Attacking the opponent — the negative part of campaigning — is the easy bit. For Labor at the moment it amounts to little more than pointing out that if we do not vote for Julia Gillard, we will wake up one morning and find Tony Abbott is Prime Minister. The party’s research seems to be suggesting that the prospect of having a mad monk in charge is quite enough to keep Labor voters loyal to the one true faith.
With the smearing of the opponent under way, then comes a slightly trickier part of the tactical battle — getting rid of the things that people find negative about your own team. Here Labor attacked the show-business aspect of its weaknesses with a ruthless efficiency and dispatched Kevin Rudd to the back bench. That still left the matters of substance that voters were unhappy with, so Julia Gillard began her prime ministership with her little list of things to be fixed.
Rather than attempting to sell the merits of the mining super profits tax she caved into the major miners in the knowledge that by the time people realise — if they ever do — that the result is that the rest of us will now pay more in taxes, the election will have come and gone. In campaigning terms it was an impressive start.
And so it was on this week to the second item on the list and a two-pronged attack to show that not only the conservative coalition could punish an Afghan and a Tamil or two desperate enough to pay a people smuggler to try and reach the Australian shore. One aspect of this grubby attack must be judged an initial success. The photo opportunity provided by a female Prime Minister spending a day out with the navy on patrol worked out a treat.
The television and the newspaper photographers loved it and the message of a concerned leader dealing with the problem first hand will surely have registered in some of those Western Sydney suburbs minds that we are assured are definitely not red necked. That in Darwin Ms Gillard had to share her photo with the obligatory crocodile yarn will be compensated for by the saluting symbolism as non-rednecks surely admire a strong leader.
Unfortunately the little matter of substance to go with the pictures has not progressed as well. One quick telephone call to the President of East Timor has not been enough to get unanimous agreement within that country for the establishment of a compound to house boat people who dare to set out for Australia. Some forceful diplomatic work is going to be necessary if this shoot-from-the-hip policy is not going to end up as an embarrassing rebuff.
Still it will be onwards ever onwards on the electoral crusade to hide the negatives with the next spectacular being to pretend that Labor has not deserted the climate change cause. Not that there will be anything courageous like going for a double dissolution. When it comes to charging for carbon emissions Prime Minister Gillard wants to appease those who want action without disturbing those who don’t. An emissions trading scheme will have to wait and in the meantime the government will have to use some of its leader’s wonderful rhetoric to pretend that there are other measures that can make a difference.
Then comes the really hard part. As well as being negative about the other lot and hiding as many of your own negatives as possible there is the need for a bit of what they call in the political trade “the vision thing.” Politicians need to have a plan setting out what they would like to achieve — some things they believe in, things they will actually do. And so far Julia Gillard has been silent on this front. Sure she can trot out a bit more of her education revolution and try to resurrect interest in the great Rudd hospital plan but that is not going to inspire anyone. To be assured of victory, Labor needs to show it has more going for it than simply not being Tony Abbott.