Parties break the mould as we head for a topsy-turvy election campaign

Current indications suggest we’re heading for a topsy-turvey federal election, with the Government contorting itself into as small a target as possible while the Opposition strides purposefully into the field with its policies unfurled.

This is not the approach we’ve become accustomed to in recent years, and it’s difficult to predict how voters will respond.

Until recently it had been customary for oppositions to run small target election campaigns. Ever since Kevin Rudd ran a me-too small target strategy to unseat John Howard, oppositions have focused predominantly on attacking the government of the day and said as little as possible about their own policies to limit the damage from government retaliation.

Tony Abbott took small target campaigning to its apogee in 2013, offering voters little more than the broad commitment to stop the boats, scrap the carbon tax, and repair the budget.

Voters had no idea how an Abbott administration would do these things, essentially taking the opposition leader at his word. In turn, Abbott took this acquiescence to mean he had a mandate to establish a brutal offshore detention regime for asylum seekers, dismantle the Gillard government’s climate action apparatus, and bring down a slash-and-burn budget.

Voters belatedly threw their hands up in horror, protesting that this was not the Abbott government they expected. When it became increasingly clear that Malcolm Turnbull was offering a kinder, gentler alternative – albeit one that also lacked detail – voters essentially threw themselves at the more attractive suitor. Turnbull then rode that wave of unquestioning adoration to the Lodge.

Abbott’s lack of detail may have masked his true agenda, but the continuing absence of information from Turnbull is encouraging us to suspect he doesn’t have an agenda at all.

This seems particularly to be the case now the Government’s foray into tax reform has been summarily derailed by Labor’s Abbott-like campaign against the GST as the “great big tax on everything”.

Having already eschewed the usual government process for developing major policy – a green paper identifying the options, consultation with affected members of the community, and then a white paper detailing the resulting policy position – the PM and his Treasurer now risk being seen to have no coherent framework for tax reform and therefore to be plucking random tax proposals out of thin air.

Without the backing of the weighty Treasury analysis usually produced in the green/white paper process, Turnbull and Morrison are now exposed to niche analysis such as that produced by the plethora of think tanks commissioned to bolster the case of different political interests.

A case in point is research from the left-wing think tank, the Australia Institute, which reportedly shows wealthy men would disproportionately benefit from the tax cut apparently being considered by the Government to stop higher-income taxpayers moving into the next tax bracket.

This finding is hardly surprising, given that men are disproportionately represented in higher income brackets. What will be interesting is how the PM defends his Government against what amounts to an accusation of gendered bias.

Even more interesting will be what happens next. If Labor is able to use its anti-GST campaigning blowtorch to the same effect on bracket creep tax cuts, or what appears to be the Government’s preferred approach to rein in negative gearing, will the PM beat yet another hasty retreat when the opinion polls get tough? It’s difficult not to discern such a connection exists, given the Government’s GST retreat followed a (not entirely unexpected) drop in its opinion poll standing.

Today’s Newspoll confirms the downward trend marked last week by other opinion polls, in both the Government’s primary vote and Turnbull’s approval rating.

Granted, the polls are still not rating Opposition leader Bill Shorten as a viable alternative prime minister. But that may not matter given voters elect parties, not prime ministers, and Shorten’s party appears to be returning to a competitive position with the Coalition.

If the rumours are true, and the Government is not just posturing to increase pressure on an uncooperative Senate crossbench, a double dissolution election in early July would be doubly tempting for Turnbull. If the Greens support the Government’s proposed Senate voting reforms, a July double dissolution election would likely clean out the micro parties from the Senate, potentially making it easier to pass legislation.

An election campaign from the day after the budget until polling day in early July would also provide the Government with a convenient excuse to produce only the detail-light policies that are waved about during election campaigns, which are much harder for opponents to dissect and criticise.

In effect, a DD election in July would provide the platform for Turnbull to run a small target campaign.

Conversely, Labor has thrown caution to the wind and already released a swathe of policies, handing the Government an opportunity to poach the policies it likes and criticise the ones it doesn’t.

