I wake to the promise of blue skies and 26 degrees in Brisbane this late winter Saturday, and a welcome day of R&R. No rest for our election candidates, however, as they go into the first full weekend of the campaign with a packed schedule of pseudo events and photo opps. This will be a crucial 48 hours in winning voters’ hearts and minds.
Deputy PM Antony Albanese set the tone at a media conference in Victoria this a.m. by accusing Coalition leader Tony Abbott of ‘running away’ from public scrutiny of his policies. Mr Abbott, said Albo, had run away from multiple challenges to a live media debate with Kevin. Unlike Kevin, he had run away from ABC’s 7.30 show.
This is a very potent line of attack for a political party, especially when combined with the Coalition’s hesitation thus far to provide the detail of their policy proposals. From the leadership with its confusion over whether reduced interest rates were good or bad for the Australian economy, down to the lowly local candidate caught on live TV this week lacking the most basic information about his own party’s six-point ‘Stop The Boats’ policy, the strong impression exists that the Coalition are policy-lite and avoiding scrutiny until the last possible moment.
The ‘don’t ask me that right now’ approach isn’t an uncommon strategy for an electoral challenger, and can work if the incumbent is sufficiently unpopular that people want change at any cost. When that is the case, better for a challenger to create as small a target as possible by giving the very minimum of policy detail. Say nothing, or next to nothing of substance, focus on the dog whistle slogans, and let the government sink beneath its own record of failure.
This is more or less how UK Labour lost the British general election in 2010, when an ‘anyone but Brown’ mood brought a Tory-led minority government to power. In this campaign it would have worked with Gillard still in charge, probably, but in the brief period of his leadership Rudd has restored Labor’s credibility, and assuming the ALP can communicate what is essentially a good news story about the Australian economy since 2007, the Coalition can’t rely on ‘time for a change’ as its core rationale for being handed the reins of federal power. Rudd is an extremely effective media performer, as long as he stays this side of smug, defending an economic record that is envied by leaders in just about every other advanced capitalist country in the world right now.
Calling Abbott out on his avoidance of journalistic and public scrutiny makes sense for Labor, therefore, though it could easily backfire. On Sunday evening, Abbott and Rudd WILL finally debate live on national TV, and the country will have a chance to directly compare the two leaders’ styles, records and promises. Both will be going through intensive preparations today and tomorrow, rehearsing their answers, anticipating questions, coming up with attack dog sound bites capable of capturing the monday morning news agenda.
Abbott has been justifying his refusal to debate Rudd thus far in terms of electoral precedent, and wishes to avoid being bounced into things by Rudd’s aggressive posturing. He implies that when the time comes he will be ready, all the answers prepared. That, too, is a good strategy for a challenger - to convey coolness under pressure, and to play the long game.
Well, tomorrow we’ll see if that approach is a bluff, or the prelude to a vote-winning performance in which all is revealed on the Coalition policy detail front, and the numbers are shown to add up. I’ll give a view on that after the Channel Seven debate.
Meantime, let’s note that these debates do matter. In the UK 2010 campaign a strong debate performance on TV elevated the Liberal Democrats to a position of key influence - leader Nick Clegg ended up as deputy prime minister. In the last US campaign, Obama came out ahead in the TV debates - just - and the final result reflected that.
Decisive or not, in 2013 the public expects its pollies to be available for such scrutiny, and will be watching tomorrow’s confrontation with great interest. Social media will provide a real time commentary on the event, and instant judgement on the participants. Let’s wish them both well, for the sake of Australian democracy.