Parties prepare arsenal for jobs war

With three elections coming up and all the talk of jobs, jobs jobs, both major parties will engage in negative campaigning and try to pin the blame for unemployment on their opponent.

If you’re not yet tired of hearing about Australian jobs, you soon will be. Now the Western Australian Senate election re-run and two state electioncampaigns are under way, with several campaign launches taking place last week and on the weekend, voters are going to be inundated with allegations, innuendo and selective truths about which party is the greater job-wrecker.

Job security – or its proxy, economic management – consistently rates as one of the most important issues to Australian voters. And it’s a time-honoured rule of political communication that voters are more likely to believe a politician saying something negative about their opponent than something positive about themselves. That’s why negative campaigning is so effective.

So these elections will feature party messages about job creation, but the predominant narrative will be that the other lot will put your job at risk.

Granted, it’s not hard to evoke job anxiety in the current economic climate. The resources boom has finally come off the boil, the broader business sector is rationalising (read: laying people off) as the economy contracts, and thousands of job losses have been announced or occurred before and after the election of the Abbott Government. This has left the nation with the highest unemployment rate in more than a decade, which may go even higher if Treasury forecasts are accurate.

The two states going to the polls on March 15 currently have the nation’s highest unemployment rates(Tasmania 7.6 per cent and South Australia 6.6 per cent), while the state going back for a new Senate election has the lowest (5.1 per cent). So for quite different reasons, none of the voters in those states will likely be enamoured with a party that destroys jobs or prevents them from being created.

Yet that is the contention the major parties will attempt to pin on each other. Abbott will blame the carbon tax, mining tax, the renewable energy target, unnecessarily burdensome regulation (aka red and green tape), the unions and bad economic management by Labor. Shorten will say Abbott’s in the thrall of big business, making plans to strip away workers’ pay and conditions while throwing hard-earned taxpayers dollars at wealthy superannuants and executive mummies.

The outcome of the state elections is neither here nor there for Abbott. If Labor manages to retain either of the governments, it can do little more than be a minor irritant at COAG and slow down what is already a glacial pace of reform through that entity. Labor states could of course stymie any attempt to raise the GST – which needs the agreement of all states and territories to change the legislation – but it’s reasonably safe to assume Abbott won’t attempt that reform during this term.

The WA Senate election re-run is another matter. The fresh election brings with it new candidates, new preference deals and probably even new parties. It also provides WA voters with the opportunity to lodge the ultimate protest vote by potentially affecting the prospects of the Abbott Government’s signature reforms like the carbon tax, mining tax, Direct Action and Paid Parental Leave.

The voters of Tasmania and South Australia may rally against the Coalition because of jobs lost, but the comfortably prosperous in WA may lash out at Abbott’s Senate team because of concerns their jobs are under threat. It’s therefore no surprise the Coalition is already framing the Senate election re-run as a pseudo state election to elect “a strong Western Australia Liberal team … to get the best outcomes for Western Australia” rather than one that determines who holds the balance of power in the Senate.

Labor essentially created the unemployment bogeyman in 2007 when it, ably assisted by the ACTU, whipped job security concerns to a near frenzy when campaigning against PM John Howard’s WorkChoices. PM Kevin Rudd managed to avoid the lumbering monster during the GFC with an economic stimulus package aimed at keeping and creating jobs. Yet a darker aspect of job anxiety, which had existed since the Howard years, rose again with demands for PM Julia Gillard to place limits on foreign workers and to stop the boats.

And now the jobs war has turned full circle, with the Coalition Government placing job losses squarely at the feet of the Labor Party and a union movement that it intends to demoralise completely.

If the major parties’ state and WA Senate campaigns go to plan, we may see the proportion of people with job anxiety rise from the current level of 55 per cent to something closer to the 67 per cent who were concerned about job security in April 2009 during the GFC.

Will the parties be concerned about the heightened state of anxiety among Australian voters, or will they see it merely as a means to an end? It would pay both sides to consider the collateral damage that’s starting to pile up.