John Howard is correct. It would be foolish to regard the election as over. However, at this stage of the campaign, the polls have the Coalition ahead and they suggest that some of the media focus on this year’s politics has been misjudged.
Since Kevin Rudd’s return as Prime Minister on June 27, there has been considerable attention on his appeal to younger voters. There is some evidence to support this proposition. According to the ACNielsen poll, in the age group 18-24, Labor leads the Coalition 38 per cent to 32 per cent, with the Greens at 21 per cent. Newspoll shows that in the age group 18-34, the Coalition leads Labor 40 per cent to 36 per cent, with the Greens at 15 per cent.
This is an assessment of voter intention only. The evidence indicates many young Australians are not on the electoral roll and consequently will not be able to register a valid vote on September 7.
Younger Australians invariably attract attention as do the social media outlets which most, if not all, access. Older Australians, on the other hand, invariably do not make good news. Yet age is neutral when it comes to the universal franchise. And older Australians are more likely to be on the electoral roll.
The difference in voting of older Australians is instructive. ACNielsen shows that among voters 55 and over, the Coalition leads Labor 57 per cent to 31 per cent with the Greens on 6 per cent. According to Newspoll, among voters 50 and over, the Coalition leads Labor by 52 per cent to 32 per cent, with the Greens on 7 per cent.
Since Tony Abbott resumed the Liberal Party leadership in December 2009, Bronwyn Bishop has been the opposition spokeswoman for seniors. She has not played a high-profile role in the campaign. But for years, Bishop has been assiduous in attending to the interests of older Australians, including regular visits to retirement villages and nursing homes. She has had an impact on the campaign and hardly a television light has shone upon her.
Last weekend, Labor began running a negative advertisement against the Coalition’s generous paid parental leave (PPL) scheme. It featured pensioner June Kanngeiser complaining that women who earn $150,000 a year can obtain a PPL payment of $75,000 when they have a baby. Kanngeiser’s complaint is that when she brought up her family she “never asked for a cent from the government” and that Abbott is giving money “to those who least need it” while she is on a $19,000 a year pension.
What Labor calls its “wrong priorities” advertisement may or may not work. The problem with this negative pitch is that, even if Labor wins, there is no promise of increasing Kanngeiser’s standard of living. Moreover, it’s possible that women of her generation may see the benefits of a PPL scheme, including to their grandchildren.
So far it appears the Coalition has been more adept at responding to the electorate.
About a year ago, it became fashionable for commentators to draw attention to what they perceived as Abbott’s ”woman problem”. There was a degree of truth in this – even though opposition to Abbott among females appears to have been stronger in the inner-city than in the suburbs and regional centres where most marginal seats are located.
However, Abbott and his advisers adapted to the criticism. The Opposition Leader moderated his language and changed his dress sense. Also, he was frequently accompanied at public events by his wife, Margie, or one or more of their three young adult daughters.
If Abbott had a perceived problem with female voters a year ago, then Julia Gillard must have had a much more substantial problem with male voters. After all, the Coalition had been well ahead in the opinion polls since early 2011. But Gillard took a different tack to Abbott. Rather than attempting to soften her image with men, she accused her male opponents of misogyny. Also, the (then) prime minister’s supporters ran a “Women for Gillard” campaign. It was a futile attack on the wrong target.
Right now, the polls do not indicate that Abbott has a substantial problem with women. ACNielsen shows that 45 per cent of females support the Coalition, with Labor’s support at 37 per cent and the Greens at 12 per cent. Newspoll shows the Coalition leads Labor in this category 44 per cent to 36 per cent, with the Greens at 12 per cent. The Coalition’s support among males is higher.
On the available evidence, the true story is that Abbott never had a massive problem with women but Labor has a significant problem with older Australians.
Gerard Henderson is executive director of The Sydney Institute.