Saturday, 24 August 2013

Election in the Air, Election on the Ground

You may think we are in the midst of an election campaign, but actually we're having two.  One is being fought across the airwaves in the various forms of national media,  The other is being fought in local communities.

The first campaign is between the two leaders, Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott, with their support crews assisting and others like Christine Milne, Clive Palmer and Bob Katter trying to muscle in as best they can.  We see this campaign on our TVs every night, we read about it in the papers, we hear it on the radio. 

This campaign appears to be pretty even.  Rudd is a lot smarter than Abbott and knows how to work the media, but neither leader is that popular really.  In the thrust and parry of debate very little of substance is discussed, and who "wins" is as much a matter of debate as the actual issues being discussed or avoided.

Despite this contest appearing to be fairly even, all the polling information seems to be saying that the Coalition is gaining ground and that in two weeks' time we will elect an Abbott government.  People analyse what the leaders are doing and how this is making the ground shift, but I don't think it has anything to do with them.

This is because there is another election campaign that we rarely see in the media, but see a lot in our daily lives.  It is fought out by local candidates and grassroots party members in shopping centres, on street corners, in local halls and on front doorsteps.  People set up tables to answer questions, hand out leaflets, knock on doors, display posters and wave at busy intersections. 

I can only speak for Brisbane, where I live, but it seems to me that while the leaders are fairly even, the Coalition is winning the local campaign by a huge margin.  The Labor Party hardly even seems to be trying.  My letterbox is flooded with LNP brochures.  Wherever I go I see LNP banners with their candidates' smiling faces.  Their volunteers are out in force, having friendly chats with people in shopping centres, handing out pamphlets and generally letting us know they are here for us.  Labor, on the other hand, is virtually invisible.  It is as if Rudd is leading an imaginary party.

Interestingly, this is not even about the candidates necessarily.  I have met my local Labor member, Graham Perrett, and he seems to be a pretty good bloke.  He is intelligent, prepared to listen and discuss issues, responsive to local concerns and he works his bum off.  I haven't met his LNP counterpart, Malcolm Cole, but I would not be surprised to find he's much the same with a more conservative slant. 

The key to this campaign is not the candidates themselves (unless they do something seriously dumb) it is the support they have behind them.  It is the ordinary local residents who are prepared to champion their cause.

This is where the Labor Party seems to be in trouble, and this trouble is not a new development.  Eighteen months ago the Labor Party was reduced to seven members in the Queensland parliament.  One of the keys to the magnitude of this loss is that Labor lost the confidence of its core supporters.  Its rapid privatisation of government assets angered its trade union membership base, and people who would normally campaign for Labor stayed away.

It seems that they haven't come back yet.  Meanwhile the other group of people who would be core Labor supporters - the middle class left like me who are concerned about issues like global peacemaking, the environment and social justice - don't have much to get our teeth into.  Federal Labor has been a willing participant in the spiral of deterrence on asylum seekers, reluctant to take action on climate change and indistinguishable from the Coalition on foreign policy.  People like me will preference Labor with a heavy heart, and will not prostitute ourselves by actively campaigning for them.

The result is that there is no-one to drop things in letterboxes, stand on street corners, set up tables in shopping centres or host sausage sizzles.  Kevin Rudd was so desperate he made a public appeal for volunteers when he announced the election date.  It doesn't seem to have worked.  The latest polls show Rudd is in trouble in his own formerly safe seat of Griffith in inner Brisbane, threatened by a solid grassroots campaign led by former AMA president Dr Bill Glasson.  Rudd is forced to wage a desperate nation-wide campaign on the airwaves knowing there is no-one looking after the home front. 

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