Numbering almost 20 to date, Labor’s policies lack an economic framework, but still appear coherent because they are tied together with one narrative thread: taking from the wealthy to help the less well off.

As always, the success or failure of Labor’s narrative, and the Government’s apparent lack thereof, will be determined by middle Australia, the outskirts of suburbia where the vast majority of voters reside.

If these voters see themselves among the “wealthy” being targeted by Labor, or if they aspire to one day be that wealthy, then the Opposition’s approach will have backfired.

However, that same group of voters may also be doubly sceptical of any small target election campaign being run by the Turnbull Government. Having been let down by Abbott, they might not be prepared to give a similarly policy-light Turnbull the benefit of the doubt.

No matter how topsy-turvey the parties’ campaign approaches are, voters will remain steadfast. As they have done in the past, voters will opt for the party they think will do the best job managing the economy, creating jobs, and providing quality health and education services.

Time for a Turnbull reset

Against the backdrop of an opinion poll today and several over the past fortnight suggesting the gloss has started to come off Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, the PM could benefit from using last week’s dumping of the GST increase and the weekend’s ministry reshuffle to reframe the Government and reset his re-election strategy.

Most of the polling organisations are back in the field since the summer break and have published at least one poll since then. Overall the surveys show the Coalition Government remains in an election-winning position but voters appear to be less thrilled with PM Turnbull than they once were.

On February 1 Newspoll reported the major parties’ primary vote had increased since December but there was no change in the overall two party preferred vote (Coalition 53 per cent to Labor 47 per cent). Just over a week later the Essential Poll found a slight drop in the Coalition’s vote but no change in the 2PP (51:49).

The same day the Morgan Poll reported no change in the Coalition’s primary vote, but slight increases in Labor’s vote and that of the Greens, which resulted in the Coalition losing 2.5 percentage points after the allocation of preferences.

Meanwhile, late last week, ReachTEL saw the Coalition drop slightly and Labor increase slightly in both primary and 2PP votes, with support after the allocation of preferences at 54 per cent for the Coalition and 46 per cent for Labor.

However, the change in Turnbull’s personal support has been more marked over the same period.

Newspoll noted a drop in the PM’s approval rating of eight points to 52 per cent from November to December, which has barely moved since then. Essential claims Turnbull’s satisfaction rating has dropped five points over the same period, to 51 per cent. And the ReachTEL poll conducted four days ago found voters’ satisfaction with the PM dropped from 53.6 per cent in January to 39.2 per cent.

Today’s Ipsos poll suggests something similar, reporting Turnbull’s approval rating has dropped 7 points since November to 62 per cent. Ipsos also records the biggest change yet in the parties’ primary vote over the period, with the Coalition dropping four points to 44 per cent since November and Labor increasing by three points to 32 per cent. After the allocation of preferences, this leaves the Coalition ahead of Labor at 52:48 per cent.

It’s unsurprising Turnbull’s star appears to have reached the apex of its trajectory given only two other prime ministers (Hawke and Rudd) achieved such popularity, and both men ultimately crashed back to earth.

What is less clear is why some voters appear to be having second thoughts about Turnbull.

Is it simply that the electorate has recovered from the initial relief that Tony Abbott is no longer PM and begun to apply scrutiny to the new guy? Or is there a concern developing that the new administration is not living up to the heightened expectations created by the switch away from Abbott?

There is some evidence to suggest the latter, considering the Government has fallen short of the “economic competency” rhetoric used by Turnbull in his leadership pitch against Abbott, including the commitment to have an adult discussion with voters about the reforms needed to repair the economy.

The manifestation of that commitment was the PM and Treasurer’s subsequent refusal to rule out any economic reform options, leaving the Government exposed to what appears to have been a successful GST scare campaign from the Opposition.

Having promised a considered dialogue on economic repair as the nation leisurely strolled towards a national election at year’s end, the tax reform conversation was instead cut off mere weeks into the election year. This left the business community questioning the Government’s fortitude and voters wondering whether the dreaded tax (increase) was truly dead or simply resting.

