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).