Among the cliches that run around during an election is one we haven’t heard in 2019: “the swing is on”.
It refers to that sense of unstoppable momentum and inevitability that you get around some elections, a mix, usually, of a government on its knees and an opposition which has caught the electorate’s interest.
The last three times that Labor came to Government from Opposition — Whitlam, Hawke and Rudd — there was a definite sense of the swing being on.
Not this time.
That observation is not made as a prediction of what will happen on May 18, just a reflection on the nature of a campaign sending off lots of different signals, and a perhaps unprecedented number of very different individual contests.
Early voting a foreboding sign
Labor is expecting to lose seats on May 18 as well as win them, a reflection of past problems, redistributions or unexpected wins that are righting themselves.
But despite the frisson that went through the Coalition earlier in the week about a tightening two-party-preferred vote in Newspoll, most close observers on both sides still think the Coalition will lose more seats than Labor. And it will be losing seats to both Labor and independents.
No-one is talking huge numbers here, and you wouldn’t, would you? But overall, talk through seats on a state by state basis, on an “at least” basis, and the pluses outweigh the minuses for the Opposition.
The staggering number of pre-poll votes in the first three days of the pre-polling period bodes ominously for the Government.
Around 510,000 people, or 3 per cent of the all-time record number of people who have registered to vote, had raced to pre-polling stations within 72 hours of them opening, an enthusiasm which will send a chill through many MPs.
In Health Minister Greg Hunt’s seat of Flinders, 7,469 people voted. A seat not discussed much as a prospect, the Victorian seat of Aston, held by Cities Minister Alan Tudge on a margin of 7.4 per cent, has seen 6,826 people vote. In Cowper, where independent Rob Oakeshott is making a tilt at returning to federal politics, 6,753 voted.
In the notionally Labor seat of Corangamite in Victoria (but currently held by a Liberal), 6,696 voted, while in Tony Abbott’s seat of Warringah, it’s 5,176. In Peter Dutton’s seat of Dickson, 5,518 have already turned up, while in the knife edge seat of Capricornia — where remote locations may play a part — it’s 5,637.
Coalition battling for its own seats
Talking to people around the country about what is going on in individual electorates also paints a very different picture from the dynamics of the leaders’ formal campaigning.
There’s no better example than the seat of Farrer on the NSW Victorian border, where both sides believe the Liberals’ Sussan Ley is in serious trouble, despite having a margin of more than 20 per cent and being one of the safest seats in the country.
She’s being challenged by a popular local mayor, Kevin Mack, running as an independent.
Queensland, rather than being just a “north of the border” issue this time around, is split north and south, and split even further within that rough division.
The result is that, no matter how many soccer balls Scott Morrison kicks, how many glib refusals to engage with issues, he is leading a party, and a party organisation, that are distracted and struggling to be everywhere at once.
Problem candidates abound
It is little wonder that a party that still had to preselect 18 of its candidates a week before nominations close was going to end up with a whole lot of problems with candidates, which have dominated so much of this week.
The extent to which candidates with far-right views were able to get through the pre-selection process is also a fascinating topic for another day.
There were problems on the Labor side too of course. And it was not smart to try to hold on to the candidate for Melbourne, Luke Creasey, after his own revolting social media posts surfaced.
But this, too, says something about the individual contests going on. Labor was hoping it could somehow hold on to Mr Creasey to threaten the Greens’ Adam Bandt, despite the 19 per cent margin the minor party MP holds on the seat.
It finally dumped Mr Creasey on Friday afternoon. But it is still the case that Labor has not been having to devote anywhere near as much time either to cleaning up nightmare candidates or defending what should be safe seats as the Coalition.
Many of Scott Morrison’s most senior ministers — apart from the ones already in witness protection — are having to concentrate on protecting their own seats instead of the national campaign.
Labor exposed on climate change
Until now, the defensive game for Labor has been on policy, and on Mr Shorten himself.
The Coalition has thrown everything it can at Labor on the “risk of change” ticket.
But this week it has felt like we’ve reached a bit of a “rope a dope” moment.
The first leaders’ debate saw the Prime Minister throw all the scare lines at the Opposition Leader, which he generally rebutted. The one exception was on the question of climate change, where Labor has not been able to quite nail its response to the question of how much its policy might cost.
There’s reason for that: it says it’s going to negotiate the details with industry on its plans to make energy intensive industries pay if they exceed baseline emissions.
But it has left Labor politically exposed.
The problem has been trying to turn the argument back into one about the much larger cost of inaction. And Labor’s attempts to do that were perhaps unexpectedly helped by the release on Thursday of new modelling by Brian Fisher — whose work has been used in the past by the Coalition to run scare tactics on Labor.
His new modelling downgraded the apparent cost of Labor’s plans — from $1.2 trillion to somewhere between $264 billion and $542 billion. And more importantly perhaps, it didn’t model the cost of climate change.
The whole debate — about a series of policies you can be fairly confident most people don’t really know the details of anyway — seemed to run out of steam.
Mr Morrison’s response to questions about the cost of not doing anything only highlighted his problem: while he might say the Government is doing something (meeting its Paris target etc etc ), voters who are concerned don’t really believe him.
For both sides, scandals about candidates have robbed the campaigns of momentum and oxygen in the last few days.
Whether anyone watches a debate on Sky on a Friday night is a moot question. But the next major event on the campaign calendar is now Labor’s launch in Brisbane on Sunday, and that means the momentum of a campaign emerging from several days of distraction is likely to be with the Opposition Leader.
Laura Tingle is 7.30’s chief political correspondent.
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