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Richardson: The fear campaign that reveals the establishment's greatest fear

Opinion

It was the gaffe that defined the state election: the Liberal leader urging electors to Vote Labor. So why, asks Tom Richardson, has the same refrain become the unofficial slogan of the federal Coalition campaign?

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It was the moment that, as legend has it, cost the Libs the election.

No, not this election. Not these Libs.

But on today’s equivalent before the 2014 state poll – the final day of the campaign – Opposition Leader Steven Marshall famously delivered his catastrophic slip of the tongue, using his final media conference to urge people to “vote Labor tomorrow”.

In the bitter aftermath of that election, it was said to be the gaffe that changed the course of electoral history.

It wasn’t, of course.

Elections are rarely, if ever, lost in a single moment.

There is rarely that one thing that, if done differently, could have delivered victory.

But these moments do become symbols of bigger things, and canny political parties are capable of capitalising.

Mark Latham’s vice-like handshake with John Howard, for example. A 2004 moment that saw votes evaporate like snowflakes in sunshine, but only because it crystallised in a second the doubts around Latham’s temperament that had lingered in the back of the electorate’s collective psyche. The Libs had dubbed him an L-plate leader, and in a single bullish moment (that has subsequently proved eerily prophetic), he played obediently into their hands with his clenched fist.

Likewise in the 2010 SA election, when Labor’s perpetual themes of Liberal disunity and questions over the Opposition’s economic credentials finally found resonance after last-gasp own-goals by Vickie Chapman and Steven Griffiths.

There has – to date! – been no single moment that defines this campaign, and in truth how can such an interminable, tepid campaign be summed up in the blink of an eye?

But in some ways it is Marshall’s muddle-headed entreaty to “Vote Labor” that best sums up this federal election.

Marshall’s misguided exhortation was seen as an epic campaign blunder. How ironic indeed, then, that the same rallying cry has effectively become a deliberate campaign slogan for his federal Liberal colleagues!

Malcolm Turnbull and his senior acolytes have repeatedly asserted that they’d rather see a Labor Government with a workable majority than a hung parliament.

In key seats, they are running split tickets showing people how to preference Labor over the Nick Xenophon Team.

Both major parties have taken almost daily potshots at Xenophon and his fledgling party, a bizarre spectre in a campaign that has seen consistent polls fluctuate around an even 50-50 split of the two-party vote.

When the Libs wheeled out their elder statesman Howard for an SA whistlestop, the venerable former PM didn’t jet in and argue the case for a Turnbull Government, or indeed against a Shorten one. No, he too fashioned his campaign pitch around the Xenophon threat.

He scoffed at Xenophon’s refusal to endorse one major party or other, drew a long bow by comparing him to One Nation founder Pauline Hanson, and then rather disingenuously concluded that he really couldn’t see the no pokies campaigner winning any Lower House seats in any case.

This may yet prove the case, but the spectre of NXT has sent shockwaves through both Liberal and Labor camps this campaign.

In InDaily last week, one man whose reputation was tarnished in what was surely Xenophon’s most infamous political stunt likened his populist appeal to US presidential aspirant Donald Trump.

It certainly bears comparison.

The rise and rise of Xenophon corresponds with a growing and persistent disillusionment with mainstream politics. His is a political bent that taps in to genuine fears and insecurities about economic and social alienation.

It’s to his credit, I believe, that he has rarely done so with the histrionics and certainly the appeal to voters’ darker impulses that has blighted recent debates in the US and UK.

Indeed, it was interesting to hear Howard try to tarnish Xenophon with the comparison to Hanson, given he himself helped enable her rise with his initial reluctance to strongly call out her blatant scare-mongering on immigration.

In the end, Howard was unable to prevent Hansonism for the same reason David Cameron was unable to prevent a backlash over Europe.

Cameron had long scored populist points criticising the EU, and thus he made an unconvincing poster boy for the Remain campaign. And likewise, Howard had built his political empire railing against the madness of political correctness – Hanson’s political zenith was merely the corresponding madness of political incorrectness.

Xenophon’s appeal is something altogether different, but it taps into the same anti-establishment vein.

And it has transformed the election battle in SA, making almost every seat effectively too close to call, like that bizarre contest we saw in the Fisher state by-election two years ago.

A genuine three-way contest with a credible crossbench interloper.

A Disrupter, to use the vernacular of our age.

Despite that, the chances appear slim that Xenophon will pick up more than a handful of seats, and some insiders are now increasingly confident he will get none, or one at best.

But this odd refrain, recalling the chaos of the Gillard/Rudd era, that we need “stable” Government with a workable majority, bears examination.

Has the current Government really been that stable, despite its Lower House hegemony?

It changed its leader only last year, since which time Turnbull has floated the notion of tax reform and then unfloated it again when the going got tough.

So let’s be clear about this. Minority Government does not necessarily mean unstable Government.

Mike Rann governed with confidence for his first four years with a cobbled-together rainbow coalition, and while the Weatherill administration isn’t exactly flavour of the month right now, it’s hardly presiding over legislative gridlock.

If the Gillard era was chaotic, it was more a function of its own internal ructions and the relentlessly effective Opposition style of Tony Abbott.

Rann was the same in Opposition, hammering the Olsen and Kerin Governments daily, seizing the news agenda. The difference was that Rann was able to transform his approach to suit Government; Abbott was not.

It is true, indeed, that a narrow Coalition majority represents perhaps the worst of all results – though the most likely – given it would fail to vindicate Turnbull’s ascension and will leave him open to inevitable future unrest, while likely sending Labor back into its civil war era.

But this fear campaign about hung parliaments, this smear campaign about the Xenophon threat – these are the symbols that will define this election campaign.

And the major parties’ willingness to preference one another over a minor party disrupter – that is a symbol of a political establishment struggling to hold up the bastions of the crumbling temple it has built but long neglected.

With the News Corp papers today surprising no-one by formalising their support for Turnbull, I guess it’s some comfort to Bill Shorten that at least one influential group is still urging people – as Steven Marshall did two years ago – to vote Labor tomorrow.

The trouble is, that influential group is the Liberal Party of Australia.

Tom Richardson is a senior reporter at InDaily. 

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