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Who Dares Wins?

CONVENTIONAL political wisdom says that oppositions don’t win elections, governments lose them. But as we have been reminded over the past seven days, these are most unconventional political times.

You get the sense that the Coalition has nosed ahead in recent days despite a ferocious scare campaign being waged by Labor about the future of Medicare.

But the outcome of this Saturday’s election is still devilishly hard to predict, with the momentum seeming to swing in a different direction with every passing day.

Both the triumph of Donald Trump in the Republican primary in the US and the Leave vote in the UK should make us wary of the predictions of political pundits.

In the middle of last week, it appeared that the campaign over Medicare – perhaps a tad unfairly dubbed “Mediscare” by the tabloids – had turned events in Labor’s favour.

The warnings that a re-elected Coalition would “privatise” Medicare were clearly starting to bite, both in the polling but also in the panicked response from Malcolm Turnbull.

But that all changed on Friday when Britain voted to leave the European Union. Turnbull’s script for the final week of the campaign was effectively written there and then by Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson’s audaciously successful leave campaign.

Uncertainty favours the incumbent

While Bill Shorten will continue to hammer home his Medicare campaign between now and Saturday, Turnbull will just as ruthlessly seek to exploit the uncertainty created by the Brexit referendum outcome with a repetitive mantra that uncertain economic times demand stability in government.

The uncertainty favours the incumbent.

Yet, the underlying reasons for the strong Leave vote also provide the glimmer of an opportunity for Shorten to snatch government from Turnbull’s grasp.

Of the two, it is only Bill Shorten who has potential solutions to the real issues causing so much anxiety among voters.

While in the immediate aftermath of the Brexit vote Turnbull appealed to voters to trust in him as an economic manager, it was Shorten who quickly identified the real reasons for the exit vote.

“The United Kingdom’s decision to leave the European Union is a stark reminder of the need for policies that result in inclusive growth, and don’t leave middle and working class families behind,” he wrote on Facebook.

Since the Thatcher years, millions of Britons, particularly in the north of England and the Midlands have been left by the wayside as both the Tories and Tony Blair’s New Labour embraced free markets with policies that removed workplace protections, undermined collective bargaining and cut wages, shut down industries which employed hundreds of thousands of people, sold off public assets and public services, and tore holes in the social welfare safety net.

They feel trapped by low-paying jobs, declining public services, lack of educational opportunities and inter-generational poverty.

Pockets of the big Australian cities and entire regional towns have been treated the same way since the mid-1980s.

But when Turnbull urges people to re-elect him to provide stable leadership, he is offering nothing new to deal with this decline in living standards. Just the status quo and a $50 billion tax break for business.

Turnbull’s recipe of “jobs and growth” is just a new form of words to describe the trickle down economics of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s that set the US and the UK on the path to their present day decline.

He is simply hoping that his gamble for a double dissolution will deliver him a more amenable Senate to enact that agenda than the one that faced Tony Abbott.

The message from Brexit was that more of the same won’t cut it any longer for communities who feel they have been dumped on the scrap heap by economic change and globalisation. What they want is a complete rethink of the free market policies of the past three decades and a restoration of the social contract which defined civilised societies through a period of economic growth in the second half of the twentieth century.

By contrast with Turnbull, it is Bill Shorten with his policies on housing affordability, education, childcare, youth employment and health who is advocating a break with this trajectory to a more inclusive Australia where the fair go and equality is valued. Many would say he doesn’t go far enough, but it’s a start.

To achieve a surprise victory, Shorten will need to do more of this: empathising with ordinary Australians and providing practical solutions to their concerns. Tell them Labor — and only Labor — is in their corner. He needs to have greater belief in his own strong policy agenda, and less in the negative politics of fear.

He also needs to do this not only to win the election, but to prevent the vacuum being filled by the anti-immigrant hate politics of the extreme right.

After the release of his costings on Sunday confirmed bigger budget deficits in the next few years, the Coalition has ramped up its attacks on Shorten and Labor’s credentials as economic managers.

Shorten needs to respond aggressively by saying it is not poor economic management to invest in jobs, health, education, and public services if it leads to a more prosperous, harmonious and inclusive society.

Shorten has waged a strong campaign

But will it all be too late? Has this lack-lustre campaign and the hostility towards the mainstream parties made it inevitable that whoever eventually prevails on Saturday will need to form government with the aid of independents or the Greens?

Turnbull and Shorten must be aware of the parallels here with the distrust and loss of faith in political leaders in the US and the UK and that voters are preparing to give both their parties a whacking on Saturday.

It is likely that the Coalition’s majority will be whittled down to a handful of seats, and whatever the outcome on Saturday, Shorten should be proud that he has waged a strong campaign.

Labor, under Shorten, has comprehensively out-performed the Coalition not only throughout the last eight weeks, but since the start of the year. It has released clearly better policies and been unified, energised and disciplined in a way many would have thought impossible three years ago.

Turnbull, by contrast, has appeared disinterested and only found his voice late last week.

Without doubt, it would be an historic achievement to turf out a government after just one term in office.

Should Labor lose, Shorten must be given a chance to continue leading the party, if he wants to. He has grown into the role and one feels he still has more left to give whatever the outcome.

But he could make himself a true Labor hero if he can spend the final days of this campaign giving voters the honest answers they need and convincing them through hope not fear that only Labor has a real plan for the future.

Ultimately, history will be the judge.

This article was originally published on Working Life. All views expressed are those of the original author.

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