Last weekend, Bill Shorten officially launched Labor’s election campaign and Scott Morrison gave an “exclusive” interview to the Sydney Morning Herald. In both, the veneer of civility in regard to their opponents came off.
The Prime Minister said he had “Shifty Bill’s measure” and knew how to beat him. At the Labor launch, Shorten was slightly more diplomatic. He said the choice was “three more years of smug, smirking, unfair complacency under the conservatives” or a “better and more equal future for Australia” under Labor.
There is no doubt that “shifty” for Shorten comes straight out of Liberal focus group research while “smug” and “smirking” is a recurrent reaction to Morrison in Labor’s qualitative research.
The name calling is a sure sign both major parties know they are in for the fight of their lives. Throwing everything including the kitchen sink at each other is a sign of desperation or panic, or both. The problem with this sort of campaigning is it tends to play into the prejudices of your own rusted on supporters without winning over new ones. Although if, as is entirely probable, you believe some of your own are wavering, reinforcing any doubts they might have about your opponent is worth a try.
After the debate on Sky News last Friday night, the passage that was picked up by all the free-to-air networks next night was when the Prime Minister eyeballed the Labor leader in a pre-planned move. Morrison wanted to demonstrate that Shorten was “shifty” because he wouldn’t look him in the eye and tell the truth. The Liberals claim that is what Shorten did when he told a Gladstone smelter worker on $250,000 looking for tax relief that he “would look at his situation”.
The handpicked audience murmured unease at the Morrison manoeuvre. Sky’s veteran news cameraman Mark Jessup told his journalist Kieran Gilbert it looked very “awkward” though the lens. Shorten drew back and said his opponent was “a classic space invader”. Labor’s spin doctors said it was a stark example of the Prime Minister’s bullying style. They said it was reminiscent of Donald Trump’s overbearing invasion of Hillary Clinton’s space in the US presidential election TV debates.
On Saturday, Morrison’s handlers made sure the Prime Minister provided the evening news bulletins with warm and cuddly pics of Morrison kissing babies. The whole incident is a window into the multi-dimensional nature of contemporary campaigning. As the old Kodak film advertisements used to say, “a picture is worth a thousand words”.
That is why on Sunday Labor so carefully choreographed its launch. It sought to cover Shorten’s vulnerabilities by showcasing Labor’s strengths. Besides exhibiting the team with its high-profile women, Shorten’s wife Chloe was rolled out to counter “shifty Bill” with loving and caring Bill.
Scott Morrison has been using his wife Jenny in a similar role; like Mrs Shorten she is constantly with him on the campaign trail – a clue that both leaders are admitting they have a charisma deficit.