Out of the box

As the South Australian election campaign limps into the home strait, the re-election of Mike Rann’s Labor government appears as much a foregone conclusion as ever. That’s despite earlier reports that Labor hard-heads were worried about what the Liberals might have up their sleeve in the final week, for which the cash-strapped party has been waiting before unloading its television commercials (except in Mount Gambier – more on that below). Unlike Labor’s ads, these are not available on the party website, so the Poll Bludger is not aware if they have landed any surprise killer blows. Despite good press last week for Liberal policies to build a highway between Adelaide and Victor Harbour and give first home buyers a $3000 grant (on top of the $7000 already provided by the federal government), the nervous talk from the Labor camp was probably an attempt to manage expectations. It was contradicted by a report in The Weekend Australian saying Labor was "confident of capturing Adelaide’s outer suburbs", where internal polling shows Mike Rann’s campaign pitch had "resonated".

One television advertisement that has raised eyebrows has been Labor’s effort showing a flat-footed Rob Kerin mumbling and bumbling in response to a query as to why he wants to be Premier. Internet surveys conducted by Graham Young of On Line Opinion have prompted him to tell Adelaide’s Independent Weekly that voters have been left cold by the ad:

Labor has been riding high in the polls, but the party’s recent advertisements that take a vicious swipe at Rob Kerin’s leadership of the Liberal Party have not been well accepted by voters. As a consequence, the standing of Premier Rann has been lowered, according to our latest state election focus group and questionnaire responses. Even more alarming for Labor is that the ads have left Kerin almost unscathed, and will also guarantee stronger votes for independents and minor parties in the Legislative Council. But still the Liberals are yet to put forward a proposition that voters will buy.

Having only just got around to viewing the infamous ad, I suspect there might be a gap between voters’ conscious reaction to it and its effect on their voting behaviour. During my visit to Adelaide a fortnight ago, I told a stunned hotel owner that I was there to observe the election campaign. After he recovered, the first point he could think to make was the very point the ad is making – that Kerin gives the impression he would be happier in opposition. And it is an axiom of election campaigning (for me at least) that the most effective advertisements are those that reinforce existing perceptions. In this respect, the use of Kerin’s first name in the ad’s punchline ("does Rob really want the job?") seems like a nice touch, emphasising the popular view that Kerin is a good bloke who doesn’t have the steel in his spine to meet the demands of leadership.

I happen to be reading a book at the moment by American academics Stephen Ansolabehere, Roy Behr and Shanto Iyengar called The Media Game: American Politics in the Television Age, which makes the following observation about the 1988 presidential campaign:

Immediately after the Republican convention, the Bush campaign began an unrelenting attack on Dukakis’s positions on major issues, his record as governor of Massachusetts, and his commitment to basic American values. Inexplicably, the Dukakis campaign failed to respond directly to these charges for over a month. Most post-mortems of the 1988 presidential campaign emphasised the significant payoffs to Bush that resulted from the Dukakis campaign’s inability or unwillingness to confront these ads. The Dukakis campaign violated Roger Ailes’s first axiom of advertising strategy: "Once you get punched, you punch back".

"Punching back" is the very antithesis of Kerin’s style, and such negative campaigning as there has been from the Liberals has played the ball rather than the man. Ansolabehere, Behr and Iyengar ultimately conclude that the main effect of attack ads is to dampen voter turnout, but this of course is not a consideration under compulsory voting. A local variant on the effect might be to drive up the vote for minor parties and independents, and here Young’s assessment sounds on the money.

It does appear that there is one card the Liberals can play in the final days, and for all I know their television ads may be doing just this. It relates to fiscal responsibility and taxation, and the dividend available to them by virtue of their dangerous promise earlier in the campaign to cut 4000 jobs from the public service. By contrast, Labor’s promises – which, in the estimation of Michelle Wiese Bockmann of The Australian, "account for $700 million over four years" – are to be funded largely by "efficiencies". Combined with discontent over land tax, the Liberals have the opportunity to at least narrow the gap with a credible pitch at the hip pocket nerve.

