Trust me. That was the basis of Opposition Leader Tony Abbott’s pitch to Australian voters at the Coalition’s election campaign launch on Sunday.
The man who has run the longest and most negative campaign in modern Australian politics flicked the switch to positive with a polished and assured rendition of his claim to the top job in comparison with Kevin Rudd’s tarnished record.
With the strongest signal yet that most Australians vote on gut instinct at least as much as policy, the entire campaign launch focused on pushing the buttons of visceral voters, urging them to give Abbott the benefit of the doubt and put their trust in him on polling day.
The button-pushing started early with the relatively low-key entrance of Liberal eminence grise, former prime minister John Howard. Howard was seated prominently before the stage, providing the best camera angles for the mentor to be seen smiling approvingly upon his protégé, thereby conveying the not-so-subtle sub-text that Abbott’s election would bring a return of the Howard ‘golden’ years.
Howard’s presence said: “You can trust Abbott because he was part of my successful government and I believe in him.”
The opening address by Queensland Liberal Premier Campbell Newman, was to dispel any bad juju left hanging over the federal campaign from his austerity drive after being elected in that state. At least one media commentator noted (a fact no doubt supplied by the Coalition’s campaign team) that Newman still commanded a healthy lead in the polls, and by implication was a positive and not a negative for Abbott’s election prospects.
Newman’s speech said: “I am not a reason for you to distrust Abbott.”
Deputy Liberal Leader Julie Bishop not only provided the light relief but also shouldered the responsibility for taking the personal attack to Kevin Rudd. In an amusing display which might have made the Chaser Boys regret helping Bishop find her inner comic during the 2010 election, the Liberals’ most senior woman chanted the word ‘remember’ while reciting the recycled Prime Minister’s flaws.
She also delivered two pivotal lines that must be playing well in the Liberals’ focus groups; so well in fact that Abbott repeated them in his own address. “If [Rudd’s] own party don’t believe in Kevin Rudd and they’ve sacked him once why should the Australian people ever trust him in the top job again?” queried Bishop, leading up to the clincher: “Kevin Rudd assumes that this election is all about him. Tony Abbott and our team know, believe, that it is all about you the Australian people and we stand ready to serve.”
Bishop’s speech said: “You can’t trust Rudd but you can trust Abbott.”
Nationals Leader Warren Truss took to the podium next, partly to ensure that rural and regional Australia did not feel left out, but also to transition the mood of the event from negativity about Rudd to positivity about Abbott. Truss had the privilege of announcing the first policy commitment of the launch, one that heralded a number of other infrastructure promises. This suggests the Coalition is taking a punt that more votes can be won from new and improved roads and bridges than will be lost from their budget version of the NBN.
Truss built on the presence of Howard in the room, noting he and 15 former colleagues from the Howard era stood ready to serve in an Abbott ministry. “Proven competence versus proven incompetence” was how he described the choice facing voters between the Coalition and Labor.
Invoking Howard’s “Who do you trust?” mantra from 2004, Truss’s speech said: “You can trust Abbott and we won’t let you down.”
Then Frances and Bridget, two of Abbott’s three daughters injected some homespun glamour into the launch, eschewing the autocue to read from notes about the man who had “helped us become the women we are today”. Conferring this role on Abbott’s daughters instead of his equally telegenic and articulate wife Margie suggests the younger women have been assessed by the campaign team to have broader appeal and may have a better chance of convincing younger men and women to vote for Abbott than Margie would have with women of her own age.
Frances and Bridget’s speeches said: “You can trust Tony Abbott as we have done all our lives.”
Finally, the Tony Abbott who took to the stage was the best we’ve seen of him yet: Abbott gave his supporters and potential supporters a glimpse of the prime minister he could be. Undoubtedly rehearsed to within an inch of his life, this Tony Abbott was a long way from the staccato Mr Negative we’ve seen since 2009.
In the tradition of opposition leaders before him, Abbott’s speech remained light on costing details despite demands from the media and his opponents to provide them. He gave purpose and momentum to his ‘positive plan’ by detailing what would be done on the first day, within the first 100 days and by the end of his first term.
Abbott made a few strategic commitments including more support for seniors, encouraging more young people into trades, and recognising Indigenous Australians in the Australian Constitution.
But most significantly, Abbott committed to restoring trust in government. This is audacious considering Abbott’s relentless negative campaigning is responsible for at least some of the community’s loss of confidence in the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd Government. Equally, Abbott’s pitch to restore ‘trust in people’ and vow never to seek to divide one person from another sits uncomfortably with some of the Coalition’s most divisive policies such as that on asylum seekers.
Trust may well be a risky characteristic upon which to build the remainder of the Coalition campaign. As Labor Opposition Leader Mark Latham learned in 2004, this ephemeral quality has many interpretations and can swiftly be transformed from a positive to a negative depending upon who is more skilled at framing the debate.
On recent past performances, the Coalition is more adept at such campaign tactics, although Labor is more than competitive when not distracted by internal ructions.
But in the end it will likely come down to the two main contenders. It will be he who wins the ‘trust wars’ who will prevail on polling day.
This post originally appeared as a weekly campaign column at ABC’s The Drum.