January 19, 2004

Three weeks to go and Beattie clears the fleet on the way to the Heads.

Sailing races are a lot like politics. Not only are they boring to most, but it is often impossible from a distance and without lots of experience and arcane knowledge to say exactly what is going on. And most of us only watch one once a year when the yachts round Sydney Harbour heads on the way to Hobart. The most confusing part of a sailing race is the start when the boats mill around jockeying for position trying to be first across the line when the cannon fires.

In this election the cannon didn’t really fire until this last weekend. What commentators and voters thought was the first week of the election was actually the skirmishing for position. Whether or not the government had an inkling that it was coming the Merri Rose issue had the effect of bleeding both campaigns of good air for their arguments, but had the worst effect on the challenger. The Coalition needs to take votes from Labor, so anything which interferes with both their abilities to get the message out actually works in Labor’s favour.

The Merri Rose bad air cleared by Saturday morning with the Courier Mail front page reporting the results of a poll with the headline “Coalition cuts into ALP lead”. Beattie has been trying to convince electors that he could lose the election. He needs all the headlines like this that he can get.

The poll also reported that Health (32%) is the main issue of the election followed by education (14%) and Financial Accountability (10%). (Child protection came in at 9%, an incredibly low figure when that is the issue the Premier claims the election is about). This is further good news for Beattie. The poll didn’t ask which side is best to handle health, but if it had I am pretty sure that voters wouldn’t nominate the Coalition, partly as a flow on from the Federal bulk-billing issue. If the Coalition fights on an issue where Beattie has failures, but where he is still regarded as the best to deal with it, then they still can’t win, even if they have the best policy.

Sunday’s news was dominated by health announcements from both sides. The Opposition didn’t do well. For them a policy announcement is an opportunity to show that they have substance. They performed more than adequately here. But for it to be a winner they have to turn it into an argument about something where they can win the argument. They can’t win the health argument, and don’t need to, but they do need to win the argument that they are best placed to make Beattie take things more seriously.

When we asked voters in our first survey what it was that made them hesitate about voting for Peter Beattie a large proportion of them nominated things related to a perception that he is arrogant and manipulative. “Media Tart, great spin doctor, [s]moke and mirrors, not trustworthy” was one succinct comment. A Health policy isn’t an end in itself, it is an opportunity to demonstrate that Springborg can wipe the smile from Beattie’s face and make him listen. To do this Springborg needs to get a little scar tissue.

At the moment Springborg is unknown by the electorate and seen as weak and colourless. As one Liberal supporter said “He appears unworldly or unsophisticated and the potential for infighting between the libs and nats. I also don't really like the strength of the Nats power particularly in relation to environmental issues where they have a bit too much of a farmers view”. When Springborg talks about the size of his cabinet in government, as he did on Saturday, voters like this think he is having a lend of himself. They are looking for him to prove that up to the job, not assume that he will win it.

They are also the target of the wedge that Peter Beattie bowled down yesterday (can you bowl a wedge?). Friction between the Nats and the Libs, and the shadow of One Nation are still issues in assessing whether the Coalition is worth voting for or as even an effective way of sending Beattie a message. The Liberal Party and the National Party have different policies on tree clearing. This is a matter of principle, and also because they are appealing to different constituencies. Beattie’s announcement of a halt to tree clearing is aimed at splitting the Coalition open, alienating the Liberal Party from the urban voters they need to target, or both. It is not primarily a pitch for the green vote.

If the Coalition does not have an answer which allows them to reconcile their conflicting policy positions while at the same time each retains dignity, then Beattie has a tool to keep the Liberals out of urban seats. The theme that the Liberal Party has never stood up to the National Party “never has and never will” has been a potent one in Queensland elections since 1989.

Labor screened its first set of advertisements yesterday evening. Hopefully Michael Lee will front with a review of it soon. They were positive and featured a very slick and animated Peter Beattie. Catch the ads while you can. Beattie has set some traps for the Opposition. Expect some negative ads to run the good ship coalition down from the windward tack forcing it to go around and start the race over again. So far Beattie’s got the right of way, and all the clean air to himself.

Posted by Graham at January 19, 2004 10:07 AM
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Graham Young
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