Labor and Coalition rewrite the campaign playbook


Given politics is sometimes referred to as the world’s second oldest profession, scores of political orthodoxies have developed over the years.

In Australia, those conventions include three things to avoid: long election campaigns, campaigns during winter, and elections during the school holidays.

Yet the federal poll announced yesterday by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull does all three.

In fact, the past decade in Australian politics has been characterised by politicians and parties flouting conventional political wisdom, with varying degrees of success.

During the Rudd and Gillard governments, Tony Abbott became known for turning political orthodoxy on its head.

Never before had an opposition leader sustained such a brutally negative campaign against the government for so long. Never before had a political contender so relentlessly stuck to a three-word slogan to spruik his party’s credentials.

In effect, Abbott rewrote the political rulebook during that time, providing a new template for opposition tactics that was adopted in part by Bill Shorten when Labor returned to the opposition benches in 2013. By tapping into their inner Abbott, Labor took obstructionist tactics in the Senate to a new low, even opposing saving measures that it had originally introduced.

Other political traditions have been overturned since that change of government, firstly by Shorten’s Labor and more recently by Malcolm Turnbull and his team.

Labor did its own bit of political rule rewriting by revealing a smattering of policies over the past 18 months. The more conventional and less politically risky option would have been to take the small target approach, adopted by most opposition parties since the Liberal Party released its ambitious but ultimately ill-fated Fightback manifesto 16 months before the 1993 federal election.

Labor’s initial policies allowed the Opposition to make an early start on drawing the lines of differentiation that it hoped would eventually define the coming election contest.

In particular, its commitments to make the wealthy pay more, either through a crackdown on multinational tax avoidance or reducing tax concessions for wealthy retirees or property owners, established the “rich versus battlers” dichotomy that Labor has employed to suggest the Coalition does not treat all voters fairly.

In his budget reply last week Shorten rejected the PM’s depiction of this comparison as a class war, but it is nevertheless difficult to avoid the conclusion that Labor is trying to engage in the politics of envy.

This is again flouting the political rulebook, given the failure of previous Labor opposition leader Mark Latham to topple John Howard has been attributed at least in part to his attempts to whip up antipathy between lower income voters and their wealthier compatriots by slashing funding for private schools.

Going rogue when it comes to political orthodoxy can reap considerable dividends … or result in spectacular failure.

For its part, the Coalition has also flouted a number of political conventions. The first was to replace a first-term prime minister, which was unheard of before the Rudd-Gillard wars.

Once he became Prime Minister, Turnbull also tried to rewrite the way policy discussions were held in the public domain, refusing to play the gotcha game that is “rule in or rule out”.

However, by essentially leaving everything “on the table” Turnbull exposed himself not only to an Abbott-style scare campaign from Labor on the GST but electorally-wounding accusations of indecisiveness and questionable resolve.

With the budget last week, Treasurer Scott Morrison similarly tried to recast how things had traditionally been done, attempting to reframe the economic debate away from “winners and losers” to the bigger economic picture.

“Australians are over this class warfare, they are over the ‘us and them’. They are over it,” the Treasurer said, noting, however, that “they know the big economic challenges that are out there facing them and their future.”

For a tradition that is as old and conventional as politics, these experiments with new approaches are considerably risky.

Once he became prime minister, Abbott found it difficult to shake off the negativity that made him a lethally effective opposition leader. Shorten’s Labor has seen a number of its early policies recently neutralised through co-option by the Government. And it’s a fair bet Turnbull will think twice before leaving everything on the table again.

As for the economic debate, the coming eight weeks of the election campaign will soon disclose whether Labor’s “class warfare” prevails over Morrison’s big picture when it comes to voters deciding how to place their vote.

There are two other political conventions that may well apply in the coming days and weeks of the campaign. The first is “disunity is death”, which places a considerable onus on Abbott and his supporters to keep their grizzles to themselves until after polling day.

The other is that voters don’t throw out first-term governments. However, as the state elections in Victoria and Queensland proved in recent times, when given enough provocation, sometimes voters do just that.

It can certainly be argued that when it comes to politics, rules are there to be broken – or at the very least rewritten. Going rogue when it comes to political orthodoxy can reap considerable dividends, as it did in Abbott’s case, or result in spectacular failure, as it did in Latham’s.

We’ll know soon enough what Australian voters think of the latest round of political rule-making and rule-breaking.