Hewson's view: An uninspiring election campaign

I'd love to have a beer with ScoMo: Prime Minister Scott Morrison meets locals at Molly Malone's Irish Pub in Devonport, Tasmania on Wednesday, April 17. There's been lots of froth and bubble during the election campaign but not much of substance. Photo: AAP
I'd love to have a beer with ScoMo: Prime Minister Scott Morrison meets locals at Molly Malone's Irish Pub in Devonport, Tasmania on Wednesday, April 17. There's been lots of froth and bubble during the election campaign but not much of substance. Photo: AAP

To say that the election campaign is uninspiring is an understatement. Neither leader is popular, and voters don't really warm to the alternative. According to the polls, the Morrison government is sliding to a self-inflicted defeat, while the apparently more unified Shorten opposition is desperately trying to hold it all together long enough to regain government by default.

Daily campaigning consists of little more than carefully crafted appearances by both leaders, usually at some late morning "visit", or "event", or simply a stunt, at which they hope to be seen as meeting with a particular constituency, in one of their targeted seats (to hopefully win or save), providing them with an opportunity to deliver their sound bites, to announce their policy initiatives/bribes of the day.

"Presses" are limited to a few questions. Beyond this, only a few carefully controlled members of their ministerial teams are allowed to seek media attention.

The aim is not to do or say too much, while hopefully capitalising on the mistakes of your opponents.

It's all about risk management. The aim is not to do or say too much, while hopefully capitalising on the mistakes and failings of your opponents. The messaging strategy is mostly to attempt to control the narrative on the issue or announcement of the day, while creating "fear" and "anxiety" about your opponent's alternative.

So far, Morrison's focus has been on the economy and economic management where the polls have suggested the government enjoys an edge. Therefore, his attack has been on Labor's inability to manage the economy - "they can't be trusted with your money" - they will be the "biggest taxing government in our history", and so on.

However, Morrison's economic message built on "how well we are doing economically" simply doesn't resonate with an increasing majority of voters who are struggling with the daily costs of living, at a time when their wages are flat, debts at record levels, and their house prices are falling.

Moreover, given that we have not had a recession in nearly 30 years, under economic management by both sides, and through several significant crises, voters are now inclined to take economic management more for granted.

Morrison's strategy was built, of course, on the recent budget - a very political document so, not surprisingly, its basic figuring and forecasts have been widely condemned as "innovative", or particularly optimistic. For example, it predicts a significant jump in wages, even though the labour market is assumed to be mostly unchanged, and it predicts very large cuts in government expenditure over the next decade, especially in health and defence, that are obviously inconsistent with commitments made.

Shorten's strategy has been to try to avoid talking about tax and economic management - except to say he will "deliver bigger budget surpluses and repay debt quicker" - attempting to focus more on health, and especially his cancer funding commitments.

Shorten is also having trouble getting his figuring accepted as, for example, he fails to provide adequate and accurate detail about the various elements of his $2.3 billion commitment to spend to the benefit of cancer sufferers, as he dribbles these elements out each day. He has also removed some policy details from the ALP website.

Both sides have also had their distractions - for example, Morrison has been buffeted by Dutton's "mouth" with his indefensible, insensitive, statements about his Dickson opponent's disability; Shorten was unable to remember that he actually was promising to tax superannuation; and both have had candidates fall over and withdraw.

All this has simply worked to increase the basic cynicism of most voters, who have lost confidence and trust in our politicians and in our political system.

At a time when our nation is facing very significant global risks, uncertainties, and challenges, both economic and geo-political, and where most households and small businesses are struggling to get by, voters want our political leaders to step out of the daily media contest and to outline a sensible and deliverable longer-term strategy as to where (say) they would like to take our society over the next couple of decades.

This must begin with an honest statement of where we sit as a nation, not soothing words such as, "She'll be right", or "Move on, Nothing to be seen here", and not making promises that most suspect they will never deliver.

John Hewson is a professor at the Crawford School of Public Policy, ANU, and a former Liberal opposition leader.