Malcolm or Bill: who would you invite to your barbecue?

Both Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten are complex, enigmatic figures. AAP/Tracey Nearmy

If the proliferation of open and free elections is the key factor contributing to the strength of a democracy, then Australia is well served.

Three-year terms for federal MPs, state elections every four years or so, and council elections sometimes sneaking in rarely leaves a parents and citizens association far from having a fundraising cake stall to help their school and service the needs of those lining up to do their democratic duty.

The very abundance of Australian elections can build indifference. And given compulsory voting means citizens are compelled to take part, listening to “the pollies” and going to vote are part of our national routine.

Campaigns can be viewed and assessed by looking at their content (what policies each of the parties is committed to) or the process (how each party is looking to present those policies to garner political support). Although previously involved in campaigns both here and in the UK, I have never been too interested in the technical necessities of how to run them and elicit public support.

The campaign isn’t really the time when a policy “wonk” is required. That work should have been done.

But the skills of undertaking a coherent campaign are vital in a democracy. A party can have the most brilliantly informed and farsighted policies, but if the protagonists cannot communicate them effectively to the electorate, they will be overlooked.

With our increasingly consumerist model of politics, the danger is that what politicians believe the electorate wants to hear comes to guide policy.

Lessons from 2005

In 2005, I worked on the British general election campaign for the Labour leader and prime minister, Tony Blair.

Every intervention in Tony Blair’s 2005 election campaign was consistent with an overall theme. Reuters

The campaign commenced with a briefing at Downing Street from the two key New Labour strategists – Alastair Campbell and the late Philip Gould. The two-hour meeting covered how the campaign would be structured, how they wanted to position Labour and the prime minister on a series of major policy challenges, and what everyone’s job would be over the coming weeks.

I was given the task of ensuring key constituencies understood Blair’s perspective on climate change and how his commitment to emissions reduction would be taken forward domestically, in Europe and internationally in his third term.

I wasn’t part of the core team of advisers, but I was in a position to observe and work with those who were.

Key to the strategy was the notion that Blair and Labour had to “own” the future. Initially I thought it a pompous, self-aggrandising and meaningless theme, presented with the three words:

Forward, not back

But, as applied across social, economic, environmental and international policy over the coming weeks, the strategy started to make sense. It was not that the government hubristically wanted people to think it had the answers to all future challenges. It was that, rather than defending existing interests, Labour’s policies and approaches were all focused on tackling future problems through a creative and open approach to policy.

The theme built up slowly. The election came at the end of a campaign when the Tory opposition had become increasingly shrill, negative and irrelevant. The campaign was structured not as an amalgam of single policy announcements but a process whereby every intervention was consistent with an overall theme.

What for Australia’s 2016 campaign?

It is less overt, but “owning the future” is very much part of the campaign narrative being adopted by both main Australian parties in the 2016 race. The Coalition seeks to emphasise its “plan” for the economy; Labor seeks to do the same for health and education.

With rehearsed phrases dominating the first leaders’ debate, it would be easy to see both the current and potential prime minister as a one-dimensional “hollow man” driven by polling and research. Yet both Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten are complex, enigmatic figures.

Only Bob Hawke, as a previous leader of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, came to national politics with a political personality as known as Turnbull. Turnbull has been in the public eye for more than 30 years.

It is clear to all that Turnbull has had to shed his long-held convictions on same-sex marriage, pricing carbon emissions and Australia becoming a republic in order for the Liberal Party to make him its leader.

So, despite having been on the stage for so long, it is unclear quite what Turnbull the prime minister stands for. Will the “real” Turnbull emerge after an election victory? Or will he forever be “Tony-Abbott-lite”, parroting phrases like “jobs and growth” and believing in the motherhood of “innovation”?

As is the way for opposition leaders, Shorten is less well known. And yet from his exposure as Australian Workers Union national secretary during the Beaconsfield mine collapse, his part in the ousting of Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, and his role in marshalling the introduction of the National Disability Insurance Scheme, Shorten has been on the political stage for more than ten years.

And, as with Turnbull, he has long been feted as a future prime minister.

What’s come across from Shorten in this campaign so far is his apparent confidence. He may not have the intellect of Gough Whitlam or Paul Keating, or the charisma of Hawke. But unlike the likes of Mark Latham or Kevin Rudd, he does manage to communicate a certain normality and calm.

Some people end up voting on the basis of who they would rather share a barbecue with. AAP/Julian Smith

And, rather like a punching bag on a rope, no matter how hard the punch, Shorten keeps coming back. He has endured and returned stronger and more eager after each setback: historical rape accusations, a challenging appearance at the trade union royal commission, or an approval rating in free-fall six months ago.

Putting aside the significant policy differences between the parties, there is theory that Australians end up voting on the basis of who they dislike less or would rather share a garden barbecue with.

In the 1996 election, many Australians would have been unsure of an afternoon with Paul Keating talking in acronyms on macroeconomic theory or the merits of various antique French clocks. Better to spend the time with John Howard: more akin to a non-threatening suburban bank manager unlikely to cause too much offence.

There is a long way to go in this campaign. With compulsory voting and the polls so close, any sign of momentum can be significant. But in the end, as the protagonists stumble to July 2, it might just be which leader the electorate believes is the more personable, normal and authentic barbecue guest that makes the difference.