It’s become a cliche to observe that Australian elections have shifted to a ‘presidential model’, in which the central element is a popularity contest between the incumbent PM and the Opposition leader. This has been accompanied by the minimisation of policy differences, as both sides seek the middle ground, and by the adoption of a ‘small target strategy’, particularly by the Opposition (governments have a record from which they can’t easily hide). This election is different, though you might not know it from the media coverage which demands, and receives, photo-ops of the leaders going from one place to another, wearing clothes they wouldn’t normally dream of, and handing out goodies. What are the differences this time?
First, neither leader is all that popular. For the Liberals, this doesn’t make much difference, since Morrison is about the best they’ve got in that respect. By contrast, Labor is running as a party rather than Team Shorten, even leaving him off some advertising material
The converse of this is that local candidates and local issues matter more than usual. There are a string of seats presenting problems for both parties. On the ALP side, there’s Herbert, held by 37 votes last time, and the epicentre of the Adani dispute, and Lindsay, where the sitting member, also narrowly elected in 2016, was pushed out over harassment allegations. Surprisingly enough, a seat-specific Newspoll showed both still at 50-50.
The LNP have many more problems of this kind. There are several seats where sitting members (mostly women) have been pushed out or quit in disgust, hardline rightwingers (notably Abbott, Dutton and Hunt) facing independent challengers and a strong push from Getup, members who seem to have put their personal lives ahead of doing their jobs (Christensen) water issues facing the Nationals in NSW, and Barnaby Joyce, who ticks nearly all of the boxes above.
I’m not sure how much of this is reflected in polling. In cases where the independent has a better chance of winning than Labor, the “two-party preferred” measure is irrelevant in any case.
Finally, as in 2016, and unlike any other election since 1993, the opposition party is offering a clear change rather than a small target. As it turns out, the noise of an election campaign means that this has made little difference. The rhetoric is shrill, but so it was when the parties were, in fact, virtually identical.
The main effect is that, if Labor is elected, it won’t need to spring any surprises on the electorate. It will also have a “mandate” for its policies for what that’s worth. That’s not much, in my opinion. At most, it gives centrist senators a justification for cutting a deal with the government to pass its policies.