Last Thursday night, John Wanna, Mike Kaiser, Michael Lee and I interviewed online "soft" centre voters about the issues, campaign launches and promises. They had one thing in common with the One Nation voters from the previous week - given a choice between Labor and Liberal they would rather neither of the above. This week, however, Beazley was slightly ahead.
In John Howard they saw a rather unappealing old-fashioned view of the world, dressed up in military mode, and in Kim Beazley a little more modernity and warmth, marred by his attempt to stay as close to Howard as possible on the major issues.
Both the launches have miscued with this group. So have the TV ads - most couldn’t remember any - and the letterbox drops. They say they rely on news, underlining the reason party tacticians take so much care with photo opportunities.
One soft-Labor voter was so underwhelmed by Labor’s launch that he was reduced to criticising the use of blue as a background. However, some of the campaign messages are starting to register. The Liberals project a "Don’t risk it" message, focussed black-and-white on the past, while from Labor it is education, health, jobs and the future. Most would not change their votes because of the campaign launches. When asked if Labor or Liberal had done enough overall to get their vote they almost unanimously answered "No".
The largest hesitation our voters had with voting Labor was "where is the money coming from????". When they turned to the Coalition it was "Same old 1957 mean-minded no-vision for the future", the GST and social divisiveness.
Campaign promises were viewed with disdain and suspicion, carrying more symbolic importance than real promise. Younger women in the group vehemently criticised Howard’s "baby bribe" as out of touch with the times, their needs and aspirations. Being "tough on drugs", another key policy, was too simplistic. On the other hand Rollback and the Knowledge Nation were tokens, lacked funding, but headed in the right direction. This group weren’t particularly passionate about Telstra one way or the other, either.
September 11 has made Australians feel more vulnerable. As a result they value their community more strongly than before at the same time feeling more a part of the global community. Some voters, like those who have voted for One Nation, react by wanting to exclude or subdue the outsiders. Others are looking for a more complex solution, partly military, but partly social - one which exalts the virtues of our society. Our voters Thursday night believed the Taliban jihad includes Australia and thought as a consequence the war was effectively on Australian soil. They saw living life without fear as their best and only response.
They are looking for a less divisive and more inclusive approach from leaders and constantly referenced Natasha Stott Despoja and Bob Brown because they are "real". Howard can’t tap this mood, but if Beazley can, without compromising his stance on refugees, then maybe the election will be closer than it looks.
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