Keating sans Zegna and antiques?

The Australian newspaper’s evaluation of Labor’s tax and family benefits package is surprisingly upbeat for a rag many lefties dismiss as blatantly pro-Coalition:

Typically for Latham, the broad sweep of the policy vision is more attractive than some of the details buried within. But this is a bold package in which the good far outweighs the dubious, and which marks a serious attempt to do the work the Howard Government has consistently squibbed: reform the tax and welfare system so their interaction no longer provides thousands of Australians with a disincentive to work.

Crikey’s Christian Kerr is more sober and (I suspect) realistic:

This is a slow burner. It’s an excellent idea to make family assistance simpler, deliver fortnightly cash assistance, improve work incentives, fix family debt traps, help with the transition from welfare to work, improve participation rates in the labour market, end entrenched welfare dependency and do everything the policy says it does but will it win votes?

Latham announced the policy in front of a very blue backdrop today. Very reassuring. Blue shirt, blue tie. But nothing to leap out and grab you.

Labor needs to do that at the moment. It hasn’t with its tax and family payments plan. It’s almost boring. Will the content trickle down to voters?

The Oz editorial also highlights the rather economically regressive sources of funding Latham has tapped for this package:

More disturbing are the measures for funding the package. When Labor promised savings, we dared to dream Mr Latham would hack into government waste, and perhaps even reduce the number of bureaucrats. Instead he would ramp up a swath of duties and charges and worse delay tariff reductions on clothing, footwear and motor vehicles: this will play well on the troglodyte Left, but goes utterly against the aims of the package to put more money in taxpayers’ pockets, assist families and increase the productivity of the whole economy. And bumping up the superannuation surcharge on the well-off is hardly justified when one of the biggest imbalances in the economy is between savings and investment.

Fair comment, but so far I doubt that either the detail of Labor’s package or its funding have penetrated the consciousness of the voting public. The Oz echoes Crikey in this respect by observing that its “inherent complexities will make the package a hard sell“.

For readers interested in examining the basis of Labor’s package in greater depth, the Melbourne Institute has a detailed analysis here.

As most media analysts (not to mention John Quiggin) have observed, the most Latham’s tax and family benefits package is likely to achieve in immediate political terms is to neutralise tax as a negative issue for Labor. Latham will need to claw back lost ground (according to opinion polling) with his forthcoming health and education policies.

Speaking of lost ground, it’s worth reflecting on the question of just why Latham seems to have gone backwards electorally over the last fortnight. Homer Paxton reflected what I suspect is a common ALP barracker puzzlement at the most recent poll results: “I would like people to tell me how a 6 point turnaround can occur in three weks in the absence of any significant event. I know my ALP & Lib friends are mystified … something strange is happening of the like I have not seen.”

I don’t think it’s terribly strange at all. Margaret Simons gave a hint in an opinion piece a couple of days ago:

Today Labor insiders tend to blame Paul Keating as much as John Howard for the ruin of the alliance between workers and intellectuals. Keating was hated in the suburbs. During the years of his government, Tourists were able to believe that the country was moving forward on issues such as Aboriginal reconciliation, the republic and social tolerance. …

The academic David Burchell has noted on this page that the most atypical Australians, as measured by their attitudes to immigration, multiculturalism and ethnicity, are the graduates of the universities. In their attitudes and beliefs they are “foreign” to their fellow Australians.

The 43 worthies’ condemnation of Howard’s lying over Iraq and the Scrafton affair over his lying on “children overboard” played well with the educated elites (“Tourists”), but left most ordinary suburbanites (“Residents”) unmoved. Politicians lie. Well blow me down with a feather! In fact, paradoxically these controversies may well have served not only to distract Labor from its electoral strengths of health and education, but also to suggest to ordinary Australians that Howard’s views and performance on national security, immigration and border control are much closer to their own beliefs than Labor’s seeming yuppie elite orientation. Popular feelings about asylum seekers appear to have mellowed somewhat from the depths of paranoia seen in 2001, but there’s no reason to believe that most people have suddenly adopted the world view of the inner urban educated elites.

