The Politics    Monday, February 29, 2016

Trigger happy

By Sean Kelly

What will the election actually be about?

There was a lot of excitement in the Canberra air today, as there always is when an election seems on the way.

Part of this came from Christopher Pyne and Scott Morrison, both of whom were eager in their own way to play up the possibility of an early election. Morrison said that Malcolm Turnbull was “not bluffing” with his double dissolution threats, and Pyne went further, saying it would be “very difficult” for the government not to call an election if the government’s legislation on industrial relations was blocked.

Pyne has been long an early election for a while, and it is difficult these days to tell whether Morrison is speaking for the PM or just for himself, so the greater frisson came from the PM, at a press conference, when he gave what seemed to be a trial run of a campaign pitch:

Let me say to you, the central issue this year, this election year, is going to be who is best able to lead Australia in this transition from the mining construction boom to the new economy? Who is best able to ensure that we promote investment, secure jobs, encourage technology, promote innovation? Who is best able to ensure that the success of this company, CEA, will be followed by the success of many others? Who is best able to open up the markets for our exporters in every industry?

The fact that the calling of an election might hinge on whether or not the government succeeds in cracking down on the Australian Building and Construction Commission might make you think this will be a central campaign issue.

Turnbull’s words suggest that won’t necessarily be the case.

As we get closer to a possible double-dissolution trigger it is worth remembering that double-dissolution elections are not always fought on the issue that supposedly “caused” the election in the first place.

The last double-dissolution election took place in 1987. The trigger was legislation to introduce an identity card of sorts, called the Australia Card. I imagine some of you haven’t heard of it, and some of you have largely forgotten about it. That’s because, despite Labor winning that election, it was never put in place. And no surprise: the card itself didn’t figure much in campaigning.

The 1987 election was instead fought largely on economic issues, as most Australian ballots are, with cameo appearances by Joh Bjelke-Petersen.

After the election, public opposition to the Australia Card rose like a tidal wave and smashed the poorly drafted proposal, which Hawke then dropped – despite ostensibly having won a double-dissolution election off the back of it.

So much for election triggers, then.

There is a lot of commentary right now focusing on what the forthcoming election will “be about”.

It’s worth keeping in mind as you read all of it that an election is inevitably run on four quite different strands – and perhaps, as of now, five.

The first is what is said by the politicians every day: the themes the parties have decided upon. Turnbull’s patter above is a good example. This strand is important. With saturation coverage during a campaign, disciplined delivery of a message is essential.

The second, which is not disconnected from the politicians but not identical with their themes either, is television advertising. This often tends to be much more bluntly negative than the leaders of political parties feel they can be.

The third is the unexpected, often borne of mistake. That 1987 campaign was derailed, for the Liberals, by an accounting error in the tax plan released by then opposition leader John Howard. And who could have guessed that Mark Latham would play a brief starring role in the 2013 campaign?

The fourth, which is often the most important, is what you might call “the fundamentals”. The 2013 election was about a lot of things, but it’s my strong view Labor never had a chance, for the very good reason that it had been far too divided for far too long. Division is a fundamental, as is length of time in government. Kevin Rudd was a brilliant campaigner, but Howard’s 12 years in government were just as important. In 2016 the fundamental questions are whether the electorate is willing to bring Labor back so soon, or chuck a new and still fairly popular prime minister out so fast.

This election we may have a fifth thread, in the form of social media. My sense is that the actual media is still in the process of assimilating the influence of social media, meaning Twitter and Facebook have a disproportionate potential to drive stories. You would have to expect a growth in targeted advertising on Facebook, too.

What an election seems to be about, what the commentators (including me) say it is about, and what actually drives votes can be very different things.

Don’t worry. That won’t stop me guessing, or putting my views down in this column. But I’ve gone on long enough for one day, so that’ll have to wait. 


Today’s links

Sean Kelly

Sean Kelly is a columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, and was an adviser to Labor prime ministers Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd.


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