Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten have entered the final week of the high-stakes Longman and Braddon byelections both publicly cautious about their prospects.
Latest polls show close numbers in the two seats, held by the ALP by narrow margins. These are the crucial contests in the five Super Saturday playoffs. Labor has a clear run in the two Western Australian seats; Mayo (South Australia) is between crossbencher Rebekha Sharkie and the Liberals’ candidate Georgina Downer.
In Longman (Queensland), a ReachTEL poll commissioned by the Courier Mail has the Liberal National Party leading Labor 51-49%. In Braddon (Tasmania), where Labor has become increasingly confident, a poll commissioned by the forestry industry and also done by ReachTEL shows Labor on 52% of the two-party vote, although its primary vote is only 34.3%.
But polling in single seats has to be treated with particular caution.
The outcomes in Longman and Braddon are vital for Shorten, who would face very serious leadership instability if he lost both seats, and a rough patch if the ALP were defeated in one. Labor frontbencher Anthony Albanese has been positioning ahead of Super Saturday.
Shorten, speaking on Sunday in Longman at Susan Lamb’s formal campaign launch, said: “We are the underdogs”.
“The bookmakers have the other mob as the favourites. Now of course the LNP and the One Nation political party have teamed up again and are swapping preferences just to try to knock us off”.
In a strong attack on Pauline Hanson, Shorten said she didn’t like being called out for “pretending to be a friend of the battlers when all she wants to do is to get back on the plane to Canberra and vote with the big end of town”.
The size of the One Nation vote, where it comes from, and how its preferences split in practice will be critical in the Longman result.
One Nation has been targeting Shorten fiercely in its advertising. For example, he is depicted with a sheep and the message, “This year Bill Shorten and Susan Lamb voted with The Greens 100% of the time”.
Asked on Sunday whether he was encouraged by the polling in Longman, Turnbull said that on all the evidence the byelections appeared to be “very close” but “Labor should be streets ahead”.
“By-elections historically always swing away from the government. Particularly if it’s an opposition seat. The last time a government won a seat in a by-election from the opposition was about 100 years ago and there’s a reason for that.”
He said people in Longman and Braddon, as well as in Mayo, had “the opportunity to say what they think about Bill Shorten’s plan for higher taxes and more expensive electricity and his plan for weaker borders”.
Turnbull was in the Queensland seat of Herbert ahead of a visit to Tennant Creek in the Northern Territory.
On Saturday, campaigning in Longman with LNP candidate Trevor Ruthenberg , Turnbull said “Trev’s got the odds against him but he’s a great candidate. He’s a straight shooter. He’s as honest as he is big!”. He could “absolutely” win, although it was “tough”.
Both sides are throwing around the dollars in multiple promises in Longman and Braddon. Labor’s promises could only be made good if the ALP won the general election next year.
The recent Cambridge Analytica scandal and congressional testimony of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has brought global attention to the power and influence of Facebook as a platform. It has also invigorated discussions about how such platforms should be regulated.
Meanwhile, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) has been conducting an inquiry into the influence of digital platforms on media and advertising markets in Australia.
Submissions to the inquiry by a range of media outlets, advertisers, as well as Google and Facebook, were published last week. Although Facebook has expressed interest in participating in regulatory debates, its submission is a disappointing early indication of how we might expect the company to downplay its magnitude and its roles in future regulatory debates.
The purpose of the inquiry
Late in 2017, the Federal Treasurer, Scott Morrison, directed the ACCC to conduct the inquiry into digital platforms, including search engines, social networks and other aggregators. As part of the ongoing inquiry, the ACCC will consider:
the impact of digital platforms on the supply of news and journalistic content and the implications of this for media content creators, advertisers and consumers.
It came about as a result of negotiations between the government and the former independent Senator Nick Xenophon. Xenophon insisted on the inquiry in exchange for his support for the government’s changes to Media Ownership laws.
To some extent, the inquiry retreads familiar ground. Old anxieties about declining revenues for journalistic organisations and the advent of internet technologies and internet-focused stakeholders continue a conversation that has been going for well over a decade.
News outlets air grievances
In total, the ACCC published 57 submissions. This includes contributions from most major Australian media organisations, industry bodies, unions and advertisers.
Many respondents took the opportunity to criticise the narrow scope of the inquiry. The inquiry’s scope is somewhat frustrating considering the complexities digital platforms present. They impact not just media and journalism markets, but also aspects of political, social and everyday life.
While the ABC’s submission was generally favourable in its discussion of online platforms, other Australian media organisations used the inquiry as an opportunity to air grievances about the impact of digital platforms.
Seven West Media and Ten argued that there is a barrier to entry imposed on traditional publishers by the significant existing collection of personal data that platforms like Facebook and Google can leverage.
The platforms respond
In their submissions, Facebook and Google both attempted to build a narrative that emphasised how the tools and systems they provide can empower journalists and other content creators. Meanwhile, they minimised or outright ignored the opportunity to discuss the broader concerns of the broadcasters, publishers and individuals who are stakeholders in the industries Facebook and Google are operating in.
Google’s short response to the inquiry is not particularly interesting, in part due to its brevity and its focus on championing Google’s notionally positive influence for publishers. Facebook had significantly more to say in its 56 page submission, which also gives context to Mark Zuckerberg’s recent comments welcoming the potential for regulation.
Facebook plays the underdog
Facebook’s submission reveals how the company portrays itself to regulators, with an interesting element of self-deprecation. Take for example, the statement that:
Facebook is popular, but it is just one small part of how Australians connect with friends, family and the world around us.
Given a user-base that dwarfs the population of, well, even the most populous countries, Facebook’s most compelling option for presenting itself as an underdog in this space is to compare itself by share of “attention”, rather than share of market.
Facebook presents “multi-homing” – the practice of having and using a variety apps on your phone – as a key concern. It paints a picture of precarity in a marketplace that they dominate.
Facebook’s arguments about competition also ring hollow because the platform’s design and scale allows it to benefit from significant network effects.
Put simply, a network effect is when existing and new users benefit from the growth of a network. A familiar example of these effects can be seen in the services of mobile phone network providers. Telstra and Optus provide cheaper, or no-cost calls or messaging between customers of their own service.
But the similarities end there. While you could still call a friend with a competing mobile phone provider, there is no such interoperability with platforms like Facebook. This design helps Facebook protect its market power by keeping total control over the Facebook platfom’s network.
If you decide to leave Facebook, you sever the connections between yourself and other users of the platform. Given Facebook’s focus on augmenting social functions this can, quite literally, be an ostracising endeavour. In spite of both the recent Cambridge Analytica revelations, and several #deletefacebook campaigns, we’re yet to see a significant exodus of users from the platform.
A disappointing response
Facebook has a colossal user base. Over two billion people use the platform each month, and almost three quarters of those people use Facebook on a daily basis. It owns Instagram and WhatsApp – each of which are profoundly successful platforms in their own right.
Facebook is a titan of this industry, and the sooner it stops pretending to be a bit player, the richer our discourse about platforms and their role in society can become.