Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

Game on: pollies, follies and lollies



We are now bang in the middle of the peak season for politicians seeking election. Budget week signalled the beginning of formal election campaigning. The campaign party policy speeches will soon follow. Before we become immersed in detailed partisan debates and electorate trench-warfare some general propositions deserve consideration.

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten prepares for a television interview following the 2019 budget announcement. (Photo by Tracey Nearmy/Getty Images)This election campaign will give both the government and the opposition a relatively even chance to present their credentials. While the government always enjoys the advantage of incumbency, which means inside knowledge, government advertising and bureaucratic support, on occasions when the budget speech is so close to the election date the playing field is reasonably even. The opposition and government start from essentially the same budget position and opposition promises can be made knowing that voters realise that swift implementation is within their reach if elected. Initiatives from each side can be countered.

Election campaigns are a time for hot air and hypocrisy about the rules of the game. We can see this in the major parties' current stance on One Nation preferences. Each major party is trying to outdo the other in trying to distance themselves with calls to 'Put One Nation Last'. Yet the nature of our preferential voting system means that One Nation preferences will inevitably flow to other parties regardless of their how-to-vote card advice. HTV cards can shape the flow of preferences but ultimately their direction lies with individual voters.

Debate between party leaders about the ethics of preference distribution is as much about ideological posturing as it is about anything else. The major parties always seek minor party preferences. Only very rarely will the preferences of the major parties themselves matter at all because they are rarely distributed.

The three biggest dangers in election campaigns are bad policies, extravagant promises and personal attacks.

There is much that is subjective when evaluating policies but those policies that are offered in the last-minute rush before an election always run the risk of poor construction and short-term rather than long-term goals. The short parliamentary session following the budget restricts the chance of detailed examination by the Senate, and an opposition keen to take the reins of government may be inclined to allow things through rather than pick a fight. That doesn't bode well.

Campaign policies are targeted inordinately at swinging voters. This means that the most vulnerable people and the common good of the community are easily overlooked. The disappointed reaction by representative church voices like Vinnies and Caritas to the budget speech shows already that the most vulnerable, here and overseas, continue to suffer from inadequate government support despite our country's privileged position.


"Let's make sure that in this campaign altruism is front and centre rather than a secondary consideration. We can do this by demanding that any group we are part of steers clear of excessive self-interest."


There is a widespread school of thought that believes that votes can be bought by extravagant promises. It is the time for pork-barrelling. The next month will be full of sugar-hits and so-called sweeteners, whether they be personal tax cuts, government grants or special deals for organised interests. Every candidate and party is guilty of this in their scramble to win. Citizens are complicit too if their main concern is 'what's in it for me'. Churches play the game as much as any pressure group by demanding excessive support for church programs in education, health, aged care and so on.

Let's make sure that in this campaign altruism is front and centre rather than a secondary consideration. We can do this by demanding that any group we are part of steers clear of excessive self-interest in making unrealistic demands of the government and the opposition.

Above all, the good character of the campaigning should be our greatest concern. There is always a place in campaigns for persuasion by both positive and negative means. To be positive is to concentrate on presenting your own good qualities, while negative campaigning emphasises the weaknesses in the other side. That's acceptable up to a point, but too often negativity can descend to personal denigration of your opponents' motivation and good will.

We enter this campaign in the aftermath of the Christchurch massacre and we must try to live up to the highest ideals of compassion and positivity that were demonstrated by political leaders on that occasion.



John WarhurstJohn Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University.

Main image: Opposition Leader Bill Shorten prepares for a television interview following the 2019 budget announcement. (Photo by Tracey Nearmy/Getty Images)


Topic tags: John Warhurst, Budget 2019, Election 2019, Scott Morrison, Bill Shorten



submit a comment

Existing comments

Two brief comments. Firstly, the preferences of major parties may not matter in most lower house seats but they are very important in the Senate. A good reason for everyone to vote 'below the line'. Secondly, for all the electioneering in my electorate, one would be excused for thinking it was a state or local government election. Everything that is being promised by the coalition - sports grounds, traffic lights, railway car parks, et al - are really a state or local government responsibilities. Total silence on energy, climate, immigration, citizenship - the stuff for which the Feds are responsible ! Do they really take us for fools?

Ginger Meggs | 03 April 2019  

After having just endured a State election in NSW voters here are anticipating more of the same i.e. putting up with a lot of..... The posturing over One Nation preferences does not bode well. In reality, the crossbenchers are very important in the Senate and attitudes by the major parties reflect that reality. We can hope that environmental concerns are taken seriously. Labor has an opportunity to show the electorate what they have learned in opposition and put it into practice. Regarding the Christchurch tragedy it's important to remember that building community is far more important than anything else.

Pam | 04 April 2019  

Precisely Ginger. And your point highlights why the Libs were returned in NSW and will probably be booted out of the federal government. When that happens, let's hope Abbott, Dutton, their ilk, Hanson and her henchmen and the deep north Q'land conservatives all lose their seats. Then we can all relax and sit back and watch the new soap opera starring the trade unionists while they stab poor old Billy Shorten in the back in favour of Albo, and co-starring Pliberseck for a little light relief on the left and Bowen fiddling while the economy burns and evaporates and the country goes down the drain. Should be very entertaining and keep ES filled with challenging commentary!

john frawley | 04 April 2019  

I remember a man not so long ago who said “Ask not what your country can do for you, but, what you can do for your country” We seem to endlessly ask our country to give on giving without costs.

Juliana Clemesha | 10 April 2019  

Who are the "we" (and "us") that the author and the commentators are referring to? I don't want to be a solipsist nor do i claim to be entirely neutral. I have my biases. At best I say that I accept the verdict of the electorate. No matter how that verdict was reached. Already the tricks of the snake oil salesman (or PR professional) are on display. I'll do my best not to be sucked in and buy the sugar-coats pills or the magic potions on offer. While I agree with the point made by Ginger Meggs regarding local issues, let's no forget that tactic worked for dour John Howard when he defeated jolly Kim Beazley all those years ago. All politics is local was John Howard's guiding mantra. He didn't take the electorate for fools. He took us (me included) for selfish.

Uncle Pat | 13 April 2019  

Similar Articles

Palm Sunday Refugee Rally

  • ES Staff
  • 15 April 2019

'Let's march together for justice today, and then beyond today, until we've restored justice for refugees.' We spoke to some of the people at today’s Palm Sunday march for refugees in Melbourne. Tens of thousands turned out at events throughout Australia.


Beware the election campaign hobgoblins

  • Gillian Bouras
  • 11 April 2019

The American writer H. L. Mencken said the aim of politics is 'to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary'. Over the years there have been many hobgoblins of varying sizes and shapes, and this election campaign promsies to be no different.