Before what feels like the interminable 2022 election campaign began, Labor was testing advertising with voters in focus groups. The party’s leader, Anthony Albanese, wanted to have his beloved little white fluffy dog, Toto, in some of the ads, prompting conniptions from Labor’s advertising consultants.
“No,” they were heard to cry. “Just no!”
Little white fluffy dogs might be very nice. But do they convey the sorts of images about leadership that we want in our leaders?
Years ago, the former general secretary of the NSW Labor Party, John Della Bosca, perhaps unwisely observed in an interview that former federal leader Kim Beazley needed to convey a bit more political mongrel. Cartoonist Patrick Cook promptly drew a picture of Beazley walking into a pet shop with an ALP apparatchik.
“We want to buy a mongrel!” the apparatchik demands.
“Do you have any fluffy ones?” inquires Beazley.
So, it’s been amusing to watch Toto turning up in social media content, which has been harder for the hard heads to control. There was Toto on Albanese’s social media accounts, for example, sitting next to him at the dining room table while the Opposition Leader was in COVID isolation working on his campaign launch speech.
Appearances aren’t, and shouldn’t be, everything. But, they are a lot in politics.
Much was made about Albanese’s appearance by the Coalition in the early days of the campaign: that he had lost weight, got different glasses. The suggestion was they were all signs that he was a bit of a fake.
The fluff and the crucial elements of the campaign
But that was in the days before a prime minister who invented his Daggy Dad persona got entangled up in his own remake: a man who decided a week ago that changing was a good thing; conceding that he had in the past been a “bit of a bulldozer”, then reversing that… sort of.
By Friday morning, veteran radio host Neill Mitchell was asking Scott Morrison: “So what? Are you a bulldozer with different gearing? Or a whipper snipper? Or a lawnmower?”
A bulldozer with a different gear, apparently. But one who, in a bad turn for appearances, was seen to have crash-tackled a small child on a football pitch.
These pictures, and word pictures, are both the fluff and the crucial elements of an election campaign.
But 2022 has been a campaign more than most where the two leaders have been defining themselves in terms of each other.
While the Prime Minister has been arguing that he is the strong leader, the man who has made the tough decisions, he as much as Albanese seem to have been running their campaigns by playing against, being defined by, what they think the other represents, not by what they necessarily are selling themselves.
That is, the “You might think I am not very good but the other guy is even worse” pitch.
Whatever both are selling, the daggy dad and the boy from the council housing signify the long-term shift in the images politicians use to sell themselves to us. They are just like us now: the everyman who stumbles and makes mistakes, not the leaders who strived to look like all-knowing patricians who we wanted to respect.
Equally, and rather bizarrely when you think about it, the campaign has seen a certain passive tone on the question of what a Morrison or Albanese government can do for us.
What about the policies?
In an ideological sense, that is more understandable from a Coalition which doesn’t really believe in government and which indeed proudly says it wants to get government out of our lives and our faces.
But in its efforts to get into government by sticking as close as possible to the Coalition on the greatest number of issues, Labor, too, has not been too keen to suggest it has much influence over events or policies that can change the country.
Its greatest transformative eventual ambition is universal childcare — which would indeed be transformative for many working women — but beyond that, the most transformative thing it is promising is about making government honest through an integrity commission.
This, of course, would be no small thing. But it is about government, not about the policies it might make.
Consider the biggest hip pocket issues at present: the cost of living and the cost of housing.
When Scott Morrison was asked on early morning television on Friday about falling real wages, the challenge wasn’t that wages weren’t rising but inflation was running at twice the rate of wages.
Inflation, he said, was “coming from outside Australia”. In other words, beyond the power of the government to fix, apart from a few once-off, short-term handouts.
Anthony Albanese has argued for an increase in the minimum wages equivalent to inflation, but notes that this is not his decision, but that of the Fair Work Commission.
Similarly, with housing, the Coalition’s big policy move is to let people use their own money held in super to pay for their own homes. Labor’s policy might offer a (repayable) contribution from government to a home deposit, but only to a lucky 10,000 households.
The pressures and challenges Australia is facing
Even after a pandemic which left us both reliant on, and at the mercy of, government and public health policy functioning well, our political parties don’t seem to believe we will trust them to transform their lives.
In the case of the Coalition, they don’t even seem enthusiastic about cleaning up the messes in government that have been taking place on their watch — like the delivery of government services for the aged and disabled.
The domestic pressures on the incoming government will be to fix these fundamental services they are supposed to provide, and try to bring some order to the chaotic state of the budget and how it is spent.
And it will be doing this at a time when there will be demands on its time from the outside world in a way possibly unprecedented since 1945.
Australia’s strategic situation means that we will no longer be simply able to passively sit and watch the superpowers arguing among themselves, or even choose to insert ourselves into global issues where we feel like it as we were once able to do, like peace settlements in Cambodia or ending the Apartheid regime.
At home and abroad there will be pressures to transform Australia. This election may also see another step in the transformation of the bases of our major political parties: the drift of the Coalition away from its well-heeled base to the outer suburbs. And Labor possibly winning government without winning back some of its traditional base.
Just how whoever wins the election will deal with such immense challenges is the real question to be resolved on May 21, 2022.
Laura Tingle is 7.30’s chief political correspondent.