Has the electorate’s hip pocket nerve finally gone numb? In today’s Sydney Morning Herald, Peter Hartcher writes, "we are beneficiaries of the most successful macroeconomic management in the developed world, yet we seem ripe for a government that might want to promise to supply our need for non-material happiness."
Last year, in a speech to the Sydney Institute, Julia Gillard said:
Undeniably, Australia has enjoyed high levels of economic growth and record levels of employment.
But interestingly, numerous surveys have confirmed that, beyond a certain point, more and more money can’t buy us happiness.
Indeed, we are becoming an increasingly fragmented, individualised and time poor society, lacking the social structures and networks required to meet our daily needs and the needs which arise in times of crisis.
We have seen growth in incomes, but most of us have little time to enjoy it with our family and friends.
This isn’t a new message. In 2002 Mark Latham wrote that the chief concern of Third Way politics is "the disconnection between GDP growth and human happiness." As leader Latham tried to shift the agenda from economic management to quality of life issues. In his 2003 book From the Suburbs he argued that:
…most people glaze over a the thought of complex macro-politics. Their primary interests are at a neighbourhood level: the things they can touch and influence, such as improving local schools, parks and public safety (p 27).
Back in 2004 Peter Hartcher thought that Latham might win . He quoted former Keating adviser John Edwards who said "The economic debate is somehow irrelevant to the election. The reason is that, with this long run of prosperity, the Government didn’t create it, and Labor’s not going to destroy it." Hartcher wondered whether Howard’s perceived lack of honesty was becoming the decisive issue:
…if voters feel free to choose their government independent of any sense that they might be jeopardising their prosperity, does that open up the option of choosing a government based on more abstract notions – like truthfulness in their political leaders?
Professor Ruut Veenhoven, a psychologist at Erasmus University in Holland, is an authority on the academic study of happiness. He maintains a 90-country database rating and comparing nations and the happiness of their people.
And he thinks so.
"Once you reach a reasonable standard of living, about the level of Mexico today, after that point, the growth in wealth doesn’t add to happiness. Good governance is one of the factors that does. Clear, well-organised, honest, non-corrupt political systems, are important to national happiness."
That was August. By October things had changed. As Hartcher put it. "Howard has said that the election is a referendum on the economy. Latham has said it’s a referendum on Medicare. But in a very real sense, the election has turned into a referendum on Mark Latham." For Latham that was unfortunate.
If Hartcher is right about non-material politics, perhaps Rudd is holding up so well because he’s too dull to have a referendum over. When the candidate is likeable but uninteresting the focus in on other issues. In today’s piece Hartcher writes:
Kevin Rudd seems to be pitching to the happiness agenda. While the Government talks about macroeconomic indicators, Rudd has been talking about kitchen-table indicators. "The statistical averages don’t reflect the day-to-day realities that so many families face," Rudd says.
While the Howard Government boasts of rising wages, Rudd empathises rising grocery prices. The Government brags about falling unemployment; Rudd sympathises with the problems of child care. The Government struts the GDP growth numbers; Rudd talks about a crisis of housing affordability.
Grocery prices and housing affordability are domestic but they are hardly non-material. The idea that Rudd will win on ‘kitchen table’ issues because voters are taking the economy for granted, depends on the economy keeping a low profile. Voters might start paying attention to it if it makes their own home more affordable to first home buyers. In the end, the economy is a kitchen table issue. Falling property values, rising interest rates and unemployment tend to make people unhappy.