Flicking the switch from opposition to alternative government

In the absence of a compelling leader or a sufficiently self-destructive government, Labor is now taking the only option left to make itself competitive at the next election – policy differentiation.

It’s taken a while to sink in, but Labor appears to have finally worked out that it can’t depend on an accident-prone and self-absorbed Prime Minster to hand it government at the next federal election.

Thanks almost entirely to the Abbott Government’s badly misjudged first budget, the Opposition has until recently had a dream run in the opinion polls with a campaign focussing on fairness. According to Newspoll, Labor has almost consistently held an election-winning lead since December 2013.

However, the second Abbott budget is less obviously unfair than its predecessor, and the PM is doing whatever it takes to improve his own approval ratings. As a result, Labor has to find other ways to remain attractive to voters.

It would be an understatement to say Labor leader Bill Shorten hasn’t been particularly successful in mimicking the negativism that made Tony Abbott so successful as Opposition Leader. In fact, all Shorten has succeeded in doing is making himself similar to Abbott in the eyes of voters.

According to the latest Essential Poll, Abbott is unsurprisingly seen to be worse than Shorten on a range of leadership “attributes” such as narrow-mindedness, intolerance, arrogance, aggression and being out of touch with ordinary people. Yet the two men are considered to be about the same on other characteristics such as the extent to which they are more honest than other politicians, and whether they’re trustworthy, hard working, or capable.

On the last measure, the 13-point gap between the two men in February has been closed to just three points, and Abbott has retaken the lead as preferred PM in all of the published opinion polls.

In the absence of a compelling leader or a sufficiently self-destructive government, Labor is now taking the only option left to make itself competitive at the next election – policy differentiation. Yet as the annals of modern Australian political history show, this is a much more risky approach.

Ever since Liberal leader John Hewson took the detailed policy manifesto Fightback! to the 1993 federal election, and was beaten to a pulp with it by PM Paul Keating, opposition leaders have been reluctant to divulge policy detail before an election. This “small target” approach makes it more difficult for the government of the day to attack the opposition, but it also makes it harder for voters to discern what the opposition stands for.

A small target strategy is most effective when voters are looking for any reason to toss out the incumbent, such as in the recent state election in Queensland. Other than such times, voters tend to stick with the devil they know, and particularly if they still have bad memories of the last time the opposition was in government.

In those instances, an opposition must release enough policy detail to show they’ve changed, but not enough to scare off the voters who prefer the status quo.

Former Labor leader Kevin Rudd wrote the rule book on this approach in 2007, when he aligned with so many of the Howard government’s policies that he was accused of running a “me too” campaign. One political commentator at the time explained this as Rudd positioning himself close to PM Howard “on all those issues where the Liberals have the advantage and differentiating himself only on those issues where Labor has the advantage“.

As a result, Rudd was seen as the “other” safe pair of hands, but also the candidate that offered ratification of Kyoto, the scrapping of WorkChoices, and a different approach to asylum seekers. This was enough to convince voters to abandon Howard, who they had backed as the status quo option for more than a decade but had come to view as no longer having the best interests of Australians at heart.

Considering the current Labor leader was instrumental in the leadership coup that unseated PM Ruddless than three years later, it’s not without some irony that the Rudd approach is now being explored by Shorten and his team.

Labor is sticking to the Government on the issues where the Coalition has the advantage, particularly (and controversially) national security and asylum seekers. The Opposition supports the Government’s small business package, and even flagged that it will support a move to scrap a small tax cut (which would have modestly increased the tax-free threshold) that was supposed to occur this year as part of the carbon tax compensation package.

This latter move is particularly smart for Labor, which continues to suffer from a reputation for profligacy and economic incompetence. Shadow treasurer Chris Bowen took a step towards repairing that reputation by acknowledging on the weekend that “Labor had taken the ‘responsible view’ that the tax cuts were no longer appropriate” and “given the state of the budget deficit, the responsible thing for Labor to do is to give its support”.

The political challenge for Shorten and Labor is to successfully identify and prosecute the points of policy differentiation with the Abbott Government.

Rudd stuck to a few key points, for clarity and memorability, and Shorten would be advised to do the same. So far, the current Labor leader has set his party apart from the Government by taking a contrasting position on the tax treatment of superannuation and multinational corporations, and policies where Labor has a natural advantage such as marriage equality and climate action.

The potential spoiler will be Labor’s national conference next month. Debates on marriage equality and asylum seeker boat turn-backs could confuse the points of comparison between Labor and the Coalition, making it less easy for voters to differentiate between the two. Invariably in such cases of confusion, voters default to the devil they know.

As this writer pointed out a fortnight ago, political negativity is easier and can be considerably effective, but Shorten seems to be incapable of doing it well. And in reality, all voters really want is a competent, responsible government. With the next federal election only a year away, Labor’s best bet may be to flick the switch from being an ineffectual opposition to becoming a compelling alternative government.