Simons’ article highlights Mark Latham’s awareness of the cultural divide between Tourists and Residents, and his determination to emulate Howard’s success in appealing to the Residents (while also trying not to completely alienate the Tourists, who mostly vote Labor). Labor’s “Howard is a lying rodent” theme of the last couple of weeks was a high risk strategy in those terms. If Latham failed to entrench a public perception of Howard as a terminally compromised liar (any more than any other politician), then the ground he chose to fight on (asylum seekers and national security) might well become the dominant message instead, with Latham seen by Residents as a less polished version of Paul Keating, minus the antique furniture and Zegna suits but encumbered with the same arrogant, elite, out-of-touch values.

Bill Clinton famously kept himself on-message by putting up a big sign in his office saying “It’s the economy, stupid!”. Latham might want to think about erecting one that says “It’s health and education, stupid!” (while continuing to reassure and avoid gaffes on economic competence and national security).

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
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Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2024 years ago

Ken, you may well be right about the “all politicians are liars” sentiment but I think you’re drawing a long bow to relate it to the elites vs. battlers thing. Margaret Simons’ piece on Latham in Quarterly Essay is interesting, but I’m yet to see some convincing empirical research into the dissonance in values between elites and battlers. Not saying that this gap isn’t there, I’d just like to see some good quality research to demonstrate its extent. There are bound to be working class Australians who are sympathetic to refugees, etc. We forget that the marginal “battler” seats are by definition seats in which Labor has quite a strong vote. It’s just as likely (and a reasonable inference given the tone of this campaign so far) that “battlers” are drawn to the Howard government more by economic/hip pocket concerns than “values” issues. In any event, I suspect it’s much more complex than Simons makes out.

I’m with Homer on the difficulty of explaining the turnaround – particularly since there appears little evidence (with the exception of the rogue Newspoll) that the polls have been volatile this year. This thing is still tightly poised, and I agree with you that Labor needs to give more mileage to its issues, but it’s also necessary to establish a reason in people’s minds why Howard should be voted out – given that the economy is reasonably healthy.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2024 years ago


Whether the Newspoll marginal seats results are “rogue” polls will no doubt emerge over the next week or so. On the assumption that they’re not, it’s a phenomenon that requires explanation, because it contradicts previous leaks about what both parties’ private marginal seat polling was saying, as well as the public polling results for the electorate as a whole (although the last round of those general polls also showed a drift – albeit slight – back to the Coalition).

I haven’t read Margaret Simons’ Quarterly Essay, but her Oz article (which presumably encapsulates it) relies on the ANU’s 2001 Australian Election Survey, and differential results on the opinions of graduates versus non-graduates, to ground her Residents versus Tourists dichotomy. I suspect the divide DOES exist but is more complicated than just graduates versus non-graduates. It also divides on the area in which you live (inner urban trendy area versus greater suburbia) and occupation, with people corresponding roughly to Richard Florida’s “creative class” strongly exemplifying the “elite” values Simons is talking about, while suburban-dwelling “aspirational” working class and lower middle class people continue to exemplify much more socially conservative attitudes (including on national security and asylum seekers).

Whether one can actually establish that there are more “aspirational” and less “creative class” people in marginal seats by comparison with the Australian average I haven’t got a clue. It would be very interesting research to undertake or read about. My gut feeling is that there’s something in this hypothesis, although it probably doesn’t fully explain the phenomenon. Just looking at Darwin, which is Australia’s most marginal federal seat (Solomon), its population is certainly strongly aspirational at least in a material wealth sense. You have to be pretty strongly aspirational to uproot and leave extended family in southern Australia to make a life and embrace the challenges and opportunities of Australia’s north (and that’s what the majority of Darwin residents have done).

2024 years ago

Polls typically have a 3 per cent margin of error, so differences have a margin of around 4.5 per cent. It’s therefore unwise to attribute a one-time shift in poll numbers to anything other than chance. Of course, it’s just about impossible to resist doing this.

