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Welcome to the Bill and Malcolm show

AAP/Lukas Coch

We’re off! The race to be Australia’s next prime minister has begun. What had until recently looked like being a gentle canter to the winning post for Malcolm Turnbull and his Coalition government now looks set to be more of a contest. And with 74 days till polling day, it’s all to play for.

It’s a marathon, indeed, if I can pursue the sport analogy for a moment longer, that will test the endurance of voters and politicians alike. Ten-and-a-bit weeks of policy pitches, program launches, and manifesto pledges will test our collective patience like no Australian campaign in recent memory.

And maybe, after all that, whichever side wins can hang onto their prime minister for a full term. That would be nice.

It’s often said that mediated politics is all about performance, about what former Labor cabinet minister Lindsay Tanner once called the “announceables”. Were that really the case, election 2016 would already be all over bar the voting. Were this to be the Bill and Malcolm show, as the Coalition campaign managers might once have hoped, the only question to be resolved would be the size of the incumbent’s majority.

Let’s be honest. Bill Shorten is not a natural when it comes to media performance. He is a union man, a backroom boy, good at knocking over prime ministers and wielding the machinery of internal party power, but a bit rubbish at conveying the authenticity and touchy-feelyness that the contemporary public expects from its leaders.

With all due respect to Shorten – and I don’t doubt for a moment that he could be an effective prime minister of Australia – he just can’t do the kind of sincerity that convinces in a 30-second TV news item.

Qualities such as authenticity, sincerity, empathy, are constructed by teams of writers and political image-makers with the help of carefully designed soundbites and photo-ops, but the public expects to see them on display nonetheless. Voters today make sophisticated judgements about who they wish to govern based not only, or mainly, on policy, but on the personal, the private, the human dimension of the candidates.

Annabel Crabb understood this when she invented Kitchen Cabinet, one of the most popular political shows ever made by the ABC. By putting Tony Abbott in the kitchen and talking to him about what makes him tick she helped soften and humanise him. Ditto Kevin Rudd and many others.

Some commentators bemoan the trend towards greater focus on personality in politics as “dumbing down” the process, and dismiss human interest formats such as Kitchen Cabinet as ‘"nfotainment". But like it or not – and there’s really no good reason not to, in an era when trust can be decisive in shaping public perceptions of political leaders – effective media performance is now a key element of the political skill set.

Shorten, alas, struggles to communicate convincingly in the context of the staged events and media conferences which make up so much of a modern election campaign. Clichés and tired formulae pour forth in a curiously robotic, affectless manner that renders their construction transparent. The listener is distracted from policy substance by the style of delivery, and not in a good way.

The rush to replace Rudd after the 2013 defeat, without serious internal debate or reflection on the reasons for the Coalition’s win, delivered a solid, well-connected party manager to the helm, not a gifted public communicator – the anti-Rudd, one might say. He [did better] on Sky’s People’s Forum a couple of weeks back, “winning over two-thirds of undecided voters”.

Sky’s Forum format allows for unscripted, genuinely “live” engagement with the people, and Shorten would be well advised to seek out more such opportunities between now and July 2.

On the other side of politics, Turnbull emerged as the anti-Abbott. Where Tony was perceived as tough and manly, a true Aussie bloke, Malcolm is confident, likes the ABC, supports same-sex marriage, and once wore a funky leather jacket on Q&A.

From the moment Turnbull became prime minister he introduced a communicative style that could not have been more different from that of his predecessor – open, honest, friendly, resonating with the soft left in Australia even as he alienated his own hard right.

Accompanied by mood music on challenging the unacceptable face of the union movement, he reconfigured public opinion in the Coalition’s favour. He came over as the sort of guy who’d be great company at a dinner party.

Were communicative performance all that mattered, then, this election would already be in the bag for the Coalition, and we’d be in for a rather dull campaign between the old, union-dominated left exemplified by Shorten, and the shiny, liberally tinged entrepreneurialism of Turnbull. But it isn’t, fortunately. That dreaded word, “policy”, has emerged as more significant than seemed possible in the immediate aftermath of Abbott’s ejection from office.

The issue of taxation, in particular, has been badly handled by Turnbull and his team, with all that this implies for the public’s judgement on which side can be trusted to run the economy moving forward.

People remember that for all of the criticism they received from their political opponents, Labor in office steered Australia through the global financial crisis, leaving the country in pretty much the best shape of all the advanced capitalist economies. Shorten was a leading member of that team, was he not?

We’ll see what the May budget brings, but if Turnbull can’t reverse the current perception of his government as confused and indecisive on taxation and the public finances, we may find that his opponent’s communicative shortcomings come to matter less than Labor’s supporters have feared.

Maybe we’ll find after all that it is the economy, stupid!

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