The government’s potential strength and Labor’s vulnerability were on mutual display on Sunday as, after seven gruelling weeks, the campaign entered its run to the finishing line.
In these last days, with Brexit reverberating internationally, the times are seeming to suit Malcolm Turnbull while they threaten to make Shorten’s battle harder.
In Newspoll, published in Monday’s Australian, the Coalition leads the ALP 51-49% in two party terms – the first time it has been in front in the campaign. The Coalition’s primary vote is up two points to 43% in a week, with Labor steady on 36%; the Greens down a point to 9%, and microparties and independents down one point to 12%.
At Sunday’s Coalition launch in western Sydney, Turnbull used Brexit to reinforce his messages about the need for political stability and an economic plan.
Addressing Labor’s Queensland launch in Brisbane, Bill Shorten stuck with his Medicare scare which, accompanied by a targeted telephone blitz, the ALP judges has played strongly. But, for Labor, the new uncertainty heralded by the British decision brings further into question its big spending program – a risk underlined when it released its costings soon after Turnbull’s speech.
The assumption – certainly one the Coalition is operating on – is that Brexit is likely to help the government. Turnbull told his audience: “This is a time which demands stable majority government. Experienced economic leadership and a national economic plan.”
“The shockwaves in the past 48 hours from Britain’s vote to exit the European Union are a sharp reminder of the volatility in the global economy … At a time of uncertainty, the last thing we need is a parliament in disarray,” he said.
But Turnbull knows he has to tread very carefully. He can’t afford to talk up the dangers to the point of setting off panic. He can, however, as he did, highlight the new circumstances, and the possible rougher weather ahead.
That anchored his plea for voters not to return federal politics to a hung parliament or a feral Senate. Whether they heed his warning on the hung parliament, they are not likely to take much notice of it in their Senate vote, where the public mood and the small quota in this double dissolution election are giving micro players a big chance.
Countering the appeal of stability is the citizenry’s disillusionment and distrust of politicians, and a desire to tell them they are falling way short. Research done earlier this year for the University of Canberra and the Museum of Australian Democracy found trust in politicians and the political process at the lowest since 1994.
Such alienation is a pale version of what drove some of the “Leave” success in Britain. Locally we see it most dramatically in the soaring support for the Nick Xenophon Team, with its populist policies and retro, protectionist economics.
For those voters attracted to Xenophon and other routes for protest on Saturday, Turnbull’s urging of a vote for stability comes second to a desire to register their angst and their wish for a different style of politics. Both government and opposition are seriously worried about what Xenophon might achieve in South Australia on polling day.
With former prime minister John Howard in the front row and the drumbeat of the British debate about immigrants in the background, Turnbull’s other big pitch in his launch was the Coalition’s tried and trusted one – border protection. His message was: don’t believe Labor’s line that there’s bipartisanship. He pointed out that Labor didn’t support temporary protection visas; anyway the ALP had “failed Australia before” and “hope rarely triumphs over experience”.
“Public trust in the government to determine who can come to Australia and how long they can stay is an essential foundation of our success as a multicultural society,” Turnbull said. It was a nuanced version of Howard’s famous 2001 policy speech line: “we will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come”.
Labor chose the Liberals’ launch day to put out its costings for a very obvious reason. It hoped their impact might be muted.
But there’s no hiding the bottom line – a Labor government, on current figures, would have deficits across the forward estimates some A$16.5 billion higher than the Coalition.
Shadow Treasurer Chris Bowen and finance spokesman Tony Burke said that “every dollar of the modest difference between Labor and the Liberals over the forward estimates is a result of Labor’s decision to protect Medicare and deliver productivity-enhancing investments in schools, universities and infrastructure. 50% of the difference is because of Labor’s investments in our schools and universities”.
The opposition can point out it would reach balance at the same time as the government, in 2020-21 – though this looks optimistic, as indeed the government’s own timetable probably is, if the past is a guide. Labor can argue its reforms produce structural savings that grow in the second half of a ten-year period. But that’s too far away to be at all confident about macro numbers.
Especially with hindsight given the new uncertainties, Labor would have been prudent to have kept within the budget funding envelope, as reflected in the Pre-election Economic and Fiscal Outlook.
That didn’t necessarily have to mean proposing deeper cuts, or more tax hikes than it has outlined. Rather its spending offers could have been less generous. This would have made them less attractive, but it’s all a matter of trade offs – in this case for economic credibility.
Shorten’s pitches on health and education are enticing bait for voters. His scare campaign over Medicare is, anecdotally, having an effect.
But shifting circumstances are assisting Turnbull focus the debate on the economy in these final days, and that’s not good for Shorten.