Why the electorate may want change – part 2

Thank you all for your comments on my earlier posting (“why the electorate may want change”) which sought to explain the apparent willingness of many swinging voters to switch sides. I argued then that it cannot be due to substantive policy differences: they exist (on industrial relations, global warming, Iraq etc.) but if you look at them clinically, they do not seem huge enough to explain the shift.

I have also argued that competence cannot be a decisive factor. While the Howard Government has made its share of mistakes, it cannot be described as an incompetent government. Although Rudd has a competent team too, few will expect him to do a better job of managing the economy, national security and employment

So I looked for other explanations.

Fairness is certainly one big issue. I agree with Ken Parish and Dennis Cartledge that many people feel they are not sharing in our national prosperity so household economics is important. But here one wonders how much more ‘fairness’ Rudd has to offer. There are three distinct dimensions of fairness workplace fairness, inequality of incomes/wealth; and inequality of opportunity.

Industrial relations was a big fairness issue initially because the Howard government allied itself closely to the bosses and showed acute insensitivity to the concerns of low paid workers. But Howard then introduced his Fairness Test and Rudd decided to give union bargaining a secondary role in his IR system and water down unfair dismissals. As a result, on paper at least, the differences between Labor and Coalition on workplace fairness are now relatively small.

As to concerns about income and wealth distribution, Howard can rightly claim that inequality has not increased significantly under his tutelage. True, many households are under financial stress but Rudd has promised not to increase taxes and not to outspend Howard. He cannot take existing benefits away from anyone (thats poison) so he has to use new revenue to change priorities and that option precludes big new initiatives to improve fairness,

Then there is inequality of opportunity the thing I have been going on about for years. I strongly believe Howard has set us back on this front, creating a dual society in employment, education, health, housing etc. but again Rudd is helpless to do much in this area because he has promised to run cash surpluses i.e. no net government borrowing over the business cycle. I see well timed net borrowing at the federal level for purposes of social investment as essential to equalisation of opportunities but that requires a less timid fiscal stance.

So while fairness is potentially an important issue, it will be easy for Howard to defuse it in hard policy terms.

This leaves me with only one plausible explanation for a Rudd win (if it happens). It is that people have lost trust in Howard. Ken Parish rightly reminds us that Howard turned that issue to his advantage in 2004. He did it by twisting it into an issue about the economy, interest rates, unemployment and national security i.e. competence. But when I say Howard has lost the trust of many swinging voters I mean something quite different. It is the communitys trust in his truthfulness and his willingness to play by the rules.

What has been hiding in the past (on WMDs, Iraq, AWB, children overboard, Haneef, the impact of workchoices etc.)? What is he hiding about the future e.g. will he again spring some new policies on us without warning? (I personally doubt that the Fairness Test will survive in tis present form given that business sees it as a big mess and I suspect the unions will cop another attack).

And will he again refuse to play by the rules? Will he continue to erode federalism, undermine the independence of statutory bodies and benches, encroach on Senate Committee processes, crush dissent from community-based advocacy organisations and abuse the advantages of incumbency (government advertising, corruption of Parliamentary question time, rorting of grants, changing disclosure rules on corporate and other private donations etc.)? In short will he continue to dangerously centralise power in the Executive and especially the Prime Minister and his office and control the flow of information and misinformation?

On all these matters of trust, I have no idea if a Rudd government will be any better (although Rudd says he will announce some policies to improve the integrity of government). But many swinging voters know that each new government has the ability to clean out the stable of all its skeletons and start with a clean sheet. The feeling might be “let’s giive the others a go”.

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16 years ago

Judging by reports from contacts in Minister’s offices, I’d say competence is a factor – but perhaps one not widely appreciated. The increasing centralisation of power in the PM’s office and Department is greatly slowing down the business of government, and there are a lot of balls being dropped. A lot. A spectacular and very public cock-up is on its way.

David Rubie
David Rubie
16 years ago

it cannot be described as an incompetent government

“Stud” Nelson and the fighters we cannot buy, and the price of the ones we can despite the war on terror? Helicopters we can’t use over the sea or at night despite belonging to the Navy? Tanks too heavy to be used in Australia and for which we have no reasonable transport options other than “spend more money”. Interim fighters deliberately crippled by our great protector and the death of a local industry built around keeping the F111 a considerable, effective and cheap deterrent to any potential local despots. All gone now.

Downer: Never reads anything not written on Liberal party letterhead. Didn’t know and can’t remember anything about being warned umpteen times about AWB. When the message finally (did or didn’t it get through?) he did nothing anyway. Govt. then cooked up a transparently weak enquiry which proved beyond resonable doubt that several ministers (including the Prime Minister) were either incompetent or wilfully ignorant. Purports to speak French, but nobody has the heart to tell him that Rene from ‘ello ‘ello is not actually speaking french. The man is a first class idiot and Vaille isn’t far behind.

