There’s a good reason election campaigns traditionally avoid any overlap with the school holiday period. When we look back on the 2019 federal election, political strategists will probably remember why.
The current PM, Scott Morrison, will likely come to regret his election-timing decision just as the former PM Malcolm Turnbull came to rue breaking another campaign tradition by holding a lengthy six-week election during the winter of 2016.
The unavoidable truth for Mr Morrison is that the vast majority of voters don’t pay much attention to politics when the kids are at school, let alone when they’re switched into holiday mode.
Sure, the Easter school holidays aren’t the same as the Christmas ones, when voters switch off completely, but it’s fair to say that voters with parental duties during the current school holidays won’t have a lot of time for studying the policy offerings of their local candidates.
About half of Australia’s seven million family households have dependent children, and most of those families are two-parent households – that’s a lot of voters not taking much notice of the election campaign that officially kicked off on Thursday this week.
Nevertheless, Mr Morrison and his opposition counterpart, Bill Shorten, are now pinging around the country on chartered jets, officially looking at things for the television cameras while wearing hi-vis vests. All so that 60 seconds of footage can appear on the nightly news that busy parents will probably miss due to having a life.
Election campaigns are always a colossal waste of money, but this one is made even more profligate by the fact that hardly anyone (other than the media and a few thousand political tragics) is paying attention, and they’re unlikely to do so before the school holidays end on April 28.
That essentially gives the PM three weeks, from April 29 to May 18, to turn the election around from the thrashing that is currently expected to be doled out by Labor to the Coalition.
Or does it? Early election voting opens on April 29, making it possible for voters who’ve lost patience with the political circus to lodge a postal or pre-poll vote and then get on with their lives.
The number and share of Australian voters who’ve chosen to cast an early vote has sky-rocketed over the past three federal elections. In 2010, about 17 per cent of voters lodged an early vote, growing to more than a quarter (26 per cent) or 3.6 million voters at the 2013 election, and jumping to nearly a third (31 per cent) or 4.5 million votes in 2016.
Research has found that early voters tend to repeat this behaviour at subsequent elections, so we can expect at least a third of voters to get their democratic responsibility out of the way as soon as possible this election.
This places Mr Morrison in the diabolical situation where there are millions of voters with school-aged children who won’t be paying attention to the election for the first three weeks of the five-week campaign, and millions of other voters who will have switched off in the final two weeks because they’ve already voted.
If the Coalition is planning on landing any killer blows on Labor or Mr Shorten during the campaign, such as releasing a damaging video or explosive revelation, its chosen election timing has robbed the government of options for doing so when the bulk of Australian voters are paying attention.
Perhaps this is all part of the Coalition’s grand plan – to use the school holidays as a diversion, exploit voters’ limited attention spans and avoid any genuine attempts to engage with the citizenry, in the hope the vast majority of politically disengaged people will vote on instinct rather than logic. In the past such tactics have tended to favour the incumbent government, which is seen as ‘the devil we know’.
We’ll know in about five weeks’ time whether that plan was a sound strategy or just a deluded pipedream.