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Grattan on Friday: Numbers fly as unedifying campaign draws towards its close

The text arrived on Thursday morning, from a woman who helps me with my horses. “And now I have to do that voting thing. Recommendations please? Who is best?”

Well Margaret, after an unedifying campaign, from most of which you have spared yourself, you could find your choice challenging. (Okay, I’m not directly answering your question.)

You may dislike Scott Morrison (large numbers of women do). But you know the government’s stripe and the PM has promised he’ll listen and show greater empathy if he’s installed for another term.

But can you believe him? Equally likely, once vindicated by victory, we could see even more of the arrogance for which he’s so widely criticised. And he’s given little idea of how he’d use another term. Just being the manager?

You might like Anthony Albanese better, with his “caring” pitch. But would he be up to the job? He was competent enough as a senior minister. But it’s a big step from opposition leader to PM. And he’s run a seriously poor campaign, peppered by slip ups (on Thursday he mistakenly said “our [national] borders are closed”).

It’s understandable Albanese has made Labor a small target after Bill Shorten’s 2019 experience, but that’s meant we don’t have a broad feel for what Labor would do over the medium term.

If you were in a “teal” seat, Margaret, you could escape the Morrison V Albanese dilemma by voting for one of those very reasonable-sounding professional women whose priorities are climate, integrity, and gender equity.

But you might be concerned about how another hung parliament would work out (according to what you thought of the minority Gillard government). It would be an adventure into the unknown, with much depending on whether Morrison or Albanese ran it.

This election comes when people are exhausted after the pandemic, and highly disillusioned with politicians. The campaign has been beset by noise and sledging. Spending promises, to bribe marginal seats, have been thrown around like confetti by both sides.

There are some policies on view but what has been missing are big ideas for the nation’s future. Neither side has dared to talk about serious “reform”. There’s little to grab the attention of the disengaged, or indeed even of the engaged.

When I contact Margaret, a professional rider, to ask if I can report her text, she tells me politics “is just something I don’t focus on. It’s not part of my life – which is ridiculous, because it affects every part of my life.”

Margaret is one of thousands of voters around Australia who have left their decisions to the last minute. They’re the prime targets as the leaders make their late pitches, dashing from seat to seat. In some electorates, voters deciding on the death-knock could be crucial.

Albanese and five of his senior shadow ministers – his deputy Richard Marles, Penny Wong, Jim Chalmers, Tanya Plibersek, and Jason Clare – will have between them dropped into 20 marginal Liberal-held seats over Thursday-Friday.

Albanese (who has previously come under some criticism for the leisurely pace of his campaign) will be in South Australia, Tasmania and Victoria on Friday.

In contrast to the late-deciders, millions of Australians have already pre-polled, for convenience, COVID-safety, or just because they are anxious to be over the election.

As the opinion polls this week show the contest tightening, the final few days bring their manic moments.

Morrison, in pursuit of yet another photo opportunity, knocks a kid to the ground during a soccer encounter; the kid later analyses the detail for the camera and says “it should have been a penalty”. In the teal seat of Kooyong, where passions have been running high for weeks, treasurer Josh Frydenberg films a verbal altercation between “teal” money man Simon Holmes à Court and superannuation minister Jane Hume.

But the dying days have also seen some new economic figures that go to the heart of this election battle.

The wage price index, released on Wednesday, underlined how people are going backwards in our now high inflation environment. It increased by 2.4% over the year to March, when inflation was 5.1%.

This played for Labor, which is running hard on cost of living.

Then on Thursday, the latest unemployment number, 3.9% in April, reinforced the government’s mantra on jobs.

But the conundrum remains. Normally one would expect our very tight labour market to drive up wages growth, but it hasn’t been happening and there is no prospect it will happen any time soon. The Reserve Bank doesn’t expect any growth in real wages, as measured by the wage price index, before the end of 2023.

Albanese has indicated Labor hopes the Fair Work Commission will give workers on the minimum wage a rise that keeps them up with inflation. Morrison, on the back foot on wages, tries to have things both ways. He says he wants to see wages rising, but has condemned Albanese’s stance as irresponsible.

Labor left its release of its policy costings until Thursday, effectively as late as possible. It admitted it anticipated a scare campaign. But it has gambled that, now that deficits are enormous, having a cumulative deficit just $7.4 billion above the government’s $224 billion in the Pre-election Economic and Fiscal Outlook won’t be politically damaging. (The figure is $8.4 billion when a last-minute government saving announced this week is taken into account.)

The Labor differences, compared to the PEFO, are: $1.1 billion in 2022-23; $1.7 billion in 2023-24; $2.2 billion in 2024-25; and $2.3 billion in 2025-26.

The opposition says its larger deficit is accounted for by investment in “key economy-growing areas” of child care, training and education, and clean and cheaper energy. In other words, Labor argues it has a gap of only a few billions, and casts the extra spending as boosting productivity.

But these same few billions are being used by the government to reinforce its claim Labor can’t manage money. “I think Australians think $7.4 billion is a lot of money,” declared Morrison (who in the March budget spent, in payments and tax breaks, an extra $30.4 billion).

Conflicting messages for the undecideds like Margaret. 

The Conversation

Michelle Grattan does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.