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Hidden election tactics

Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten
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The major parties’ campaign teams have whirred into action, poised to commence the eight weeks of political glad-handling and grand-standing that have become defining features of Australia’s presidential-style election campaigns.

Sometime this weekend Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull will visit the Governor-General, finally delivering his request for parliament to be dissolved and a double dissolution election held on July 2.

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Here’s where the behind the scenes battles will be fought and where they will be won and lost.

Media domination

The first and most prominent part of the campaign will be the rolling schedule of public election announcements aimed at “winning” the evening television news broadcasts, complemented by advertisements placed on high rotation during the best rating shows.

A photographer takes a picture of herself with Prime Minister Kevin Rudd while on the media bus in Brisbane, Tuesday, Aug. 6, 2013. The federal election will be held September 7. (AAP Image/Lukas Coch) NO ARCHIVING
Kevin Rudd has some fun with a photographer on the media bus during the 2013 election campaign. Photo: AAP

This dimension of the campaign is as much about keeping the media occupied as it is about carpet-bombing disengaged voters with subliminal and explicit messages that predominantly attack the other side.

Journalists on the campaign trail will again be treated like election hostages, marshalled onto buses each morning with little or no information about their destination, and given limited detail about policy announcements or time to scrutinise them.

Over the years, senior journalists have increasingly declined to join the campaign caravan, claiming they can provide better analysis from the comfort of their desk.

Even so, each campaign day will still be reported like a horse race, with an easily digestible verdict on the winners and losers for the majority of voters who have better things to do than study the election campaign detail.

Marginal bombardment

Another part of the election campaign will occur away from the prying eyes of the media, in the marginal seats that actually decide election outcomes.

The poor souls in those electorates will be bombarded with targeted snail mail, recorded and real-time messages to their landline and mobile phones, and candidates knocking on their doors at inconvenient times.

While voters living in non-marginal seats will be able to avoid or ignore the election if they wish until the final days of the two-month campaign, marginal seat voters will be confronted with it every day. So spare a thought for them in the days and weeks to come.

Digital warfare

The third dimension of this year’s campaign is still a relatively new one: the battle of the memes that will take place on social media.

All the parties will be hoping to build and consolidate their support base by posting shareable material on social media platforms such Twitter, YouTube and Instagram, but particularly Facebook, which has a powerful tool that allows the parties to precisely aim their posts and advertisements at key target audiences, such as young people studying at university, or older women in rural Australia.

Take this video for example:

Rhetorical sorties

As we wrote earlier this week after Treasurer Scott Morrison delivered his first budget, the government’s main message is that it has an economic plan for boosting the economy and creating jobs. We predicted the opposition would offer its own plan, but based on people not dollars.

This is indeed what Labor leader Bill Shorten did in his budget reply speech. Just as Mr Morrison mentioned the word “plan” around 20 times in his speech, Mr Shorten referred to the rich getting an unfair advantage from the government around 15 times in his address.

The themes of Bill Shorten’s budget reply speech were somewhat predictable. Photo: AAP

Mr Shorten also invited voters to doubt the Prime Minister’s trustworthiness, mentioning trust or honesty more than 10 times.

These rhetorical flourishes achieve little more than warm the cockles of Labor supporters’ hearts.

Much more potentially damaging for Mr Turnbull was Mr Shorten’s insinuation to radio shock-jock Alan Jones this week that the PM couldn’t be trusted on superannuation either.

Mr Shorten told Mr Jones, whose programme is a direct line to many of Australia’s senior citizens, that there were “shock waves” reverberating from the budget decision to limit some superannuation concessions. The Labor leader then asked “how can any Australian trust superannuation when you’ve got a Liberal government … that is changing the arrangements retrospectively for people who … have invested in good faith.”

If Labor’s contention that the government can’t be trusted was to take hold in the minds of retirees, who tend to favour the Coalition, it could influence the election outcome.

Stand by for battle in three parts, focussing on economic responsibility, fairness and trust.

* Paula Matthewson was media adviser to John Howard in the early 1990s and then worked for almost 25 years in communication, political and industry advocacy roles. She is now a freelance writer and communication strategist. Paula has been tweeting and blogging about politics, the media and social media since 2009 under the pen name @Drag0nista.

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