Dutton derailed his party early but there are more disasters ahead


Today’s media cycle means lulls are not as common as they were – and this nasty, nervous campaign threatens to shrink their number further. Four candidates have gone already. For the second campaign in a row, Peter Dutton has derailed his party early with an unwarranted attack. Last time it was on refugees neither “numerate or literate”. This time it was the suggestion his opponent was using her disability as an excuse not to move to her electorate.

Labor’s response to Dutton was fascinating to watch. It was fast and sharp. Tanya Plibersek was in extraordinary form, slamming Dutton for past and present sins. She was followed by Kristina Keneally, equally impressive. Going into this campaign, we knew the strengths and weaknesses of the sides. Labor will use its team, and emphasise the central roles played by women. The Coalition, on the other hand, has nobody to fall back on. When the government needed to counter-attack for comments Plibersek made on Adani, the main attack dog had to be Morrison. Other ministers are unknown – or, like Dutton, a liability.

Peter Dutton eventually apologised  for his comments about Labor candidate for Dickson Ali France.

Peter Dutton eventually apologised for his comments about Labor candidate for Dickson Ali France.Credit:ninevms

That is one of the reasons the government leans so heavily on Morrison and his personal appeal – it has no choice. The other is that he’s a strong performer. He speaks plainly and fluently. While his occasional smugness can be off putting, he was wrong to adopt a graver tone on the first day. Attempts to change his style at this late stage will backfire.

In direct contrast, Labor leans on its team both because it can, and because Bill Shorten remains an unconvincing speaker. The opening statements of both leaders were just slogans sewn together. The difference was that Shorten’s felt it. Still, I’d say the same to him as to Morrison: it’s too late to do anything different. I also think it’s an open question as to whether any of this matters much. So far, there is scant evidence this will be a very close election.

We are only a few days in, and know little of what is ahead. But unlike most previous campaigns, there is a massive volume of online ads already. Political parties are expert at repeating back to voters what they’ve heard voters say, so a quick look is revealing.

Both men are repeatedly pictured with their families. In one, Shorten tells us, “My wife Chloe and I want the best future for our kids”, while Morrison refers to “the choices my girls will have over the next 10 years”.

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In that same video, Morrison talks about it having taken 12 years to get the budget “back on track”, and then reminds us that if you change government it can take a long time to get things “back on track”. Shorten says, “I want to get our country’s priorities back on track”.

Together, the ads suggest voters are worried about what the future looks like for their kids – partly a function of global uncertainty, perhaps, but also because they feel the country went “off track”. Both sides are trying to acknowledge those concerns to indicate they “get it”. Of course, each leader tells a different story.

For Shorten, the country is still off track, and will be until Labor puts the focus back on health and climate. In Morrison’s telling, it got off track under Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, but the recent budget put it back on track.

This is particularly interesting because the budget seemed so quickly to vanish from the government’s arguments. In fact it is the linchpin of the government’s story. Morrison presents the surplus prediction as the turning point for Australia, the moment that set the country on the right course for the next 10 years – provided Labor’s taxes don’t derail it, and with it, the chances for your children. The hip-pocket tax attack seems central, but is secondary.

But we are still in the experimental stage. The campaigners are finding their feet, and the campaign’s shape has yet to settle. Disasters await both sides, and the factors that will matter most may not be visible yet.

Sean Kelly is a columnist for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald and a former adviser to Labor prime ministers Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard.

Sean Kelly is a columnist for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald and a former adviser to Labor prime ministers Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard.

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