Vanstone: Australian citizens held in detention, a bill in the Billions for the “pacific solution” for a bunch of people who turned out to be genuine refugees Children in detention.

Andrews: WorkChoices. A set of regulations now so unworkable they are being abandoned by the industries they were supposed to help. Helped destroy any chance of us keeping our struggling health systems going by making sure any doctor darker than his pathetic hair dye will never get a job in Australia. Any doctor darker than his skin will be automatically targeted as a terrorist suspect if they own a mobile phone. It’s hard to find people dumber than Downer, but Kevin Andrews is on the short list.

Brough: Bringing “Liberal values” to a bunch of the most disadvantaged people in the world by stealing their land (again!). Won’t somebody think of the children?

Julie Bishop: The 5 millimetre stare obviously can’t focus for any more than 2 seconds on any policy covering public schooling. Most memorable moment? Go to the naughty corner. Otherwise did nothing.

Costello: Look! An economy is a big complex machine! I better not touch it! Baby bonus idiocy was apparently one of his ideas. Specialises in turning purple during question time and trying to find his nuts when playing pocket billiards (unsuccessfully). Kinda-sorta sold Telstra except for the chunk sitting in the Future Fund which apparently is going nowhere other than making a bunch of Singaporean businessmen rich and giving the government an excuse to have someone on the board to meddle with what was supposed to be a private company.

Howard: Used outright fascist tactics against the maritime union on behalf of private interests in the Patrick corp. Initially claimed to have nothing to do with it until it worked. Private health insurance rebate made private health insurance 30% more expensive (this from the great economic managers?). Ministerial code of conduct dropped like a hot spud as the ministers could not follow it. First home buyers grant to guarantee house prices are out of the reach of first home buyers. Turned every household in Australia into welfare recipients via the tax system, apparently because that isn’t real welfare so it’s OK. Aligned our foreign policy closely with the most disastrous US President in living history, but didn’t have the nuts to commit properly to the war on terror and sent 5 blokes and a dead dog to the quietest part of Iraq, while claiming to be the man of steel. Jumped on refugees and racism whenever possible. Turned his life’s greatest work (IR reform) into a massively painful carbunkle that’s useful to nobody by trying to kill a dead horse (the union movement). Worst of all, believed his own stupid lies.

It’s hard to conceive of a front bench that has more time wasters, idiots, cowards and outright fools as this bunch. Anything would be better.

Dennis Cartledge
16 years ago

Fred, please don’t think I was attacking you. The fact is I’ve become a little besotted with the economic theory. Still I’ve consistently questioned Howards claim of competency in the broader context.
Equally the thought of a New Labor government under Rudd doesnt excite the imagination.
My real concern is that the average punters really dont understand what it is hurting them. The ones Im talking with believe it is their own fault they are in deep shit.
The household economic theory only signals the fall of a government, alas it does not suggest the alternative will be any more efficacious.

David Rubie
David Rubie
16 years ago

Geez I nearly forgot my favourite:

Ruddock: The walking dead. Could not find a way to prosecute Hicks because he did nothing illegal. Helpfully, the US decided to keep the mangy little bastard out of the way long enough for Ruddock to make it look like it wasn’t his fault – apparently he could have simply asked him to be returned (it worked for the poms). Howard confirmed this in a party room meeting. What for?

Embarked on a steady process of dismantling every reasonable freedom a citizen had a right to. In line with our stupid allies, made sure we followed a nice fascist line in detaining people without charge or access to legal council or even the courtesy of being told what they were being charged over. Pursued the desperately confused “Jihad Jack” as if he was Osama bin ladin. Wears an Amnesty International badge in spite of standing for everything they stand against. Likes torture. Decided that gay marriage was one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse and wasted much time and effort making sure we all knew that. Key player in making sure the truth of Children overboard didn’t make it into the public eye until after the election. A despicable individual is Ruddock.

16 years ago

And will he again refuse to play by the rules? Will he continue to erode federalism, undermine the independence of statutory bodies and benches, encroach on Senate Committee processes, crush dissent from community-based advocacy organisations and abuse the advantages of incumbency (government advertising, corruption of Parliamentary question time, rorting of grants, changing disclosure rules on corporate and other private donations etc.)? In short will he continue to dangerously centralise power in the Executive and especially the Prime Minister and his office and control the flow of information and misinformation?

Gee that’s a powerful paragraph sketching a despicable portrait of suburban solicitor John Winston Howard’s time as Prime Minister of Australia. A heap more could be added in that vein as well.

