It’s a little over one week since the start of the federal election campaign was formally announced. The election has been much anticipated, and August had been singled out by many for quite some time. But even though many may feel Julia Gillard, as a brand new Prime Minister, might have waited an extra month or two, for a first time government, the election is actually much later than usual, as Antony Green has pointed out.
At the mainstream media level, the overwhelming verdict seems to be that the first week of the campaign has been seriously underwhelming, with a “safety first” and fairly lacklustre televised leaders’ debate providing a good demonstration.
Labor’s extraordinary non-policy on climate change, handing over the future prospects of a carbon tax to the vagaries of a presumably randomly selected “citizens’ assembly”, was rightly panned from all sides. There is possibly a place for such mechanisms in honing public debate and understanding in some circumstances, especially in areas of newly evolving policy. But climate change policy, which has been the subject of debate in the federal Parliament for more than 20 years, is completely unsuitable for such a process.
The Liberals’ fairly incoherent efforts to explain or provide any substance to go with their fairly blatant pitch to the anti-immigration vote was not as risible or as widely ridiculed as Labor’s climate change effort, but the hollowness of it was also very quickly identified by people from all sides of this debate.
Presumably both parties are prepared to bear the cries of disgust from the so-called commentariat (which in these days of social media consists of a much wider group of people than previous decades) in their efforts to communicate a clear message to the significant numbers of swinging voters who do not follow the fine detail of political debate. Certainly Tony Abbott, when he indicated that he couldn’t detail which parts of the immigration program he would cut, made it quite clear what group he was appealing to when he said “I just can't specify every last category … What I can say is I want people who are contributors.”
Meanwhile, the Greens are, perhaps for the first time in their history, unquestioningly in the role of the third party in the election contest. The Democrats have disappeared from the Parliament and from most electoral contests, and Family First, which a couple of elections ago looked like they might be on the verge of becoming a small but significant force on the conservative side of politics, have in most areas dwindled into invisibility.
However, being the third party is still a tough gig in a two-party system, especially come election time when the focus on the two leaders as potential Prime Minsters becomes extremely intense. As frustrating as it is to get what feels like so little media coverage - having been through plenty of previous elections with the Democrats - it feels to me like the level of coverage achieved by the Greens this time around is in most cases on a par with what the Democrats used to get in years gone by: it is still never as much as it could or (from my perspective) should be, but not as low as I know it can be.
But one of the dangers of assessing campaigns solely through the prism of the mainstream media is it can miss what happens at ground level, especially outside the capital cities. It is often said, but just as often forgotten, that federal elections actually consist of 150 separate electoral contests in the 150 different House of Representatives seats around the country, as well as the eight separate Senate contests in the different states and territories. I suspect local and regional factors may play an even greater role than usual this time, not least because of the mostly anodyne campaigns which Labor and Liberal appear to running at the national level.
When there is not a lot of difference or inspiration at the wholesale level, the far more varied factors at retail level can have quite an impact. This also means that the final election result may well be harder to call than the headline polling figures suggest.
Certainly from the Greens' perspective, our efforts to present a credible, viable alternative to the two traditional combatants in a number of House of Representatives seats also provides the possibility that results in some seats may be a bit harder to predict. This isn’t just based on the prospects of a Greens victory, which is a real but still very hard asks in seats such as Melbourne and Denison, but also in the fact that the larger the primary vote for the Greens in various seats, the more crucial the preferences of Greens voters will become.
As Bob Brown has been at pains to point out, it is individual voters who choose where to put their preferences, particularly in the House of Representatives. The pre-election agreement between Labor and the Greens will mean most Greens’ how-to-vote cards on election day will show an example of how to vote which is favourable to the ALP, which is in accord with how a large majority of Greens voters have traditionally voted. This will obviously be of some help to Labor, but the ALP still risks weakening the preference flow from Greens voters if their election policies, promises and rhetoric are too dismissive of views which are key to Greens voters. Opinion polls find it fairly difficult to accurately measure likely preference flows, and also likely Senate voting intention.
All of this leaves the final result in many of the 150 House of Representatives seats - and almost all of the Senate contests - harder to predict than usual. This can be frustrating for the contestants, but it is probably the electorate’s best chance of witnessing some vibrant campaigning, even if it is mostly at local level rather than through the mainstream messaging.