The trees from the wood

This week’s competing forestry policies have delivered an unambiguous win for the Coalition in terms of the media contest, with Dennis Atkins offering a particularly noteworthy assessment in Wednedsday’s Courier Mail:

It looks like Howard has performed a successful rope-a-dope strategy on Parliament’s most avid Muhammad Ali fan, Mark Latham. Howard let a story run from early on in this election capaign that he was going to come over all green for Tasmanian forests – even to the extent of locking up 290,000ha, as the ABC breathlessly reported three weeks ago. But Howard was always careful to keep his forestry powder dry … Howard’s game plan was for the Labor leader to jump first. A cat-and-mouse game continued for the next few weeks but Howard refused to blink, despite the urging of some of his colleagues who have a strong Greens presence in their electorates. The real political consequence of a Tasmanian forests policy was always going to affect Labor more than Liberal, as we’ve seen by the brawling and splits of the past two days. Howard was able to make three succinct points: this was a sell-out of workers, proof that Labor was in bed with the Greens, and it was financially irresponsible.

However, it’s also possible that the controversy has provided concentrated benefits for the Coalition against diffuse benefits for Labor and that the reason the former have attracted more attention is that angry forestry workers and militant unionists embracing the Prime Minister make for better copy than the deliberations of late-minute deciders in metropolitan seats. But it’s here that Labor will be hoping for its dividend, as they now offer a product differentiation that could prove very appealing to young voters who are over-represented among those who do not engage until late in the campaign. Here it may be worth noting the following assessment on the state of play among young voters from Rod Tiffen at Australian Policy Online:

The polls tend to under-sample the young, not least because they are less often at home. Polling organizations are well aware of this, and weight their findings accordingly, but one suspects there is less reliability in recording the views of younger voters. This is borne out by the greater volatility over time in the findings for polls in this age group. This election also has the greatest age difference between leaders in living memory. Of all recent democratic elections, the coming Australian election is most like the 1992 US election between old, established George Bush senior and the young and relatively unknown Bill Clinton. In that battle between leaders from different generations the American punditocracy, most of whom were older than the Democratic candidate, underestimated Clinton and his appeals to the electorate. Having an older leader against a younger contender also highlights an asymmetry in the way commentators test leadership capabilities. It is considered quite legitimate to question the experience of the younger contender, but courtesy demands that elders be treated with respect. As long as the older leader is not obviously infirm it is considered bad taste to probe whether he is still up to the job. Old age, as such, will never lose votes, but a sense of not being on the current generation’s wavelength will. Although the Liberals think the difference in age and experience counts in their favour, it is not clear that this is so, especially for voters younger than Latham. It is arguable that it may be in Labor’s favour among younger age groups to sharpen the lines of generational difference.

That, at least, will be the Poll Bludger’s rationale if his prediction of a Coalition victory – which is in little danger of being withdrawn before Saturday – does not play out. For the time being the smart money says Labor has been outmanoeuvered and that the Coalition goes into the election with a decisive edge. Today’s lesson ends with some miscellaneous electorate updates:

Richmond (Nationals 1.7%): For reasons best known to herself, Labor challenger Justine Elliot called on John Anderson and Larry Anthony to apologise after the National Party’s Western Australian website was "infiltrated" with "explicit messages about children". Her attempt to get Queensland independent Senate candidate and anti-child abuse campaigner Hetty Johnston to endorse her concerns backfired when Johnston said she had "the utmost respect for Larry Anthony" and felt it was "really cruel and damaging to the cause of child protection to play such trivial games".

Gippsland (Nationals 2.6%): CFMEU-backed independent candidate Peter Kelly – "predicted to receive more than 10 per cent of the local vote", according to Brad Norington of The Australian – has registered his protest against Labor’s forestry policy by directing preferences to National Party incumbent Peter McGauran.

Various seats in Queensland: Michael McKenna of the Courier Mail reports that while Herbert is "still within grasp of Labor", "the Liberals believe it is ‘relatively safe’ given Prime Minister John Howard’s popularity among the high military population". The report also contradicts other intelligence suggesting the Coalition is safe in the Bundaberg/Gladstone seat of Hinkler, which National Party sources are apparently describing as "line-ball", and says that other Brisbane marginals – Longman, Dickson and Bowman for Liberal, Brisbane, Rankin and Bonner for Labor – will stay with the incumbents. Reportedly, Labor has been concentrating its advertising on what it perceives to be its best hopes, Moreton and Petrie – "Liberal strategists concede Moreton is ‘in trouble’, more recent polling shows that Petrie has rebounded in the past week".

Author: William Bowe

William Bowe is a Perth-based election analyst and occasional teacher of political science. His blog, The Poll Bludger, has existed in one form or another since 2004, and is one of the most heavily trafficked websites on Australian politics.