At Larvatus Prodeo Mark Bahnisch argues that Team Rudd is blurring the differences between Labor and the Coalition and driving left-leaning voters back towards the Greens, Democrats and independents:
So much for product differentiation, Rudd style. Kim Beazley could quite rightly say that Labor had sharpened its differences with the government this term, and this was going to make the next election something quite rare these days in Australian politics – a genuine contest of ideologies and ideas.
But Rudd and various newly anointed and reshuffled shadows have spent the week blurring the differences. Passive welfare be damned, “symbolic reconciliation” is out, there’s no difference between private and public schools, there’ll be “careful consultation” with America on Iraq, political correctness is out and the 3Rs back in.
It’s a puzzling strategy.
But is it really that puzzling? It’s easy to fall into the habit of thinking that issues and positions exist independently of the players. It’s easy but it’s wrong.
According to the fixed issues/positions model the game is structured by:
- Issues: For example, welfare, the war in Iraq, political correctness, climate change.
- Positions: Is there a right to welfare or should the government insist on mutual obligation? Is political correctness a kind of censorship or just good manners? Should we ‘cut and run’ or ‘stay the course in Iraq’? Is global warming real or just a theory?
- Left/right: Issues are mapped onto a left/right dimension where each issue has a left position and a right position. For example, ‘cutting and running’ in Iraq is left and ‘staying the course is right.’
- Voters: The voters also map onto a left/right dimension with strong partisans at each end and confused and ill-informed swing voters clustered around the middle.
Mark seems to be arguing that Beazley won over left-leaning Green and Democrat voters by taking positions that put him clearly to the left of the Coalition. Now Rudd is putting these votes at risk by taking positions which move Labor to the right and into territory where it can’t win. According to Mark, "conservative voters are going to (sensibly) vote for a really conservative party, not for a largely secular and socially liberal party with a new line in values talk."
If Mark is right then maybe Labor should stand its ground and rely on persuasion to move confused and ill-informed voters away from the centre and towards more left wing positions.
But the trouble with this analysis is that the game’s structure isn’t fixed. New issues are born and old issues die. Fresh positions can be created by reframing an issue. Not all issues map neatly onto a left/right continuum. And voters are able to mix and match ‘left’ and ‘right’ positions without being hopelessly confused (for example, libertarians and populists). Political campaigning is game where players can change the rules.
It’s pretty clear that Team Rudd isn’t going to let the Coalition to peel it away from undecided voters by boxing it into predefined positions far to their left. For example, Labor is trying to reframe the issue of multiculturalism. According to pundits like Andrew Bolt, culture is about moral values and multiculturalism is about government support for cultural separatism. To be in favour of multiculturalism is to be in favour of government funding for dangerous Islamic extremists.
But Labor’s Tony Burke is reframing the issue so that the opposite of multiculturalism is monoculturalism — a nation where everyone has the same religion, eats the same food, and lives life the same way. Monoculturalism means an end to the cosmopolitanism of cities like Sydney and Melbourne. If you like laksa then you like multiculturalism.
According to Burke integration is how you make multiculturalism work. And under Rudd, Labor is claiming ownership of this new issue by framing it in terms of education and opposition to temporary protection visas. Burke argues that the Coalition has dropped the ball on English language tuition. And if migrants can’t learn English, then how can the integrate? And on temporary protection visas the message is similar:
"The Government’s use of consecutive temporary protection visas has sent a message to the visa-holders to not integrate," he said. "Labor believes it’s better for Australia to make a decision … if someone’s leaving, they should get on a plane; if they’re staying they should get on with a new life as part of the Australian community."
When it comes to multiculturalism and integration the game’s structure is not fixed. It’s not clear that there really is a clearly defined ‘multiculturalism issue’. The meaning of the term is contested. And unless voters agree on how to frame the issue it’s not clear that there really are set positions to be taken. Is integration a position on the multiculturalism issue or is it a new issue in its own right?
Mark seems to think that Rudd has adopted a small target strategy — that he’s blurring differences on the issues and moving closer to Howard so that disgruntled right wing voters feel safe enough to dump him. But Rudd has made his differences with Howard clear in his articles for the Monthly (pdf) and his speech to the Centre for Independent Studies (pdf). And by separating conservatives from ‘market fundamentalists’ he is refusing to accept that all voters lie along a single left/right continuum.
I’m surprised that Mark thinks that Kim Beazley did a better job sharpening Labor’s differences with the government. Beazley always seemed very grumpy about the Howard government and its policies but he never explained why. I never really got a sense of what made Beazley tick. In contrast Rudd doesn’t just take positions on issues, he tells a story to explain why he takes them. Rudd is defining himself for the electorate.
The greater the number of differences Rudd creates between Labor and the Coalition the more freedom Howard and his strategists have to define him in a way that suits them. By limiting the number of policy differences Rudd gains more control over how the voters perceive him. Journalists are more interested in talking about an issue if there is conflict. If Rudd refuses to play along then the issue is more likely to drop off the agenda.
It seems to me that Rudd is simply refusing to allow his opponents to dictate the issues he’ll campaign on. I don’t see how this is a small target or a failure in ‘product differentiation’.