Saying no to negativity

As we wait for somebody, anybody, to form a government, Australia is riven by uncertainty. Canberra is on tenterhooks, stock markets are jittery, and I’m not sure who I’m supposed to be making fun of anymore.

Well, that’s not entirely true – there’s Bob Katter, the scourge of Filipino banana producers, and Wyatt Roy, who has just been elected the Member for Milky Bars. But otherwise, I feel stuck limbo, like in that bizarre bottom dream-level of Inception, except without the French babe who wants me to stay there with her forevermore.

But while we wait for the ever-reliable AEC and the ever-kooky independents to work out which of the two leaders is the least undeserving of high office, there are a few lessons to be learned from Election 2010. Maxine McKew has learned that a late-night ABC current affairs show doesn’t hold a candle to Seven’s Summer of Tennis, and I’ve learned from Julia Gillard’s constant repetition of the phrase in her press conference yesterday that she had a “positive plan“.
This came as news to me, because when I heard Julia Gillard’s last-ditch pitch to the electorate on Friday, I don’t remember being inspired by the lofty future she just couldn’t wait to guide me towards. I remember her issuing the absurd threat that if Tony Abbott was PM on Sunday, WorkChoices would be back by Monday – despite him having promised endlessly to abandon it, and Labor (with the Greens and Nick Xenophon) having the ability to block legislation in the Senate for the next year.
Then, when I went to my polling booth on Saturday, what I saw were large sheets of plastic with scary black-and-white photos of Tony Abbott looking like Frankenstein with bigger ears, and the message “Don’t Risk Him”. I haven’t been so terrified since someone talked me though the premise of Human Centipede.
Then, when the Labor volunteer handed me a how-to-vote card, she didn’t urge me to vote for Julia Gillard’s exciting vision for the future, she warned me about the riskiness of Abbott, as though he were hell-bent on destroying our very way of life instead of the over-50s triathlon record.
It’s no surprise that the scare campaign didn’t work, because we all know exactly what Tony Abbott thinks. After being a senior figure in Australian politics for a decade and a half, he’s about as unknown as the details of Bob Hawke’s sex life.
Sure, voters may not love every aspect of the guy, and he’s gone out of his way to tone down his more hardline views in areas like industrial relations and abortion – but he’s arguably the best-known player ideologically in either major parties.
That’s exactly why he was so successful against Kevin Rudd, because he seemed solid and consistent where Rudd seemed insipid and mutable. To paint him as risky was a misjudgement – especially after the rock-solid, disciplined campaign he’s run. He’s like that old school chum whose company you enjoy, so long nobody brings up feminism or religion.
Labor should have aimed higher. As incumbents, they had the best opportunity to offer some inspiring ideas for our future – and a few tidbits were even launched during the campaign, like the broadband-driven remote GP plan, or the extension of paid parental leave to fathers. But these rare notes of positivity were lost in the bid to demonise Tony Abbott.
And what’s more, demonising was Abbott’s schtick, and Labor didn’t do it half as well. For months, his strategy has been to harp on about pink batts, school halls and boats. When pressed for details about his own plans, Abbott has offered very besides promises not to repeat the sins of Labor. Still, that’s what Oppositions do. Governments have track records to criticise, while Oppositions have only nebulous plans that are harder to attack. But if a Government has performed well and offers a genuine plan for moving forward instead of just the endless repetition of the phrase, the mud simply doesn’t stick.
Admittedly, there are times when negativity can work. It worked for Howard in 1996 after 13 years of Labor – and I’d imagine that Barry O’Farrell could win a landslide in NSW next year merely using the slogan “Not Labor”. But where a result’s not a foregone conclusion, you need more than just carping to impress the electorate. Kevin Rudd’s campaign had clear, positive themes, and even though the detail was sketchy in areas like the “Education Revolution,” it made him look like the leader with the plan.
This time, both parties’ primary offer was to save the nation from the threat of the other’s appallingness, without specifying much about what they’d do with three years on the Treasury benches. So, we voters shrugged our shoulders, and scored it a nil-all draw. Now it goes to penalties, and there can be few greater penalties than having to negotiate with Bob Katter.
If there’s anything positive to come out of this frustratingly critical election besides a high-speed rail link to the electorates of Kennedy, New England and Lyne, let’s hope that our political leaders now understand that when they offer us precious little in the way of positive ideas, they risk receiving precious few seats in return.
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