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The Punch: Yes we will: remembering a campaign that never was

24 Aug 2010

First Published on The Punch 24/08/2010

What a great night to be Labor. As the Party swept back into office with a mandate to lead global action on climate change it seemed like the entire nation had grown a few inches taller.

Smile Julia Gillard

Winning smile….if only. Photo: Gary Ramage

The energy on the ground made the excitement of Kevin 07’s electoral triumph seem like a mere entrée to the main, as thousands of young people on booths around Australia literally enthused swinging voters into embracing the future.

Forgive my hyperbole just this once, but this was a night when the rules of politics were rewritten, where principle drove politics and the people responded by voting to reject fear and confront the reality of global warming.

The Prime Minister stared down a concerted negative campaign funded by the mining industry, riding through high levels of disapproval as Tony Abbott’s attack on a “big new tax on everything” and turning the debate around over the final two weeks of the campaign.

By the campaign’s final days, the mining industry attack had been neutralised by a series of senior business leaders who came out in favour of putting a price on carbon, arguing that delaying action would deliver a worse economic outcome.

Through the campaign, Australia became a global focal point as scores of the world¹s most eminent scientists travelled here to participate in a series of public lectures that not only exposed the sceptics, but put science at the centre of our public debate for the first time.

If scientists provided the intellectual grunt, they were powered by a grassroots campaign driven by younger Australians who see their future linked so tightly with that of the planet. Around the nation, the cream of Australia¹s music industry held “get out the vote to save the planet” gigs, the show-stopper coming when the PM joined Pete Garrett and a who’s who of the industry to belt out Beds are Burning. No-one who was on the steps of the Opera House, or at venues around the nation will forget the night.

But it was ordinary Australians too – thousands of “Nannas for Our Grandkids” organising pre-postals in nursing homes, groups of school parents organised by students too young to even vote, a sense of inter-generational connection never seen before.

Campaign strategists played a key role too the campaign slogan “moving forward” captured the mood of the nation and left the sceptics looking tired and scared of the future. Their use of focus groups to frame a message that moved voters from fear to hope has rewritten political campaigning, with TV ads inviting Australians to look their children in the eye before they voted, hitting the perfect emotional note and totally trumping the Opposition fear campaign.

Of course there were sections of the media who were hostile, and the concerted campaign by some to elevate climate denial bordered at times on the interventionist, but as the campaign built momentum, even the most cynical members of the gallery twigged they were covering something special.

The Prime Minister dominated the five-week campaign, each campaign event building on the previous as the narrative of the dangers of inactions giving rise to the story of hope that the benefits of moving first to shift its energy model would accrue to the nation.

The clean energy economic plan will be the centrepiece of the next term of government – major expenditure on solar, wind and thermo-nuclear projects jointly funded by the government and Australian super funds.

The “workers capital” idea was another game-changer, giving voters a personal stake in the clean energy economy that Labor built their election pitch around. But the winning play was the way that those opposed to an ETS were slowly drawn in with the facts, then invited to think about the impact of inaction, then finally to embrace the possibilities of change.

In the face of this grassroots momentum, the Opposition imploded – splits between the sceptics and the realists went public with the leaking of the Turnbull memo just days from the ballot. It didn¹t decide the election, but it underlined a miserable campaign for a party with no vision for the future. One can only wonder where it goes from here.

The Greens would have been disappointed by their smaller vote, but heartened by the fact that their agenda has been adopted by the entire nation.

But ultimately the winner of Saturday night was politics – for so long seen as cynical and tired, the campaign has infused energy and hope into our national debate.

And all it took was one person to say: “This is hard, but this is the right thing to do. If I can¹t convince the people of Australia to act for their kids and grandkids, what point is there in leading?”

Peter Lewis, Director EMC