The early signs are that the 2010 federal election will take poll-driven campaigning to a new level in Australia.
IN the days after Julia Gillard succeeded Kevin Rudd as prime minister, virtually every Canberra press analyst wrote an article defining the key issues she had to tackle.
The articles always started with the planned mining tax as Labor’s number one problem, followed by asylum seekers, sustainable population and emissions trading.
It was clear that Labor had conducted its public polling and focus groups, and briefed the press gallery journalists accordingly.
Since then, Ms Gillard has done her best to follow the script, addressing each of the ‘hot button’ issues, and visiting each state in the process.
Never before has an Australian political campaign proceeded in such as a cold, calculated manner.
Cold as in the cold-blooded disposal of the suddenly hapless Mr Rudd; calculated as in driven by polls and focus groups to an extent we aren’t used to.
Those of us who admire and wish to support genuine conviction politicians are left bemoaning the narrow choices.
Liberal Party leader Tony Abbott used to be described as a conviction politician, but he is rapidly shedding that skin.
Instead, he and Ms Gillard are in a race to become the most inoffensive ‘white bread’ politician who appeals to the lowest common denominator in middle Australia.
Ms Gillard’s choice of white suit coat and pearls for the press conference that officially announced the election spoke volumes for how the one-time socialist campaigner is trying to position herself.
Mr Abbott’s wardrobe hasn’t changed but his policies have, starting with workplace relations.
It’s understandable that Mr Abbott wants to head off a Labor scare campaign over WorkChoices – the policy package that did so much to bring down John Howard’s government.
But to do so in a manner that seems to repudiate his core values is disappointing.
This week Mr Abbott said WorkChoices was “dead, buried, cremated” and pledged that, if elected, he would not touch Labor’s Fair Work Act, the legislation that replaced WorkChoices.
Mr Abbott subsequently got himself in a verbal tangle, after leaving open the possibility the government could fine tune the application of the existing laws.
He seemed to have in mind Fair Work Australia’s recent ruling that students must work at least three hours per shift, which will force many students out of their current after-school jobs.
To that should be added the widespread concern over the complexity of recent legislative changes, and the uncertainty in many businesses abut whether they comply with the latest laws.
Another point of concern is the unfair dismissal provisions, which greatly reduce flexibility for small businesses.
Instead of going on the front foot and prosecuting the case for change, as most voters would have anticipated, Mr Abbott said this week “I have an election to win’”.
Ms Gillard, meanwhile, has continued campaigning like the experienced, savvy political operator she is.
The prime minister has an assured response to every question, and is seemingly unfazed by anything thrown at her.
But is she authentic? Do we really see the true Julia Gillard?
So far, during this campaign, the answer has to be no.
Nor, I think, are we seeing the true Tony Abbott.
The next five weeks will tell us which campaign strategy is more effective – though it’s likely that many voters will become disenchanted with both the Labor and Liberal campaigns.
Is there an alternative approach?
The strong support for Premier Colin Barnett in multiple opinion polls suggests there is.
He must be considered one of the few authentic political leaders in Australia.
Elected premier at short notice with a minimal policy platform, Mr Barnett is quietly and effectively governing WA.
While not averse to some clever politicking, Mr Barnett is for the most part a no-nonsense leader who tells it like he sees it.
Like him or not, most voters should acknowledge his authenticity.