"Stick to the plan" -- it was both the message splashed across LCD screens around the venue and the strategy behind the Prime Minister's speech as the Liberal Party held a relatively demure campaign launch in western Sydney on Sunday.
Seven days after their Labor opponents held their launch, by comparison a more jubilant and upbeat affair, at Penrith in the seat of Lindsay, the government's "officially" kicked off their campaign just 40 km down the road, at Homebush in the seat of Reid. It was a no-nonsense, no surprises, business-like event (more than one person commented the launch, held in a literal conference room, felt more like a business event or lecture than the formal kick-off for an incumbent government's election pitch) as the Liberals stuck religiously to their established talking points -- strong economy, strong border, stability in their team and uncertainty on the other side.
That's not just the opinion or analysis of this press gallery journalist, either -- as PM Malcolm Turnbull took the stage in front of a rather intimate conference room of Liberal faithful, key buzzwords flashed and dissolved behind him. "Innovation", "growth", "exports", "stable government", "strong economy". Turnbull, his deputy Liberal leader Julie Bishop before him and deputy PM Barnaby Joyce before her, all "stuck to the plan", levelling claims that a Labor government would be unstable, insular, scared of progress, deceitful, and built on a shaky alliance with the Greens and independents. Some surprisingly personal and direct attacks were levelled at the opposition:
- "They can't think of a policy so they're making up lies... I'm waiting for them to say we're going to hock off the moon to Mars" – Joyce
- "The Greens, Labor and Independent alliance – the Glee club" – Joyce
- "We're not scared of the future" – Joyce
- On the Medicare scare campaign - "How low will Labor go?", "monstrous Labor lies" – Bishop
- "Why such shameful behaviour? They have nothing to offer the Australian people" – Bishop
- "There's no lie too outrageous, no issue too sensitive, no person too vulnerable... [Bill Shorten] lacks the moral fibre to be Prime Minister" – Bishop
The choice of venue may have added to the lack of excitement at the event, dubbed a "campaign rally" rather than a "campaign launch". While Labor held their event in the bustling heart of Penrith, in a central part of town opposite a large shopping centre, the Liberal event was held in a conference room in a hotel in the middle of the cold concrete jungle of the Olympic precinct, far from the eyes of most citizens and a spot visited by few except in the event of a football game or concert.
There was a fair bit of meat among the 90 minutes of speeches. Turnbull, after Snapchatting his journey through the morning from preparation to taking the stage, announced $192 million for mental health services and Headspace centres and $50 million to improve digital literacy among seniors. He also pledged $64 million to crackdown on illegal firearms and criminal gangs, $48 million for the Smith Family's "learning for life" program to help disadvantaged kids get through school, and $31 million to encourage women and girls into careers in science, technology, engineering and maths.
But the main message of the day seemed to be less about keeping the Liberals in, but ensuring that voters keep Labor out. Near-constant attacks on the opposition from Joyce and Bishop through their own addresses laid the platform for the PM to deliver a string of barbs of his own. Continually ramming home the message that Australia needs "stable majority government " – a dual reference to the "Rudd-Gillard years" which were also mentioned several times, and the possibility that Labor may need the support of minor parties to claim government – as well as the Coalition's economic credentials such as trade agreements and supporting business, Turnbull's speech was full of the stuff we've heard much of during the last seven weeks. Jobs. Growth. Economy. Stability. Labor bad. Greens worse. Liberals good. Never been a more exciting time to be an Australian.
"The alternative at this election is a Labor Party that has lost its way, or a protest vote for Greens or independents.Vote for any of them and you could end up with Bill Shorten as Prime Minister in a government where unions, Greens and independents pull the strings," Turnbull said, launching a new pitch that anything but a vote for the Liberals is a vote for Labor. It is no surprise that this approach comes as the Nick Xenophon Team and other minor parties become the beneficiaries of a blowback against the major parties.
"This will mean less investment, less employment and an economy going into reverse. It would mean higher deficits and more debt."
The new pitch, that voters should not vote for minor parties as a protest against the majors, was a major theme of his 4000-word speech. He even called out current senators Nick Xenophon, Jacqui Lambie and Glenn Lazarus by name, claiming their candidates couldn't be trusted, and even mentioned perennial election loser Pauline Hanson, running in Queensland.
"That is why I counsel Australians against a roll of the dice on independents or minor parties. Vote for anyone other than the Liberal and National Party candidates, and the risk is that Australians will next week find themselves with Bill Shorten as Prime Minister -- and no certainty about their future," the PM said.
"That is why I am urging every Australian to think of this election as if their single vote will determine what sort of government we have after July 2."
Then, suddenly, abruptly, it was over. The official Liberal Party launch, six days from election day. Just six days to go.