and disenchanted. But it was ever thus. This is Australia—we grizzle. Only half of us bothered to vote until they made it compulsory and threw in a fine.
The decline in major party support is undoubted. Many small and micro groups have entered the field. Compulsory preferences enhance their influence but dilute their capacity to win.
At the last election in the House of Representatives, the ALP, Liberal Party, Nationals and Greens secured 87 per cent of the primary vote. These are the only parties capable of forming or participating in government. The other 13 percent was shared among more than 45 parties, groups and independents. Only four more parties polled over one per cent and none made it to two percent.
In the Senate, the big four polled 85.5 per cent. Dozens of micro parties failed to crack one per cent. The voting system enabled some micro-party candidates to get up. That will change this year as Senate voting reforms that abolished preference whispering—arguably Turnbull’s greatest achievement—begin to bite.
In other words, there’s more stability and predictability than you might think. Many voters committed to one of the four main groups are as ‘rusted on’ as they’ve ever been. Geography, social class, occupation, ethnicity, education and parental influence matter more than the flim-flam of the election campaign. Is it 50-60 percent of the population who never change their vote? Consider the people you know, the committed, life-long supporters of one side or the other. These people remain devoutly uninfluenced by a tax policy, a change of leader, a television commercial or a phone call from GetUp!
The election campaign is not for these people. It is not for most of us.
The campaign is for the disengaged, the apathetic, and those who are information-poor. It’s for a tiny group of genuinely undecided voters. They might be influenced by a particular issue, a consensus among people they associate with, or even just an image or an impression. The repetition and sloganeering are for them. The election campaign is looking for them.
In all likelihood, the election was decided months ago. If angry Liberals are turning against the government and individuals such as Tony Abbott, the decision won’t be influenced by the campaign. If Shorten is unpopular and untrusted, that factor was locked in long ago also. Calculation of the risk of change has been made.
But what if it hasn’t? Just possibly, the election can be turned. ScoMo may do it. Shorten might be a bridge too far. Maybe the voters can be scared off. It’s not a done deal.
That’s what makes for a quality election con. It’s bold. It taps into hope and greed. It rationalises faith. And you just never know.
Malcolm Farnsworth is the publisher of australianpolitics.com