With the polls remaining close and confusing but a general feeling that Malcolm Turnbull has the edge in this election, Bill Shorten has made a spirited appeal to Labor’s faithful to put their shoulders to the wheel and not give up.
“This election is a battle for our generation of true believers,” he declared at the ALP’s formal launch, in an address that started flatly but warmed up to an old-style, crowd-rousing speech.
The hero of those earlier “true believers”, Paul Keating, looked on from the audience, with Bob Hawke and Julia Gillard – who got the biggest applause when the three entered the auditorium.
“A close-run race won’t do the job, an honourable second place will not suffice,” Shorten said. “Mr Turnbull says he’s got this in the bag, he claims he’s already won – I say to him: you ain’t seen anything yet.”
Shorten himself will need to put in a very convincing performance on every day of this last fortnight.
It won’t be easy. His strongest selling points – Labor’s ambitious initiatives in health and education in particular – are also the sources of its potential weakness. They cost a lot, at a time when excessive spending is a problem, budget repair an imperative and Australia’s triple-A credit rating not totally safe.
In his speech, Shorten tapped into community hopes and fears, positives and negatives.
He emphasised that Australians needed a government investing for the long term in transport, education, a first-rate NBN and health – but he also played up the spectre of a dark future if the Coalition won, conjuring up fears of what would happen to Medicare in particular if the Liberals won.
His message was that the Liberals would want to tear Medicare down, “piece by piece, brick by brick”, replacing it with “a system where profits come before patients, where emergency rooms are crammed with people who can’t afford to see a GP and the rest are turned away”.
The Liberals have been looking at outsourcing the back office operation of Medicare, the payments of benefits. But Malcolm Turnbull, obviously aware of the potency of the Medicare scare, has now flatly and emphatically ruled this out.
“There is no privatisation of Medicare or any part of Medicare,” Turnbull said on Sunday. “Every element of Medicare that is delivered by government will continue to be delivered by government, full stop.”
There is no evidence a Liberal government would attempt to “privatise” Medicare – Australians are too deeply wedded to it and the electoral backlash would be huge. However, the track record of this government does indicate that it favours inserting some user-pays when it can get away with it, which it mostly hasn’t been able to.
But we can presume that Medicare and people’s concerns about its future play strongly in the focus groups, and Shorten is relying on getting mileage from fanning worries.
Shorten’s speech contained only limited new initiatives. His promise not to scrap the bulk-billing incentive for pathology and diagnostic imaging put another leg into his health policy. The tax incentive for small businesses to take on younger and older unemployed people and parents and carers re-joining the workforce is a gesture to both the sector and those for whom getting a job is challenging. The money would come out of existing spending.
There was a shot at the banks and at the “foreign companies” which would benefit from the government’s business tax cut. By focusing on these targets, Shorten seeks to capitalise on the opposition that already exists among voters to the company tax cut.
Shorten addressed the issue of spending and the budget early in his speech. He linked what Labor stands for to economic responsibility by declaring “we will be a government for the fair go, fully paid for. Labor would bring down the deficit each and every year”, save more than it spent over the decade, and return the budget to balance at the same time as the Coalition.
It would only have policies it could fund and that the country could afford, he said. “We will not be big spending government.” Labor’s savings plan was built “on structural reform, not savage cuts”. “Paul Keating taught us well. You don’t grow the economy by shrinking opportunity. We believe in budget repair that is fair.”
But just as Labor has its “big scare” against the Coalition, in its claims of what would happen to Medicare under a re-elected Turnbull government, so the Coalition has its own “big scare” against Labor – what a Shorten government might do to the budget.
Both scares will run massively in these final days, as the negative advertising ramps up.
POSTSCRIPT: Newspoll in Monday’s Australian has the government and Labor 50-50 in the two-party vote, and Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten rating almost the same on net satisfaction – or dissatisfaction. Turnbull has a net satisfaction rating of minus 15 points; Shorten’s is at minus 16. Turnbull retains a healthy lead over Shorten as better prime minister – 46-31%.