Defiant and inspiring. Desperate and maybe even mendacious. These are the two sides of the coin that describe Australian Labor’s federal election campaign launch on Sunday.
Of course the word “launch” is a misnomer these days, given the event ostensibly meant to kick off an election campaign is now held as close to polling day as possible.
This is because ministers and opposition frontbenchers claim a taxpayer-funded travel allowance for every night they spend away from home during the campaign up until the so-called launch. After that, political parties foot the bill for travel and accommodation from their precious campaign resources. Postponing the launch therefore maximises the taxpayer subsidy and minimises the cost to the parties.
A coincidental benefit of the late staging of this year’s event was that it provided Labor with the opportunity to regather its forces in preparation for the final fortnight of the campaign.
The thousands of volunteers upon which every party depends as ground forces in marginal seats are testing the limits of their endurance now the campaign has moved beyond the usual 33-day timeframe into the 40s. Only by ensuring the ground forces remain motivated and mobilised, manning the phone banks, door-knocking electorates and handing out how-to-votes does Labor have any chance of winning.
There are still two weeks to go; two weeks during which supporters must maintain the belief Labor will emerge victorious if they are to make it to polling day. This is a particular challenge when a growing number of political journalists and commentators have already called the election for the Government.
Labor Leader Bill Shorten’s election “launch” speech was therefore as much a rally-cry for faithful volunteers as it was a sales pitch to undecided voters who will determine the election outcome.
Shorten’s pitch to the undecideds was consistent with what we’ve already heard – the promise of a government that will realign its spending to support the community and economy through better health, education and infrastructure.
It’s an approach that depends on voters suspending their distrust of Labor’s ability to capably run the country and economy, electing instead to trust Shorten’s word that the party now has its priorities right and will eventually bring the budget back into balance.
Labor knows this is a big ask, and so has tried to level the playing field by damaging the trust that voters have in Malcolm Turnbull.
Even with the precipitous fall in his approval ratings, Turnbull remains the preferred prime minister. According to today’s Newspoll, 46 per cent of voters nominate Turnbull as the preferred PM, compared with 31 per cent for Shorten. This suggests voters may be disappointed with Turnbull, but they still trust him with the top job.
Labor’s election campaign has in part been about severing that cord of trust between voters and the PM. The Opposition has tried to crimp Turnbull’s credibility as a self-made millionaire by depicting him as a tax dodger. It’s tried to turn the PM’s wealth against him by claiming he’s an out-of-touch silvertail.
And yesterday’s launch unveiled Medicare as the platform from which Labor hopes to deliver the killer blow against Turnbull’s trustworthiness.
The Opposition has run two lines in particular this campaign that are an over-reach at best and mendacious at worst. One is the $50 billion “giveaway to big business”, which invites voters to think only big corporates will get a tax cut and when they do it will be $50 billion.
In fact $50 billion is the full amount of tax cut announced in the recent budget that will be given to all businesses – small, medium and large – over a 10-year period. However, this fact does not assist Labor in its efforts to paint the PM as only being interested in helping the big end of town.
Shorten placed a similar deception about Medicare at the centre of his campaign launch on Sunday, claiming a Turnbull Government would privatise the universal health care provider and that only Labor could save it.
“Jobs. Medicare. Education” was the three-word slogan emblazoned on the stage backdrop, even as the Labor leader derisively noted that hope could not be found in a three-word slogan.
Shorten’s accusation is based on the Government having established a taskforce to explore the privatisation of Medicare’s payments system, which Labor has deliberately conflated to mean Medicare in its entirety.
Arguing that Turnbull merely pretends privatisation is not part of his plans, the Labor leader claimed his opponent would not rest until Medicare had been torn down, “piece by piece, brick by brick”.
Shorten’s determination to frame his opponent as a future oath-breaker was likely intended to tar Turnbull with the same brush as Abbott. But inconveniently for the Labor Leader, the accusation may also have reminded voters of two former Labor prime ministers sitting in the room who were hounded out of office, at least in part for breaking post-election commitments.
Voters of a certain age would have been reminded of Paul Keating abandoning his L-A-W tax cuts. Others would have remembered Julia Gillard reversing her opposition to a carbon tax to form a minority government.
And then there was the former Labor PM who did not attend the launch, Kevin Rudd, who also said one thing and did another when he called climate change the great moral challenge of our time and then walked away from his vaunted emissions trading scheme.
Shorten’s campaign launch speech was inspiring for the party faithful, and it was undoubtedly defiant in the face what increasingly looks to be defeat on July 2. Yet on balance, Labor’s resort to mistruths in an attempt to damage the Prime Minister can only be seen as an act of desperation.
Labor’s big target strategy was meant to provide voters with an honourable contest of ideas at this election. Yet the centrepiece of its campaign launch was a scare campaign based on a misrepresentation of the facts.
In this last desperate effort to win the election, the Opposition has chosen the less than honourable path. Labor may succeed in further tarnishing the Prime Minister by crying wolf over Medicare, but voters who see through the lie will end up trusting Labor even less.