An overview of the 2013 Australian federal election campaign

This article forms part of an ongoing series looking at economic issues as Australia heads into the Federal Election. More coverage can be found on the Election 2013 page of ESSA’s website.

The primary objective of a major party leader during an election campaign is to gain any advantage possible over one’s opponent. The incumbent ostensibly has a slight advantage in that they get to choose the election date. Kevin Rudd essentially maximised this advantage by providing no more than the constitutionally required 33 days’ notice, when announcing the September 7 poll.

Tony Abbott, however, has had three years to plan out this final obstacle – the election campaign – standing between him and the Prime Minister’s Lodge, reportedly even having prepared a victory speech months in advance. Although, some cynics would perhaps propose that Rudd has had many years to plan out his 2013 election campaign as well.

Winning any election is all about voter engagement. If a candidate of a political party fails to attract support in the electorate then a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ election campaign is consequently redundant. However, with research showing that 30-40% of the electorate in Australia is a ‘swinging voter’ – that is, that they are not aligned to the left or right of the political spectrum, and have a tendency to change their vote from one election to the next (a surprising percentage are also believed to make up their mind only on election day when the ballot papers are in front of them) – the election campaign is obviously still crucial.

Australia’s constitutional structure has traditionally meant that there is relatively greater emphasis on party policy platforms than in other countries, where the election of a president facilitates an emphasis on personality. However, some suggest that the 2013 election will be very close to an American-style presidential election, with Rudd in particular attempting to focus voters’ attention on the leader they can trust most.

There are also other parallels emerging with US presidential campaigns. Innovative strategies and techniques embraced by the successful 2008 and 2012 Obama campaigns are reportedly being rolled out here in Australia, albeit on a comparatively small scale for this current election. Furthermore, Labor’s campaign office has hired three highly experienced people from the Obama election campaign team.

Perhaps the strongest link between economics and a federal election campaign is that of the process in which scarce campaign resources – both financial and volunteers ‘on the ground’ – are allocated around the country on a state-by-state basis, as well as to specific electorates. The apportionment of the party leader’s physical presence around the nation throughout the campaign is also carefully considered.

Resource allocation decisions have to be made based on three primary factors. Firstly, predictions of which states are strategically important (essentially the states in which the party may have a comparative advantage; for example, the ALP has one in Queensland with Rudd based there, and also due to an increasingly unpopular Newman Liberal state government). Secondly, the status of electorates in terms of what is determined to be ‘safe’ in contrast to ‘marginal’ for this election (electorates can change in nature between elections because of electoral redistributions). Thirdly, the overall holistic campaign strategy to win the 76 seats required to form government is also considered (even if resources are profoundly limited, they should be allocated to ensure a party has at least the potential to win 76 seats and not simply directed to the most marginal electorates).

ALP campaign headquarters reportedly believes that they are currently being outspent 2 to 1 by the Coalition. As a result, the ALP is believed to be focussing on low-cost advertising methods such as direct mail, social media and lawn signs. Direct voter contact is also being initiated through an extensive doorknocking strategy. Interestingly it has been reported, that in a direct email to supporters, the ALP requested donations in a charity-style appeal, with each monetary value linked to a specific outcome. A donation of $50 would purportedly cover the administration costs of sending 10,000 emails, whilst $100 would be enough to pay for “90 targeted phone conversations with voters in marginal seats”.

The optimal allocation of campaign resources can evolve throughout an election campaign and is clearly dependent upon the other party’s strategy. In this sense, resource allocation in election campaigns is very complicated yet highly important. Game theory analysis of election campaign resourcing, whether historical or future-orientated, would undoubtedly be an interesting topic of research (however, I have concluded that it is beyond the scope of this article).

All media appearances are carefully controlled throughout an election campaign because one big mistake from a party leader, or even possibly just a senior minister, can potentially cost an individual the prime ministership, and a political party the opportunity of government. Party leaders largely avoid being asked difficult questions that invoke unscripted responses. The exception being the notorious election debates.

After the debate over the debates (which is not yet fully resolved two weeks on), Rudd and Abbott seem likely to engage in three or four debates (or similarly structured engagements) before September 7. These will be some of the most crucial periods of the election campaign and have the capacity to hand the momentum to either party leader. Labor’s campaign could certainly do with a solid performance from Rudd in tonight’s “People’s Forum”.

The timing and sequencing of policy releases is another fundamental element of the federal election campaign. There are advantages in delaying policy announcements towards the end of the campaign, to avoid comprehensive scrutiny and maximise voter engagement close to election day, but an absence of policy certainly invites criticism.

Inextricably linked to the release of policy is the creation and release of election costings. These are designed to ensure that both major parties are accountable for their proposed fiscal position. However, controversy has surrounded election costings for many Australian federal elections. In 2010, the Coalition prepared their costings independently and refused to submit them to Treasury.  Subsequently, it was found that the costings were substantially erroneous and that the accounting firm that prepared them had breached professional standards.

It is emerging that Abbott has over-promised thus far in terms of his policy platform for this election.  The only uncertainties are: the level to which he has done so, the degree to which it will be exposed before the election, and the extent to which the swinging voter cares. The release of the Coalition’s election costings is an element of the election campaign that certainly has the potential to impel Labor into a good position. As Opposition parties have consistently done for many elections, Abbott has signalled that the Coalition’s costings will not be released until the final week of the campaign.

While Abbott has for many years been unpopular in preferred prime minister polls, in contrast to overall party polls, voters ultimately need a reason to vote for the ALP – not just a reason to vote against Abbott. Given the most recent polling shows that, even after Rudd’s ‘honeymoon period’ resurgence, Coalition support is at 54 per cent, ahead of Labor on 46 per cent, Abbott is essentially defending a lead for the remainder of the election campaign.

Alternatively, Rudd knows that he has to go on the offensive if he wishes to win and has made reference to himself as the underdog on more than one occasion. Given Rudd has nothing to lose and everything to gain, anything could happen.

Follow me on Twitter: @lachlanwalden

2 thoughts on “An overview of the 2013 Australian federal election campaign”

  1. Hi Lachlan, I noticed you said;

    “All media appearances are carefully controlled throughout an election campaign because one big mistake from a party leader, or even possibly just a senior minister, can potentially cost an individual the prime ministership, and a political party the opportunity of government”

    It seems that neither the sex appeal gaffe (potentially offending >50% of the population), and the fashion of the moment comment (potentially offending the ~60%-65% in favour of marriage equality) really made much of a dent in the polls. What kind of mistake or incident do you think could be a game-changer? Also, do you think comments like this are sometimes planned? For example, maybe Abbott asking if Rudd would ever shut-up last night was calculated because it paints him as a straight-shooter and plays on the perception of Rudd as an egomaniac. Possibly it comes down to the marginal benefit of making the comment exceeding the marginal cost of the backlash.

    Cheers, Joey

  2. Thanks for the comment Joey!

    I definitely agree with you that ostensibly ‘stray’ comments are probably often planned.

    As for what would constitute a game-changing ‘mistake’, anything that was strong enough to influence a majority of swinging voters is the general answer I guess. Examples would be if Abbott accidentally indicated that he would severely cut core public services (i.e. health, education, etc.) like has been done in Queensland or, alternatively, if either Abbott or Rudd were to really ‘lose it’ in a display of anger with a journalist or member of the public. The chances are obviously low of something so profound happening given how stage-managed every day of the campaign is.

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