Hewson's View: An uninspiring campaign

No winners here: The leaders' debate with Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten at the National Press Club in Canberra on Wednesday night. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen
No winners here: The leaders' debate with Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten at the National Press Club in Canberra on Wednesday night. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

Despite a lot of ducking and weaving by Morrison and Shorten about whether or not to have a "prime time debate", when, where, and how, it finally happened on the ABC for just one hour on Wednesday evening.

The two previous debates had been held at non-prime events, at odd hours, and covered on TV channels with paltry audiences - the first in Perth, at 5pm their time, covered on a secondary Seven Channel, and the second afternoon in Brisbane, covered on Sky.

The main test of the value of a debate is whether voters "learned much", and whether the performances would "change many votes". I doubt either applied. Shorten was given a "marginal win" in the two earlier debates by a small audience assessment, Morrison was much better in the third, but overall still hard to judge.

There were two problems. First, neither leader is popular - both have had consistent negative satisfaction ratings in the polls, although Morrison has maintained a variable edge over Shorten as "preferred PM". Second, both went to great lengths to avoid supplying much detail as to their "policies", sticking tightly to their well-crafted slogans and attempted sound bites.

The almost persistent repetition of these slogans, and what seemed an inability to answer direct questions, especially the failure to supply detail, made viewing frustrating and disappointing. I am sure to many voters the drone of jargon and verbiage made the whole experience mostly noise and a blur.

In my experience election campaigning has been "dumbed down", which misses the shift in voter expectations. Voters want and expect to be "told more", especially as so many increasingly important issues have been left to drift, issues such as the immediate costs of living, and longer-term issues like climate change.

Voters have become increasingly disenchanted with politics and politicians, feeling neglected, forgotten, at least taken for granted. They have lost trust and belief. So, there has been a sustained fall in the combined support for the two major parties - now in the 70 per cent range, when it used to be in the 90 per cent range - and record rates of pre-polls as voters increasingly ignore the campaigns and vote early, having made up their minds over a longer period of time. Informal votes have also been increasing.

In my time, we campaigned continuously every day, with events from early morning to late evening, sometimes with considerable travel within the day - indeed, we "graded" our days as two, three or four city days.

Campaigns today, relying much more on social media, are virtually built around a single late morning "event" at which the daily message, usually with more spending committed, is delivered, and media questioning is kept to a minimum. They may add a few other tight media appearances, especially when they need to respond to some unfolding issue. But that's largely it these days.

On a lighter note, I noted the feigned "outrage" and "indignation" this week about the attempted "egging" of Morrison, when an egg, badly thrown, bounced over his skull without breaking. I particularly noted Shorten's denial that this could have been instigated by a "union" - we don't stoop so low as this sort of thing! Yet, I had dozens and dozens of eggs thrown at me at my regular campaign rallies, mostly quite clearly union organised and sanctioned, and probably including from Bill's union in those days.

... I had dozens and dozens of eggs thrown at me at my regular campaign rallies ...

I remember one rally in Brisbane with some 15,000 in attendance where it "got a bit rough", where we were forced to stand on boxes on the back of a truck, as the unions had refused to erect the promised elevated podium. Among the egg melee, I actually caught an egg unbroken, elevated within two fingers, a photo of which appeared widely the next day in the print media, as well as on television. Of course, my not so supportive media said I had been "practising". No outrage, nor indignation, just all fair game in a then campaign.

I doubt the campaign will make much difference to how people vote this time - indeed they mostly don't. To many voters they are being forced to make a choice between the lesser of "two evils", and they know that when the choice has been made, and a "winner" declared, they will then have to live with the "evil of two lesser", with more poor government, not dealing with their important issues.

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