Have you paid much attention to how Scott Morrison and Bill Shorten refer to each other?
It’s pretty telling when you do.
Australian elections have become more and more presidential in their tone over the past few decades.
Despite the fact voters elect their local member (rather than picking the party leader they want to run the joint), the focus on the personality of the prime minister and opposition leader is front and centre of any campaign.
Not only is it reflected in the ubiquitous attack advertisements the major parties run against each other, but also in how the leaders deign to speak about their opponent in press conferences and interviews.
“Bill Shorten lies,” the PM said. “He lies, he lies all the time.”
Scott Morrison’s references to his opponent are personal. They are cutting. They seek to invoke emotion and fear.
If you ask the PM, Bill Shorten is coming after your job. He’s also coming after your house, if you didn’t realise. And your pension, too.
The Prime Minister is a former advertising executive. He’s the master of the buzzword. And he goes for the character assassination each and every time.
Mr Morrison often refers to Labor and Mr Shorten’s policies as being “around their ankles”, conjuring up an image of a schoolboy who’s just been dacked in the playground so that everyone can see his Bart Simpson undies.
‘The other fellow…’
Mr Shorten’s approach is slightly different. He tries not to even mention the Prime Minister by name or title.
The current Liberal leader is a ring-in, the third leader the party has had since the beginning of 2015.
What’s the point of using his name when he could be replaced in a couple of weeks’ time?
He’s also so out of touch with the real world, you don’t really need to waste your time learning who he is.
He refers to Mr Morrison as the “current Prime Minister” or “the other fellow”, to emphasise the impermanence of Liberal high office in recent times, as if the prime ministership is a state of transience.
The Shorten approach is to starve the opponent of oxygen and to treat them as an ‘also ran’ or understudy rather than an actual contender.
It criticises both the individual, suggesting Scott Morrison isn’t worthy of remembering, and also the blasé attitude with which the Liberal Party have treated the office of prime minister since winning the 2013 election.
John Howard employed the same method. He rarely referred to his various opponents by name. As if he was not to prepared to use the prime ministerial soap box to give his rival equal status.
And if he did, it was always with an honorific and surname, never by first name. Mr Morrison commonly refers to “Bill”; not out of friendliness, but out of hostile dismissiveness.
Political campaigning is about projection, about yourself and your opponent.
The very fact the PM uses his opponent’s name suggests the Coalition believes Mr Shorten is a net negative for the Labor campaign.
Conversely, Mr Shorten’s brush-off of Mr Morrison by name indicates the ALP believes there’s more to be gained in eroding the PM’s legitimacy than affording him recognition.
Painting the opponent as the pantomime villain — or the “jester”, as the Labor leader dubbed the PM this week — is part and parcel of the performance.
But it’s something for voters to keep in mind when trying to sort through the guff thrown their way ahead of May 18.