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The Little Engine Who Could - Kim Beazley, John Howard and the Great Debate

By Graham Young - posted Wednesday, 17 October 2001


This is the first of a number of articles that will analyse events during the campaign. They will be briefer and more frequent than usual, and you will be able to find them under our domestic politics section, as well as on our On Line Focus home page.

Apart from my usual sources, they will also draw on On Line Opinion's online research project which is already yielding interesting insights into how online Australians view this election.

Conventional wisdom says that John Howard is going to win. This view is based on the published opinion polls which show him with a huge lead. As his increase in popularity coincides with the rise of the refugee issue in the shape of The Tampa and the terrorist attacks in the US it is generally assumed that these two things are the reason for it. (I think this causal link is correct). Further, according to this view, the issue of the election is "leadership". As Howard is the clear leader in the polls on the question of leadership, and on both of these issues, the pundits therefore declare Howard the provisional winner.

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How quickly we forget. Recent Australian elections have hardly ever been won on "leadership". Just ask Jeff Kennett, Wayne Goss, and Nick Greiner - it's not something Australians really believe in, let alone vote for. Swinging voters (who are the electors who decide elections) on balance don't vote for parties and leaders, they vote against them.

What's more they are more likely to vote against parties that they think are likely to win by a large margin. They don't like politicians and are dubious that any politician is better than any other politician. They also think that politicians are far too interested in their own importance, and not enough in the issues that concern voters. As large margins are likely to make politicians overconfident and more self-interested, electors are wary of them.

What this means is that politicians who exhibit "leadership" and are the frontrunner are particularly vulnerable, especially if they cannot define that "leadership" in a way that embraces the issues that concern swinging voters. As a consequence during the campaign both sides scrap for the position of "under-dog", and are never so happy as when they are just slightly behind in the polls, as long as it is not the one on the day.

The Great Debate was clearly won by Beazley as judged by Channel Nine's panel of swinging voters, and the worm. This win exposed the vulnerability of John Howard's campaign, particularly on the issue of leadership. John Howard has not always been considered a great leader. In fact, he has more often been known by the sarcastic sobriquet of "Little Johnny". His complete dominance over Beazley in the preferred Prime Minister stakes coincides almost exactly with The Tampa incident. So leadership should not be read in this context as being a quality that derives from the Prime Minister's character. It is a proxy for his being prepared to address an issue in a way with which the electorate overwhelmingly, and at an extraordinarily deep and emotional level, agrees.

Of course there is more to the Prime Minister's leadership credentials than this. He has also built his reputation on his doggedness, and this is exemplified in issues like the GST and the privatisation of Telstra, both of which are things it took him years to achieve. He is seen as being tough, and the Liberal Party has isolated this in one of their campaign slogans: "Taking the tough decisions".

What the debate revealed is that the first support of his popularity - his refugee policy - is not sufficient to sustain a long argument; and the second support - his doggedness on the GST and other economic matters - is poison to swinging voters.

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The refugee policy is an example of what some call "dog whistling". It is a policy with a subliminal appeal to people who are either racist or xenophobic. The Northern Territory CLP brought this type of campaign to an art-form, until Dennis Burke undid it when he called the dog by name by giving preferences to One Nation. The strategy fails if all electors can hear the whistle clearly.

As a result Howard has to be very careful on this issue. So does Beazley, because his strategy has been to borrow the whistle and adopt the PM's refugee policy. (Our online focus group reveals that this has alienated soft Labor voters and will probably help the minor parties in the Senate, but more of that elsewhere.) Neither really wants to address the issue head-on against the other. Interestingly, Beazley actually gained points from the worm on the refugee question. He inferred that the Prime Minister was only using the issue for political reasons. This was a difficult line to run, because if Beazley had come straight out and said it, he would have been telling electors that the issue didn't really matter; that it is a beat up. What he did was to say that if the Prime Minister had consulted him on the issue the legislation would have been more effective - the real message being the lack of consultation, not the alleged ineffectiveness of the legislation.

So, with the refugee question a delicate one, the debate moved off onto international security. Here my instinct tells me that the Prime Minister's problem is that he is not really an actor in any of these events, so he really has nothing to say. I also suspect that most swinging voters don't think that either Beazley or Howard can do much in this area. We will try to probe that last assumption through our polling.

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About the Author

Graham Young is chief editor and the publisher of On Line Opinion. He is executive director of the Australian Institute for Progress, an Australian think tank based in Brisbane, and the publisher of On Line Opinion.

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