Labor in trouble in the marginals?

by David Holmes

As we commence week three of the campaign, it is clear that a week is a long time in the polling cycle. The polls had labor diving in marginal seats last week, with a slide from its high of 50 per cent aggregate polling just four weeks before the election was called down to 47.8 per cent compared to the Coalition’s 52.2 per cent on a two-party preferred basis (averaging out all of the national polls).

ABC Insiders poll summary on the weekend showed Labor-held marginal seats being lost around the country to the Coalition.

In NSW, these included predominantly western Sydney seats of Lindsay, Banks, Kingsford-Smith, McMahon, Dobell and Robertson. In the electorates of Forde (contested by Peter Beattie) and Brisbane in Queensland, the coalition are now well in front. But more significant is Tony Abbott’s rise in the polls as preferred Prime Minister.

It seems that Rudd’s huge lead throughout 2013 as preferred PM over Abbott has vanished now that he actually is PM. Listening to the polls was why the Labor caucus installed him, as well as his reputation as a champion campaigner.

But the altogether lacklustre nature of the ALP campaign has surprised many. It seems rushed, erratic and Rudd himself seems awkward whether in debates with Abbott or his many tentative policy announcements. Some of Labor’s election promises are not even getting out: such as the $209 million for a national trades training centre.

Early on, Rudd himself claimed underdog status by blaming the Murdoch press, which appears to have hit Rudd the hardest in those western Sydney seats, NSW central coast and strategic seats in Brisbane.  More lately Rudd is blaming the Coalition’s negative ad campaign:

“You have this nightly barrage of advertisements: I am talking about 18 and 16  inch guns all trained at us from the Liberal Party advertisement machine, running at a ratio of 10 to 1.”

Playing the victim in an election campaign can be a major blunder. My colleague Associate Professor Philip Chubb has suggested that engaging with Murdoch’s tabloids is a mad distraction for any politician. Certainly when there are megaphones around, you don’t want to amplify them further, but analyses of front pages shows that Murdoch’s megaphones are loudest where it counts, in the marginal seats, where you have higher numbers of swinging voters.

As Gay Alcorn pointed out at the end of the second week, 37 per cent of voters in the 2010 election decided who to vote for during the campaign itself. These voters are typically uninterested in politics and have limited political knowledge. Stylised caricatures of politicians and of politics, that at least make it entertaining, are ways to get them interested.

But even the most attention-seeking front pages of papers like the Telegraph, whatever their political bias, might have trouble getting past the fact that most readers may simply buying it for its Rugby League coverage. Rod Tiffen observed last week, summarizing an Essential Research Survey earlier this year, trust in the Tele’s reporting, is among the lowest of capital city dailies, at barely 50 per cent.

Yes, I know … another poll.

Dr David Holmes works in the School of Communications and Media Studies in the Faculty of Arts at Monash University. He is part of The Conversation’s Election 2013 media panel.

This article originally appeared on The Conversation.

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