A boring campaign?

2 Mar 2006

Only according to the Advertiser, write Geoff Anderson and Haydon Manning

“SOUTH Australians might as well not bother casting a vote on March 18 unless something changes quickly”. Why? Because the campaign “is barely causing a ripple”. That’s the view of Adelaide’s daily paper, the Advertiser, which appears to have decided that Labor’s big lead in the polls means that the campaign is simply boring. The paper bemoans the fact that most voters appear to made up their minds already and, consequently, “there seems little point in wasting time and money with an election”. It is unfortunate, but perhaps not surprising, to find such jaundiced view among journalists who view politics as a game where “king-hits”, rhetoric and stunts are all that matter. We take a far less cynical view and believe there is much of interest in this state election, but it does not solely reside with the contest between Rann and Kerin.

For anyone with an abiding interest in politics the tight contest between Family First, No Pokies independent Nick Xenophon, the Greens and the Democrats for the last two, or three, remaining Upper House seats holds promise of considerable excitement. Moreover, contests for the seats of Hammond, Stuart, Kavel, Finnis and Bright immediately come to mind as truly interesting contests. Next week we will look at these seats and how the Upper House contest may pan out. In the meantime the parties strain to catch the attention of the voters.

Labor’s campaign

All incumbent governments, even first term ones, face the difficulty that familiarity may well breed electoral contempt at election time. In an age of relatively transparent budgeting, and external scrutiny by rating agencies, it’s harder to pull expensive rabbits out hats. Mike Rann, having been part of previous Labor governments in the late 1980s that suffered just such a fate, is determined that it will not happen to him. His response in the first week of the campaign has been an extraordinary energy, a deluge of advertising, and a hard-edged, even brutal attack on opposition leader Rob Kerin.

If the election is going to be decided by the sheer weight of announcements then the week has belonged to Labor, with their website showing twenty announcements over a five day period compared to the seven posted on the Liberal Party site. The pattern is familiar. The announcements associated with the premier are positive, “bold” (a word frequently used), about “getting results” (the campaign theme) and seeded with modest expenditure that is always beefed up by being “over four years”. The deputy premier Kevin Foley and senior minister Pat Conlon, on the other hand, have settled into attack dog roles. Conlon even tried to raise the old bogey of power privatisation to berate the Liberals and “scare” voters. This is curious given that the privatisation scare tactic occupied centre stage in Labor’s 2002 campaign but the party only managed a paltry 0.7 primary vote swing. Undeterred, health minister John Hill ran with an assertion that if the Liberals win one of Adelaide’s major hospitals will be up for sale.

These multi-daily announcements are supported by a very professional TV campaign that blends images of the premier with all of the recent good news and big project announcements - warships, the expansion of Olympic Dam, growing employment - crossing to near subliminal views of newspaper headlines reminding viewers of Labor’s populist triumphs: offenders who “got off lightly” the first time sent to prison, the nuclear waste dump stopped. There is no explanation as to how that particular “result” is consistent with the “result” of building the world’s biggest uranium mine.

But it is the other thrust of Labor’s TV campaign that shows how determined they are that nothing will not be taken for granted, including a large lead in the opinion polls. Newspoll reported on 1 March that Labor’s healthy lead (44 to 37 primary vote and 54 to 46 two-party preferred) is intact. Although “attack” advertisements are the staple of political campaigning in the United States, Australian parties have been less comfortable with the format, although the “Latham Learner” campaign in the 2004 election suggested that this is changing. It’s hard to find anyone who likes them, but it’s also hard to find anyone who doesn’t see one without getting the message. Labor’s message in the version they have unleashed in the first week of the campaign is brutal, even cruel, using footage of a bumbling interview by Rob Kerin after he warded off a challenge last year when he appeared to have trouble explaining why he wanted to be Premier. Predictably, the Liberals have responded with claims of “gutter politics” and the usual sporting clich©s about “playing the man not the ball”. But the message is clear, Rob Kerin may be a nice bloke, but is he up to the job?

The Liberal campaign

The kindest thing one may say is, wait, it has’t begun in earnest yet. Wait until the official launch on 12 March for higher profile advertising and, perhaps, a string of key policy announcements aimed at shoring up the rusted-on Liberal vote and holding a reasonable proportion of those who rarely vote Labor. The state Liberals simply do not have the cash to spend, and unless the federal party suddenly feels generous this is unlikely to change. Expect a mini advertising blitz later in the campaign, though; it will be interesting to see what angle it takes.

At this juncture Rob Kerin quietly campaigns on the three principles he enunciated some weeks ago at his “mini-launch”, namely “honesty, the economy and making sure the services people want are there when they need them”. The problem for Kerin may lie with the fact that during the last week of the campaign the Commonwealth Games will be in full swing and, unlike in 1997 when Labor made late headway on a shoestring budget, that background noise may simply stop any late advertising making an impact.

For the Liberal campaign strategists it has not been easy to find meaningful policy differentiation from Rann’s “centre-right coalition” government. Trying to forge a point of difference, Kerin’s shadow treasurer, Rob Lucas, announced he’d cut the public sector by 4000 jobs - mainly via non-renewal of contracts and voluntary redundancy packages - but added that a Liberal government would guarantee no job cuts to police, schools and hospitals.

Unwittingly perhaps, the prime minister, during a brief visit, undermined Kerin’s claim that Rann was wasting economic opportunities. John Howard acknowledged the strength of the SA economy and the media trumpeted this as a blow to Kerin - he really cannot win a trick at the moment. It’s interesting to ponder why incumbent leaders tend to support to each other, even across the party divide.

Among other Liberal promises and significant points of differentiation we find a plan to cut land tax, spend an additional $80m on concessions to the elderly and find $8m to help food producers. They’ve rejected Labor’s proposed tramway extension but of greater substance is their opposition to Labor’s plans for improving suburban North-South traffic flow. Rather than a series of tunnels under major intersections Kerin favours a plan akin to the late 1960s MATS project, namely a North-South freeway.

Don Dunstan’s ghost

Christian Kerr of reports on a marvellous limerick penned by Democrat candidate, David Winderlich, and a clever piece of campaigning by the Democrats.

Tis said Dunstan’s ghost has been seen
Sporting Democrat yellow and green.
It got up Mike’s nose,
But his leadership shows
Labor builds with our fears not our dreams

The story behind the limerick began when the Democrats Upper House candidate, Kate Reynolds, in league with the party's candidate for the seat of Norwood, David Winderlich, paid a visit to the Labor incumbent, Vinni Ciccarello’s office. Norwood was held for many years by Don Dunstan and it’s unclear whether they thought their little stunt would be greeted with a laughter or a stern rebuke. But when Winderlich appeared in safari suit, the garment made famous, or infamous, by Don Dunstan, they were asking for trouble. Cheekily they placed a poster outside Ciccarello’s office that read "Think Dunstan - vote Democrat" and Reynolds announced, adjacent Dunstan’s memorial plaque, that Dunstan "would not vote Labor" if he were alive today.

Later in the day, the premier, who worked as Dunstan’s press secretary, grumpily dismissed this as a “bizarre stunt” that "corrupted" the Dunstan legacy. He said the idea is “offensive to his mentor's memory”, which raises the obvious question: well, is it? Who said the election campaign was dull and boring when taxing questions of this sort are posed? •

Geoff Anderson and Haydon Manning teach in the School of Political Studies at Flinders University

JOSTLING IN A NETHER WORLD, Geoff Anderson and Haydon Manning’s first South Australian election report for APO >>

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