Howard defenders would hate that.

All of the things mentioned above acquire an air of acceptance amongst Howard defenders, because those things are designed to keep the Coalition in power. Strange how we let past some things, and rise up against others, in our pollies.

I question whether the general public give much of a toss about anything in that paragraph, however. I don’t think those are the talking points over cups of tea or glasses of beer, as to why the Coalition has gone off.

The three points Dennis raises in the earlier post…

The skinny is: The formula relies on three indicators – the unemployment rate, inflation and interest rates. If two or more of these rise over a full, three-year electoral cycle, the government will lose. Conversely, if two or more fall the government will be returned.

…have been well noted at times, for instance, in the MSM, and dissected at length in blogs.

Apart from economic reasons within a Government, I wonder what causes a government to make decisions affecting these things, and whether the effect in the public can be just as real if it’s a perceived effect, at least to some extent.

Noted earlier was the desire to stay in power. This can cause a government, as we’ve seen with this one, to make policy decisions based not upon the need to serve the nation, but serve themselves.

Not to labour that point, but to look at the simple basis for election – that a government represents the people – and wonder if the tip of a myriad of tentacles touching the dispassionate public signals the same thing, when a government loses the support of the public, which when read by the punters says “they’re not representing me”.

The trappings of office must be incredibly persuasive upon the human frailty. To make decisions which lose sight of that simple edict of representing the people must come as incrementally more easy as do those trappings persuade the MP they are entitled to do so.

I think the public have a me-meter which extends beyond economics and into that core edict, and it registers changes even as they may not consciously know it or know it sufficiently to articulate it. At a guess, in time they turn around and the meters hovering into the red, and that’s when the time for change is personally entertained. Looking around, people find others’ me-meters are hovering the same way, and confidence in a possible change gains momentum. Obviously this is picked up by polling, and can gather its own momentum.

Where Howard is so deadly is that he is attuned to me-meters within the public; we know he is dangerous enough to gut the office completely for the sake of a win, and the question is if he does, whether the public me-meters having been temporarily reset by him is good enough.

This election then is about a realisation of what we’ve become, which path and how far into the future we’re looking, and perhaps over-riden entirely by whether the me-meters have been permanently put off the incumbents.

Paul Martin
16 years ago

On paper, policies might look similar, but over time the electorate has seen Howard and his mates to be the lying and uncaring bastards they always were. For example, mandatory detention laws were passed by a Labor government, but it was a conservative government that took those laws to the extreme and then extended them to a degree that was unimaginable ten years ago.

The biggest difference between the two major sides of politics is that Labor has good intents but gets corrupted by power, whereas the Liberals are corrupt to begin with (and never have any intention of doing good for the little guy). They’ll say anything to get into and stay into power, and basically try to paint themselves as being like the Labor Party at election time, but in reality end up being more closely aligned to the fascists.

16 years ago

More likely ‘The feeling might be lets giive the others a go.’ As you point out the actual differences in policy are mostly imaginary rather than real. Govts suffer eventually from the inexorable memory bank buildup of their failures, backflips and spin, which we remeber over time, whereas the same history of Opposition is wiped clean regularly with the new hopeful. You only have to listen to the regular list of whinges about the Howard Govt, but who remembers or cares about troops home by Xmas, rollback, Medicare Gold, or coastguards to stop the boat arrivals? That’s the crux of it and the same reason why eventually the electorates will get sick of Labor State Govts, irrespective of the real merits of their opponents. As Howard has shown, patience is a great virtue in politics, over the long haul.

Bring Back CL's blog
Bring Back CL's blog
16 years ago

tut tut,

Howard was never a suburban solictor. He was generously given a job in 1961 in a plush firm of whom one of the partnets was one Stan Howard.
He later joined a smalller firm so he could continue his liberal party adminstration duties. This paid off when he beat the favourite Peter Coleman to replace the retirng John Cramer as member of Bennelong.

Who do you think you are David Barnett!!

16 years ago

Hi Homer, thanks for the info. Probably misleading, my comment was more about the perception the public had of Howard upon gaining the job, and how devastatingly wrong that perception was. The perception of Howard as everyman or the ‘suburban solicitor made good’ lingered long into his tenure, taking, surely, WorkChoices being rammed through parliament unheralded to wake people up to what he really is. This goes to the issue of trust as in Fred’s post.

Bring Back CL's blog
Bring Back CL's blog
16 years ago

for possibly the only time I agree with Malcolm McKerras.

Hubris got to Howard and then stubbornnness on introducing wrok Choices and then continuing it.

The howard of previous years would have jettisonned yonks ago