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2024 years ago

Ken, you’re right that we will need to wait and see about the Newspoll – I’m suspicious because it contradicts other polls which show Labor in a winning position in Qld and SA where most of the must-win marginals are. I’m no expert on polling, but I understand from others who are that seat by seat polls require a much bigger sample than that usually taken to be reliable. So I think it’s wise to be cautious about inferring too much from them.

Thanks for the info on the AES data. The first thing that comes to mind is that if it’s a survey of recent graduates, one would also have to disaggregate the non-graduate sample by age. It’s likely a lot of younger voters share more of the “elite” values than older voters – and of course, there are more graduates in this population. There’s a fairly stark difference in some research conducted by sbs on attitudes towards gay marriage, for instance, and the Greens have about double their vote among the population as a whole in the youngest demographic according to published polls. Simons does refer to this survey in her QE piece (which is well worth a read, by the way) but doesn’t go into enough detail to enable me to make any real judgement.

I, too, suspect there is something in the hypothesis – but I think we need to establish first whether or not the primary motivation for people’s voting behaviour (aside from “rusted on” voters) is or is not economic any more. There’s no reason to think that such considerations may not intersect with “values” considerations, but it would be interesting to know. I agree there’s a very interesting ARC grant waiting to happen in all this!

2024 years ago

John, you’re right about the margn of error. However sampling error works both ways. It is equally likely that the recent polls understate the coalition bounce as understate it. If the next poll trends to the coalition, then the ALP is in deept trouble.

Personally, I’m with Ken. The coalition bounce doesn’t surpise me at all. The ALP’s opening of “Howard lies” shots I suspect have little traction, while the Coalition’s interest rate scare campaign would certainly get the mortage belt thinking.

Jack Strocchi
2024 years ago

Although I broadly agree with the Progressive Elites V Conservative Populists analysis of Culture War, I dont think it will be decisive in this election. It was decisive last election, but this was unusual because of the confluence of Culture War and War on Terrorism.
The steam has gone out of the Culture War sinc Howard declared victory. Latham agrees with Howard on most cultural issues. The Majority of People are pretty soft on reffos now.
The Tourists & Residents analysis refers to the battle for Labors conservative cultural base in its West Sydney Heartland. However the electorate is pretty relaxed and comfortable now. It wont may approve of Labors Weldare Statism in principle, but it needs to be tempted by something juicy in order to give up Howards Wealthfare Corporatism. There are not that many seats at stake in W Sydney in any case.
The big flaw in the model is that the suburbanites that Labor “needs to win back” are quite well off. They live in big extending houses, carports overflowing with four-wheel drives (yes, them again), they might have an investment property and they love their private health rebate…They’re classic swingers who help decide most federal elections.
What about outside the capitals? you ask. Good question. Almost wholly absent from his equation, unlike Mark’s outer suburban blokes they haven’t necessarily benefited from two decades of reform, they have many marginal seats, their votes are up for grabs and they’ve always been Labor’s best chance for victory at the next poll.
The area that Labor needs to make its biggest gains in is the rural & regions who need socialist subsidies more than conservative homilies. This is where Labors economistic socialism may trump Howards cultural conservatism.
But the surburban swingers have decided to stick with their pocket book and reward Howard for doubling their net wealth. I predicted this about a year ago.
I predict that the majority of voters in swinging seats prefer Howards Wealthfare Capitalism to Lathams Welfare Statism.

2024 years ago

“The steam has gone out of the Culture War sinc Howard declared victory. Latham agrees with Howard on most cultural issues. The Majority of People are pretty soft on reffos now.”

Jack, Howard didn’t need to “declare” victory on this issue. Anyone can see he clearly won it. How many leaky boats make it to Oz nowadays? Virtually none. We don’t need to be tough on “reffos” as you call them. We have softened towards them precisely because the issue has been decided. Amanda has softened the Ruddock stand. My guess is that if Phil was still Immigration Minister he would have softened his stance too. That doesn’t change the position that a tough stance was necessary in 2001. Circumstances alter cases. Most people rightly think “children overboard” is a dead issue. Latham must stop re-fighting the last election and get on with fighting this one. I think he’s smart enough to realise that, and he’ll become a much more formidable opponent in the next four weeks.