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Grattan on Friday: Shorten struggles as campaign winds down

It’s now up to voters to decide the fate of Bill Shorten. Mick Tsikas/AAP

The fag end of a campaign is an agony of suspense for the leaders, when exhaustion, anxiety and adrenaline mix to a strong brew of stomach-churning anticipation.

Resilience and discipline have driven Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten for the last eight weeks, and many months before that. Now millions of voters, some informed and committed, others apathetic, or disillusioned and resentful, will decide their futures. Many have already registered their judgments in record pre-poll voting, making their decisions when the campaign was at different stages.

Thursday’s Fairfax-Ipsos poll has Coalition and Labor 50-50% in two-party terms, with the Coalition’s primary vote 40%, Labor on 33%, Greens 13%, Nick Xenophon Team 2% and others 12%. This is a 3.5% swing, which on a uniform basis would produce a hung parliament.

Turnbull’s net approval is plus eight; Shorten’s is minus eight. Turnbull leads Shorten as preferred prime minister 49-35%. More than six in ten people believe the Coalition will win.

For weeks there has been a mismatch between the closeness of a range of national polls, and the message from strategists on both sides, based on their own polling and what they’re finding in marginal seats, of a likely Coalition victory.

Former Fairfax pollster John Stirton says that looking at the various national polls, plus published marginal seat polls and the history of the value of incumbency “one could conclude the Coalition has a two-in-three chance of winning. On the other hand, a Labor one-in-three chance in a two-horse race is not a bad position either. In 2013, a similar pre-election analysis would have given Kevin Rudd a one in ten chance.”

In the nail-biting final period, each leader is laser-focused on the bald win-lose result. But both are also aware that won’t be the whole story.

If Turnbull wins, the margin is vitally important for his ability to manage his party; if he loses, he’s politically dead, buried and cremated, as the saying goes.

Any sort of Shorten victory, however slender, is a triumph; the size of a loss would determine his chances of surviving as leader. Who came out on top in a hung parliament would depend on the composition and number of crossbenchers, and on negotiations neither side has been willing to admit would have to happen.

Turnbull ended the campaign as he started it, with his economic plan for jobs and growth absolutely front and centre, at its heart the ten-year phased-in company tax cut.

Shorten’s central pitch has been Labor’s promised big investment in social capital, notably education and health. In the campaign’s later days he’s leant heavily on a massive scare campaign, asserting the Liberals would privatise (variously defined) Medicare.

During the campaign, neither side has wanted to elevate the challenge of addressing budget repair. On each of their figurings, the budget would only return to balance in 2020-21 – not that the projections for several years ahead have any serious reliability.

Tony Abbott, who preached fiscal repair in 2013 then mucked it up in Joe Hockey’s 2014 overreach budget, pointed to this conveniently ignored elephant on Wednesday, saying “obviously there’s a huge budget repair job that needs to be done”.

Indeed, Abbott, who behaved himself for most of the campaign, broke out a little at the end, telling Sky that apart from budget repair, national security had played almost no part in the campaign and “even border security has been an intermittent visitor”. On his latter point, one does wonder where Tony’s been. Border security has occupied a prominent room in the Turnbull campaign house.

As it went to this election Labor took a couple of critical decisions. The most fundamental was its big target strategy of putting forward expensive promises in its areas of traditional maximum strength.

Within that framework, it proposed to run higher deficits over the forward estimates than the Coalition. This latter is perhaps the strangest decision of the election.

Even when it was spending a lot, Labor surely could have shaved off enough to keep level with the Coalition’s bottom line. If Shorten loses there will be much soul-searching about this, given how aware Labor is that it always has to prove its economic credentials in campaigns.

When the election was called, observers speculated about how the respective leaders would stand up to the campaign’s inordinate length. In this horse race Shorten started strongly and, in terms of on-the-ground performance, looked the better of the two for some time. There was much talk about how he was “winning the campaign”, compared with Turnbull’s rattier showing.

But Turnbull finished well while Shorten appeared to fade as the end came in sight. On Thursday’s ABC’s 7.30 program the opposition leader visibly struggled.

Brexit hung over the campaign’s final week, with both Turnbull and Shorten spinning it for their own purposes. For Turnbull it strengthened his argument for stability. For Shorten, its message was the danger of people being marginalised and becoming alienated – an outcome, he asserted, that followed from the sort of policies Turnbull promoted.

This last week also saw same-sex marriage move into the limelight, as Turnbull rebutted any suggestion that if the Coalition’s planned plebiscite was carried, conservatives within its ranks would be able to thwart the change being implemented.

Shorten denounces the plebiscite, saying that the first piece of legislation he would introduce if he won would be a bill for marriage equality. But his strong opposition to a plebiscite is not shared by the community: in the Ipsos poll, 70% favoured same-sex marriage while 69% thought the issue should be decided by a plebiscite – only 24% believed it should be settled by parliamentary vote.

Most people, it seems, don’t mind the idea of a second trip to the ballot box this year.

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