Some recent and future updates to the election guide:

Mount Gambier (Independent 25.0% vs Liberal): Allan Scott, millionaire trucking magnate and publisher of the Border Watch newspaper, has stood down editor Frank Morello after the Border Watch ran a number of articles on Friday seen to be critical of the Liberal Party and its candidate, Peter Gandolfi. The move has also prompted the sudden resignation of Lechelle Earl, the writer of the articles and the paper’s chief-of-staff. Craig Bildstein of The Advertiser wrote on Saturday that "everyone The Advertiser spoke to suspects millionaire businessman Allan Scott is the chief financier" of a local Liberal campaign that has been "flush with funds", with "widespread reports that the Liberals spent $50,000 on TV advertising between October and January". Yesterday The Advertiser reported that it "has learned that Labor candidate Brad Coates last week threatened to withdraw $6000 worth of advertising from the Border Watch because of concerns that the paper was ‘too pro-Liberal’".

Florey (Labor 3.6%), Newland (Liberal 5.5%) and Wright (Labor 3.2%): Labor has promised to take back control of Modbury Hospital (located in Florey, but of interest to Newland, Wright and other less marginal neighbours), which was sold to private operator Healthscope by Dean Brown’s Liberal government in 1995. An anti-privatisation assessment of the hospital’s history under Healthscope can be found on the University of Wollongong website. Concerns about standards at the hospital have been widely reported in recent weeks, with the Sunday Mail talking of "GPs earning at least $2400 a shift" to "supervise foreign interns at Modbury Hospital after staff complaints of potential risks to patients". The Liberals have put the cost to the government of Labor’s promise at $5 million a year.

Mawson (Liberal 3.5%), Heysen (Liberal 9.9%) and Finniss (Liberal 15.9%): The Liberals have made a keynote election promise to replace the notoriously dangerous road that currently links Adelaide and Victor Harbour with a $130 million four-lane highway. The announcement scored an encouraging front-page headline ("Kerin to fix killer road") in The Advertiser, a paper many have faulted for coverage that seems tailored to curtail the extent of Labor’s victory. The following day, Treasurer Kevin Foley accused the Liberals of being $200 million out on their costings, but Greg Kelton of The Advertiser reports that the Liberal estimate was supported by both the RAA and the Committee for Adelaide Roads.

Morialta (Liberal 3.6%): The Weekend Australian reported that Labor are less confident about Morialta than "mortgage belt" seats further from the city, specifically Mawson, Bright and Newland.

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.

6 comments on “Out of the box”

  1. It is now surely a very real possibility that the ‘Labor’ MP for Mount Gambier, Rory McEwen will be beaten into second place by the real Labor candidate and the seat will fall to the Liberals. McEwen has displayed an air of arrogance and nonchalance towards his electorate since he was charmed by the bright lights of Adelaide, a ministerial car and a plush office on Grenfell Street. The result: he should be punished with a massive slump in his primary vote.

  2. Well Dave Rory’s always been arrogant even when he stood for Liberal pre-selection. What he has done is deliver for the Mount something that most people, if begrudgingly, acknowledge. In the end the wise electors of Mt Gambier get to choose if they want to be represented by a government minister, a government backbencher or an opposition backbencher. They mightn’t be from the bright lights but they’re not stupid.

  3. That’s true Gus. But doesn’t the man treat his electorate with utter contempt? A recent Liberal proposal to exempt Mt Gambier residents from the River Murray Level was criticised by McEwen for no other reason than it was against Govt policy. Mr McEwen is now the government’s man, not an Independent MP, his legitimacy as an Independent is shot to pieces and the question must be asked, is he actually delivering for Mt Gambier? Many Mt Gambier residents would disagree … including Allan Scott!

  4. Correction to the above: River Murray Levy.

    And as an aside: William is it possible to have a blog feature where careless typists like myself can edit their own posts for up to ten minutes after posting. I have a friend who runs a blog site (nothing to do with politics) who has such a feature enabled.

  5. Dave I see the Liberal candidate for Hammond takes the same view Rory does on the River Murray Levy…both support good policy. Allan Scott’s generally bankrolled the Libs and has a “what’s good for Allan is good for the Mount” attitude. In fact I reckon Rorys’ stoush with Allan demonstrates his independence. Anyway Allan isn’t always right…at least not according to Mark Williams!

  6. Firstly: thanks William for an interesting and invaluable website, very useful for political junkies, like myself.
    Living in New South Wales, I guess I’m not too qualified to comment on the South Australian election. But, it seems to me Mike Rann has got this one in the bag. It’s another case of a state labor government winning its first term narrowly, and then being reelected 4 years later with a landslide.
    My prediction:
    Labor: 28 seats
    Liberals: 16
    National Party: 1
    Independents: 2

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