Australian election campaign goes negative right from the start

With the government trailing in polls for the past three years, it has decided to go in hard

Australia’s opposition Labor leader, Bill Shorten, whom sections of the press are attempting to demonise. Photograph: William West/AFP/Getty Images

Australia’s opposition Labor leader, Bill Shorten, whom sections of the press are attempting to demonise. Photograph: William West/AFP/Getty Images

 

If the News Corporation press is to be believed, the Australian election is between a Liberal-National coalition government that is all things to all mankind, and an opposition Labor Party intent on wilfully leading the country to rack and ruin.

A headline in Sydney’s Daily Telegraph tabloid referring to Labor’s leader last Saturday read: “Meet the wannabe PM – Bill ‘Inauthentic’ Shorten”. A day later the Sunday Telegraph went harder with: “Don’t let ‘Bullsh*t Bill Shorten’ fool you on election day.”

But the extreme paranoia prize goes to columnist Terry McCrann in the Australian who, under a headline of “Vote Shorten and Bowen for the end of the world”, wrote “No, I really do mean destroy: as in demolish, level, raze, wreck and, most pointedly, end the existence of Australia”. (Bowen is shadow treasurer Chris Bowen, of whom more later.)

The election was announced at 8am eastern time on Thursday and dominated online, television and radio headlines for almost 10 hours. But then, in quick succession, three huge stories broke – actor Geoffrey Rush winning a defamation case against the Daily Telegraph, rugby player Israel Folau being fired by the Wallabies for repeated homophobia, and Julian Assange being arrested. The election was suddenly pushed into fourth place.

It was an extraordinary day of news, but showed what politicians are up against in trying to get their message out. They dominated the news until Australians from the fields of online activism, sport and the arts were deemed far more interesting. The lack of oxygen affected the government most. It needed a circuit breaker after years of bad polls and, at least on day one, it didn’t get it. Its thunder was stolen and its momentum stifled.

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Tax slug

The government began Friday in better spirits, with news (leaked to the Daily Telegraph) of a supposed “$387 billion [€245 billion] Labor tax slug”. The coalition claimed the figures came from the treasury department, but later in the day the treasury made it clear the calculation was the government’s own. Bowen said “[prime minister] Scott Morrison has been caught out lying about Labor again”.

The government’s creative accounting is not new, though. In its budget last week, it said it is saving $1.4 billion by closing the Christmas Island detention centre a few weeks after reopening it and without having held a single asylum-seeker detainee.

In the normal course of events, the government might have made hay in the gap between the “$387bn tax slug” headline dropping and the inconvenient facts emerging. But even that momentary advantage was lost when home affairs minister Peter Dutton stole the headlines by saying the Labor candidate in his seat was using her disability “as an excuse” for not moving into the area.

Shorten was outraged by Dutton’s comment. “We want more diversity in our parliament. So why is it that ... a mother who lost her leg protecting her child is now subject to a personal attack by a scared government minister? I think that is disgusting.”

Queensland politics

That Dutton is from Queensland is not surprising. The late Andrew McGahan (who died of cancer in February, aged 52) wrote about how politicians were perceived in the state in his 2000 novel Last Drinks. “Queenslanders were always wary of the more sophisticated types – they liked their representatives to be awkward and stumbling. They mistook it for honesty.” McGahan’s book was set almost 40 years ago. Awkward and stumbling may not cut it in Queensland any more.

There are five weeks until the May 18th election day, but because voting is compulsory, early voting starts in just over two weeks. With the government trailing in almost every poll in the past three years, and trailing by 4-6 per cent in this week’s polls, it has set out its stall right from the start: go negative and worry about the consequences later.

The Murdoch press and right-wing radio shock jocks are firmly on the side of the coalition, but poll after poll shows the public has already made up its mind.

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