Once again Bob Hawke’s timing was impeccable.
After winning the leadership of the Labor Party on the same day in February 1983 that an election was called, his death last night has put Labor’s legacy front and centre of Bill Shorten’s final campaign push.
Rodrigo Praino, an expert in political behaviour at Flinders University, said the timing of this significant news will potentially hand Labor a free pass but leave the Coalition in an awkward position.
“[Labor has] a chance to remind voters of the party’s track record without seeming to be clinging to the past. But the Coalition would not want to criticise Bob Hawke today or tomorrow for obvious reasons,” he said.
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When asked by Fran Kelly on RN Breakfast this morning whether Mr Hawke’s death would change the dynamic of this election campaign, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg would not be drawn.
“I think people will distinguish between the great life and legacy of Bob Hawke and the issues that are at stake at this election,” he said.
Mr Shorten said he did not want to let Mr Hawke’s memory down.
“I already feel a responsibility to millions of people to win. But sure, I want to do it for Bob as well tomorrow. I think a lot of Labor people will feel the same way,” he said on the Nine Network’s Today program.
Mr Shorten, who visited Mr Hawke in the final weeks of his life, said, “Bob was generous in his last remarks to me and he said we were doing really well and he was very proud of me”.
But will that be enough to capture more votes at the polls on Saturday?
Almost impossible to predict
The death of a beloved former prime minister in the final hours of an election campaign is without precedent and the likely impact on voter behaviour is almost impossible to predict, said Haydon Manning from Flinders University.
“What we do know is that if major opinion polls are to be believed then the election is tightening,” he said.
“If the result shows a strong win for Labor we may cautiously conclude that the death of Bob Hawke played a role among those voters who are wavering.”
But Dr Manning was sceptical of “the degree to which this resonates in any way with that many voters”.
Looking back on Bob Hawke:
“It’s 25 years since Bob Hawke left the political scene. Grief around the loss of one of our great post-war PMs is hugely significant for those of us who have followed politics closely, but for the vast majority of Australian voters, it doesn’t touch them.”
ANU labour historian Frank Bongiorno agrees, and believes Mr Hawke’s death is unlikely to significantly impact how people vote.
“It does act as a reminder of a successful Labor government during the advertising blackout, but millions have voted already and there are very few signs of large numbers of people being indecisive,” he said.
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Professor Bongiorno cited the “children overboard” incident as a similar example of a last-minute development in a campaign.
“But the research would not suggest that Howard won because of that incident,” he said.
Most voters have made up their mind before campaigning even begins, he said.
“The research suggests that campaigns actually have a limited impact. The Australian Election Study after every election tells us that voters are most influenced by their confidence in the parties’ ability to govern, to manage the economy and the performance of the parties’ leaders.
“People make these judgments long before the campaign begins.”
Two issues in play
Labor strategist Bruce Hawker said two issues were important: Bob Hawke’s death reminds the electorate that Labor can produce some remarkable governments, and it makes it harder for the Morrison campaign to push their final message.
“In campaigns you want to try to achieve as much momentum as you can in the final days. You do not want a major news story to occur which distracts from that ability to drive home the message,” he said.
Labor-aligned campaign strategist Dee Madigan said the upheaval had no downsides for Labor, beyond the sadness of losing “an amazing person”.
“In advertising terms this is an example of brand transference — all those positive feelings for Bob Hawke will be transferred across to Bill Shorten,” she said, noting that Mr Hawke’s support of Mr Shorten gave his campaign legitimacy.
“It reminds people what they like about Labor and it reminds people that a Labor government can be a very good government,” she said.
Labor volunteers at polling booths on Saturday will feel “they are doing it for Hawkey”, said Ms Madigan, with his passing offering an obvious topic for a final conversation with undecided voters.
The past can come back to bite
Paul Williams from Griffith University said reviving past prime ministers during election campaigns could sometimes be a liability.
“The likeability of the PM, how that PM fared in elections and how relatable he or she was [are the factors to consider]”, he said. In this way Mr Hawke’s legacy will be useful for Labor as it headed into the final hours of the campaign.
Historian James Curran said the timing offers Labor a chance to showcase the achievements of the Hawke and Keating governments in a similar way to the Coalition’s use of the Howard and Menzies years.
“[Labor] ran away from that era because it was perceived as delivering economic hard times that emerged from the tough decisions Hawke and Keating made,” he said. “In many ways if ever it was needed, Hawke’s passing will inject vigour into Labor’s preparedness to make hard decisions.”
But Griffith Business School’s Anne Tiernan said Labor must walk a line between drawing parallels with Mr Hawke’s legacy and avoiding appearing exploitative or opportunistic.
It is a point Tanya Plibersek also made in an interview on Fran Kelly’s RN Breakfast show this morning: “I just don’t even want to think in those terms. We are mourning a great Australian,” she said.
“I know and he said that he wants us to go out and win. So it’s what I’m going to try to do for the rest of the day.”
Professor Tiernan also highlighted how Mr Hawke’s death had forced Labor to make last-minute changes to its campaign — cancelling a planned visit to Queensland, where Labor faces a harder election fight, in favour of Sydney, where Mr Hawke’s family lives, and then Labor’s Melbourne heartland.
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