The 2010 election campaign was widely derided as the worst in living memory. Commentators almost universally decried the lack of vision on display, and the banal slogans, robotic delivery, and trivial policy announcements deployed by both major parties.
During the campaign, whichever way you turned, it was impossible to avoid the scathing critiques of the two leaders and their parties. Social researcher Hugh Mackay called it ‘a slow-motion, soft- focus campaign, sustained by a steady drip of daily announcements and devoid of any coherent narrative’. He denounced its ‘contrived, controlled, photo-opportunity driven character’.
Former Liberal leader John Hewson lamented: ‘While the electorate is basically concerned about service delivery and outcomes, they were swamped with spin and slogans, and subjected to campaigns so controlled and risk-averse it was almost impossible to determine the real character of the leaders, and what they actually stood for, let alone their capacity to govern.’
Prominent economist Ross Garnaut attacked ‘the renewed influence of special interests, short-termism, poor leadership and an electoral politics that prioritises focus groups before national interest policy’
Leading journalists joined the chorus of complaint. Paul Kelly described the election as ‘a new trough in Australian politics, with the near death of substantive issues and the coalescing of Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott around the same slogans and positions’. Geoff Kitney called it ‘a sterile, narrowly focused, defensive and dispiritingly negative shadow of campaigns past’. Condemning ‘the art of making distinctions without differences’, Geoff Barker observed: ‘Dependent on pollsters and marketing gurus, political parties craft policies with only cosmetic differences to reflect majority attitudes’.
Almost halfway through the campaign, the Australian described this malaise in stark terms. Its editorial damned ‘the exhaustion of contemporary politics’ and ‘the triumph of the political class over the national interest’. It claimed the campaign reflected ‘the realm of virtual politics, where the message becomes an end in itself ’.
Think-tank leaders criticised the lack of substance in the campaign. Working journalists complained about the absence of real debates. Even advertising gurus got in on the act. Phil McDonald, of George Patterson Y & R, complained that ‘voters have been treated like emotionally void school children’. Coming from an ad man, that’s a low blow.
The suggestion that this election campaign represented a new low in Australian politics, with substance almost completely eclipsed by spin and marketing, seems almost universal. And there is some objective evidence to support it, such as the dramatic increase in the informal vote, which rose by almost two percentage points to 5.65 per cent.
Yet it’s important to pause before leaping to this conclusion. Most of the public critics need exciting, stimulating campaigns in order to do their jobs. If you write about big national issues for a living, you’ll be biased in favour of election campaigns that focus on big national issues. John Hewson ran the ultimate high-risk campaign in 1993, and paid a high price for it. He’s not exactly a disinterested observer in this debate. And advertising gurus will invariably have something critical to say about other people’s campaigns.
The refrain about boring, superficial election campaigns isn’t exactly new. In 2007, 3AW talk-show host Neil Mitchell denounced ‘a year of empty debate and image advertising’, and concluded rather emphatically: ‘This election campaign is empty. Take the lid off and have a look. There’s nothing there. Everybody is so busy not saying anything wrong they are not saying anything at all.’
In retrospect, it’s a bit hard to see how anyone could describe an election focused on WorkChoices, Iraq, and climate change in this way. So are the complaints of 2010 merely a predictable whinge from people who want elections dominated by profound ideological clashes and fundamental national choices?
At first glance, the evidence does suggest that something was amiss. Election slogans are rarely insightful or uplifting, but the slogans of the major parties in 2010 set new records for banality. ‘Moving forward’ was a cliché from corporate-speak that would have irritated anyone who had spent much time with second-tier business executives, who tend to use it to great excess. It provoked obvious questions about where and how, and provided no hint of any direction for the future.
‘Standing up for Australia’ was just as bad. Against what? Or whom? With what purpose? The Coalition slogan was just as devoid of meaningful content as Labor’s.
Both sides’ campaign announcements were hardly inspiring. Micro announcements designed to win favourable coverage without committing the incoming government to do very much were prominent. A feasibility study into a very fast rail link is a commitment of sorts, but it doesn’t carry any passengers. A receipt outlining where your taxes are going doesn’t change how much you have to pay. Sure, there’s no particular reason why major policy initiatives have to be announced during election campaigns, but that’s not a reason for manufacturing micro announcements.
Much of the campaign was dominated by intrigue about leaks from the Labor camp, intense focus on former prime minister Kevin Rudd, and endless manoeuvring about leaders’ debates and public forums. Other than a couple of days on the subject of broadband, driven by Tony Abbott’s decision to announce his substantive policy relatively late in the campaign, there were few major engagements on big issues.
Julia Gillard’s announcement in the middle of the campaign that she was going to abandon spin doctors and marketers, and bring ‘real Julia’ into play, was a telling statement about the nature of the campaign. It underlined the contrived nature of the presentation of the two party leaders, whether in the form of her front-cover appearance in the Women’s Weekly or Tony Abbott’s endless action- man poses.
If this campaign was different from past ones, are there wider explanations for its character? Is it possible that, having ducked the global financial crisis, Australians were in a complacent mood and didn’t want to confront challenging subjects? Perhaps the traditional ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ mentality was in the ascendancy. Maybe both leaders were too nervous to take risks because they had assumed their positions only recently, in highly unusual and slightly accidental circumstances.
And yet, when two leaders with origins in the more hard-line ideological tendencies of their respective parties produce such a bland, superficial contest, there are likely to be wider factors in play. No matter how we seek to rationalise it away, I think it’s clear that something disturbing is occurring. Hugh Mackay captures the essence of public disquiet about the trend in Australian politics when he asks: ‘The widespread unease among voters in this election about the triviality of it all … sets off a clanging alarm in our heads: has it really come to this?’