Less than a fortnight from polling day, the latest national Newspoll has the Coalition and Labor at 50:50, while Newspolls of a clutch of marginal seats over the weekend have the Coalition hanging on or at level pegging in most of them.
Labor launched its campaign on Sunday, with Bill Shorten flanked by his frontbench and fawning over the three former PMs in the front row – Bob Hawke, Julia Gillard and Paul Keating on a rare unity ticket (luckily Kevin Rudd conveniently had another engagement).
Whatever one thinks of Labor, its spend-a-thon policies and its refusal to break its union shackles, it must be said it and Shorten are out-campaigning the Coalition and PM Malcolm Turnbull. Sunday’s declaring the election a referendum on the future of Medicare was smart politics with a bad polling hand: it gives Labor a rallying call, plays to the fears of voters (especially women), and wedges Turnbull on his alleged plans to “privatise” Medicare.
Monday was dominated by Labor’s big Medicare lie. Despite having given “unequivocal” commitments that Medicare will always remain in public hands, Turnbull fended off Labor attacks, aided by compliant journalists. It cut through even Turnbull’s wordy but strong appearance on the ABC’s Q and A programme.
That Turnbull immediately tapped the mat – effectively declaring the exploration of private sector involvement in the operational management of Medicare back-office payments systems a dead letter – was not just a cave-in to a blatant Big Lie. It gave that lie legitimacy, and encourages more Big Lies from Labor in the remaining 12 days of this campaign. Not wise tactics, and it indicates that Medicare is looming large as a danger in Coalition polling.
Labor also crystallised a clear message to voters on Sunday and has found some fresh legs with it since. “We hear your pain”, Shorten is saying, “and we’ll kiss it better”. The launch re-focused Labor’s purpose, giving voters reason to overlook the quicksand of shonky economics on which Labor’s policy platform is built, and it portrayed Shorten as the people’s champion.
Meanwhile, the Coalition’s campaign bumps along. Hammering jobs and growth yes, and working hard to convince voters that Malcolm has a plan and Bill doesn’t. But less than a fortnight out, Turnbull’s paternalistic pomposity grates on many, and repeatedly saying there is a plan is not in itself a plan.
And it’s impossible to fathom why the Coalition tacticians and strategists haven’t gone hard on reminding voters about Shorten’s record as a union leader, Labor factional warrior and the ratter on not one but two Labor PMs.
Surely, for just one instance, the Coalition could script a satirical ad around Shorten’s notorious “whatever the Prime Minister said, I support it”, which highlights not only his total lack of fresh ideas and leadership, but that he is no more than a jumped-up apparatchik with no mind of his own. It’s comedy gold in skilled hands – perhaps the Speccie Oz’s editor, with his deep advertising experience, can advise Liberal director Tony Nutt?
Nor have we seen anything attacking Shorten’s chequered AWU past as uncovered by the trade union royal commission, or pillory his claim in his recent book that “As I Labor leader I still think like a (union) organiser”.
And, more perplexingly, we haven’t seen the last three years framed by the Coalition in terms of the omnishambles of the Rudd-Gillard years and the subsequent failure of Shorten’s Labor to take any responsibility for cleaning up the mess it created in favour of lazy, knee-jerk populism.
What the PM said last week, asserting the Coalition would win, was a premature ejaculation. Labor is still very much in this game, and could yet steal a boilover win if the Coalition doesn’t sharpen its own act, campaigns better, and refrains from adding to the spend-o-meter this and next week. Rank populism is more likely to woo disaffected voters flirting with the Greens, Xenophonites and other minor parties and independents than a message of steady fiscal discipline and good governance that doesn’t involve spending like drunken sailors. Labor knows this and is throwing caution to the wind.
Turnbull should win and, for the sake of the country, must win. Should enough marginal seats continue to hold out against a national swing to Labor, he will.
But to counter Labor’s desperate yet focused late challenge, Turnbull needs to seal the deal with the electorate and lift his and the Coalition’s own game and campaign in the run to the line. Nothing can be taken for granted. Even though the Coalition is better-placed than Labor, Turnbull can’t afford just to squeak in: surely he realises that every lower house seat lost, and every Senate cross-bencher elected, diminishes his personal, parliamentary and party mandate as PM.
If he doesn’t, it may yet well be that on 3 July we’ll wake up to a hung parliament or, unthinkably, a Shorten government in its own right.