By Shaun Carney,
The first five weeks of the 2004 election campaign were about policy and personalities. The final week has been about politics - raw, number-crunching, visceral politics.
Mark Latham on Monday made a final lunge, throwing a net over every available Green voter in the hope of compensating for Labor's stubbornly low level of primary support. Two days later, John Howard responded by returning to the political method that had given him a massive majority in his first election victory in 1996: the chiselling-off of conservative blue-collar voters from Labor's base.
In what appears to be a tightly fought contest, both of these tactical manoeuvres will work, shifting votes from one side to the other. But only one can be decisive.
As this week progressed, an air of quiet confidence - but something short of absolute certainty - permeated the Liberal camp. The feeling among a number of people working on the campaign was that the Government had done enough to create doubts about Latham during the first month and that in the final few days the circumstances had been right for a Liberal foray into Labor's heartland.
One Liberal put it this way: "We lured Latham into putting all his eggs into the basket marked 'Greens'. They're not our people, the Greens. They never will be. We sat back and let it happen. Then the PM goes down to Tassie and offers to protect the timber workers' jobs above all else. We get pictures all over the country in the papers and on TV of blokes in overalls cheering the PM.
"I mean, you can't buy that stuff. The message is: if you're a working person and you think greenies are wankers - and lots of blue-collar people think like this, not just in Tasmania but all over the mainland - then John Howard is the only one prepared to do what is necessary to keep you and your family together."
At the same time, the Labor camp got a bad case of the jitters in the 24 hours after Latham announced his Tasmanian forests policy on Monday. The denunciation of the policy and explicit criticism of Latham by the ALP member for Lyons, Dick Adams, briefly stopped Labor's campaign dead.
Those who say politics is boring and predictable should think just how much and how quickly the political scene can change.
Adams' attack on Latham and his subsequent threat to rat on Labor after the election confirmed much of what the Government has been saying all the way through about the Labor leader's unfitness for office. Having one of your own desert the leader only a few days out from polling day is every campaigner's worst nightmare.
Acting in tandem with Adams was the head of the forestry division of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union, Michael O'Connor, who started actively touting for the Liberal Party even before the Prime Minister released his forests policy.
This is the second time that O'Connor has worked vigorously and publicly to help the Coalition's electoral prospects. In 1995, as one of the organisers of a loggers' blockade of Parliament House, O'Connor seriously weakened the Keating government's authority.
Senior Liberals have since credited O'Connor with inadvertently showing them the way towards their successful strategy in the 1996 election that gave Howard a landslide majority, a strategy that exploited the divisions between Labor's urban, white-collar base and its blue-collar supporters in the outer suburbs and regional areas.
Greens' leader Bob Brown, the Wilderness Society and the Australian Conservation Foundation held back endorsement of Latham's policy until after Howard's announcement, which meant that Labor appeared to swing in the breeze for 48 hours.
Labor's problem all through this campaign - and in fact for its whole time in opposition - has been its apparent inability to lift its primary vote. When Gough Whitlam took office in 1972, Labor secured 49.6 per cent. In 1983, which was Bob Hawke's first victory, it scored 49.5 per cent.
The published and private polling this time suggests that it's refusing to go above 40 per cent. That can be enough for Labor to win - Hawke's last victory in 1990 came on the back of a 39.4 per cent primary vote - but absolutely everything has to go right.
The feeling among Labor campaign workers last weekend was that they had done everything possible to gain the ascendancy over the Government.
Two weeks earlier, Latham had declared the election a referendum on Medicare, a bold boast given that the normal dynamic of election campaigns is that the terms are dictated by the incumbent. Last week, courtesy of Labor's Medicare Gold policy announced at its formal campaign launch, health did become the battleground, so some in charge of the ALP effort felt they had drawn level with the Government.
But it still was not enough. The grand gesture of the forests policy, with $800 million to keep timber workers in jobs and the locking up of old-growth forests, was seen as the way to kick Labor over the line.
Bob Brown's extraordinary endorsement of Labor on Wednesday night, in which he asked his party organisation in 26 extra seats to draw up tickets that gave preferences to Labor, suggested that it could pay off.
But will the pay-off be big enough? This is the question that lies at the heart of today's ballot.
Both sides of politics have seen this coming. That's why the Liberals have fed anti-Green propaganda to the Murdoch press all the way through the campaign, and it's why the Liberal Party distributed anti-Green pamphlets with no obvious Liberal markings to households even in safe seats such as Goldstein in the past few days.
Labor expects the preference flows from Greens voters to be much tighter - perhaps above 90 per cent - because of the forest policy. The Liberals know they have to frighten waverers away from voting Green in the first place because the impulse will be to follow the Greens' pro-Labor ticket.
The other side of the coin is that Howard could have played the situation beautifully, casting himself as the workers' friend at just the right time in the campaign.
Howard's relentless portrayal of himself since Day One of the campaign as the king of low interest rates and the only leader in Australia who understands how to make the economy grow has undoubtedly been effective.
The connection with the Tasmanian logging workers put flesh on the bones of this message. Its potency could well have spread beyond Bass Strait and onto the mainland, shoring up support in a range of marginal Liberal-held seats.
Those who say politics is boring and predictable should think for a moment just how much and how quickly the political scene can change. The public discussion during the Howard Government's third term was dominated by war, terrorism and the American alliance.
None of these issues have figured in any substantial way in the past 42 days. Instead, it's been the home mortgage, hospital trolleys, school buildings, and wilderness areas that most of us will never see.
Shaun Carney is an associate editor of The Age.
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