Shattered voter expectations and lingering suspicions are demonstrably electoral poison; the Rudd, Gillard and even Abbott experiences attest to that political reality.

This is why Labor is playing heavily on the line that Turnbull has abandoned his progressive principles to placate the conservative forces within the Government and thereby save his political skin. The Opposition senses that expectations of progressives flirting with the idea of voting for Turnbull could be the PM’s Achilles heel if he is judged to be wanting.

Accordingly, the PM must now reset voter expectations if he is to maintain the Coalition’s still-healthy lead over Labor.

The Government still benefits from a tendency by voters to see Labor as economic spendthrifts, although the Opposition is trying to neutralise that bias with revenue-raising policies that tap into anti-corporate sentiment within their voting base. Labor’s new policy on negative gearing is also tailored for the same audience, which is resentful of cashed up boomers pricing younger generations out of the housing market.

A cohesive economic reform argument is needed from the Government to prevent Labor’s us-versus-them revenue measures from getting political traction.

Conventional political thinking sees the upcoming May budget as the time for the Government to set out that argument, moving soon afterwards to call a full-term election for September or October.

But with the abandonment of the GST increase, and there no longer being an attendant need for a lengthy lead-up to the election in order to sell the change to voters, other election timing options become more viable.

This could include postponing the budget and calling a double dissolution election in May for early July, although as the ABC’s Antony Green explains, this would require a longer than usual election campaign.

The benefit of such an approach would be to clean out the independents and minor party MPs from the Senate, made possible by the Greens agreeing over the weekend to support the Government’s proposed Senate voting reforms.

A double dissolution election with the new Senate voting arrangements would likely see more Greens elected to the upper house, but Turnbull could view this as preferable to the existing fractured crossbench, particularly given the Greens’ new pragmatism and willingness to work with the Government on some issues.

A fresh Senate could therefore pave the way for a completely different, dare we say innovative, Government policy agenda.

With new election timing options, a new ministry and a new economic agenda by virtue of it now excluding major tax reform, Malcolm Turnbull has a one-off (if not entirely deserved) opportunity to reinvent his government, re-set voter expectations, and deliver policies that meet them.

However, he must do so while juggling the potentially troublesome ascendancy of the Nationals within the ministry, led by the mercurial Deputy Prime Minister, Barnaby Joyce. Turnbull must also deal with the ongoing subversive agitations of the Abbott camp, which will no doubt welcome every downward blip in the Government’s standing as measured by the published opinion polls.

Could ditching a GST rise actually hurt Turnbull?

Displaying the same type of agility he’s recommended to the rest of the nation, yesterday Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull simultaneously bowed to popular opinion while dancing nimbly away from the unpopular proposal to increase the goods and services tax.

Turnbull telegraphed his abandonment of the GST increase on Friday, saying his consideration of the matter was guided by three stipulations: the overall tax burden would not increase, the changes were “rigorously” and “absolutely” fair, and it would “drive jobs and growth”.

Having created the context for retreat, the PM then declared on Sunday:

At this stage I remain to be convinced or persuaded that a tax mix switch of that kind would actually give us the economic benefit you’d want in order to do such a big thing.

Even though the PM argued that any final decision would be made by the Cabinet, his statement pretty much relegated any GST increase to the “dead, buried, cremated” folder, at least until after the election.

Turnbull deliberately tried to frame this decision as being about the effectiveness of the policy proposal, to fend off accusations that the politics got the better of him.

Telling his interviewer on Sunday: “You have got to first decide: is this policy going to give you the economic outcome you want? Then you have to assess the practical politics.”

Turnbull argued the GST income tax swap proposal had not yet passed the first test. We are meant to infer that the political dimension had not even come into his consideration.

Yet no matter how much he might protest otherwise, the attempt by this Coalition Government to increase the GST has always been about politics as well as economics.

The business community, which is exempt from the tax, sees an increase in the GST as a magic bullet that will “painlessly” raise the money for the corporate tax cut it claims is the way to “boost productivity”. The sector has worked through its lobby groups and corporate flaks to increase political pressure for the change.

Most state and territory governments have buckled under the Federal Government’s political extortion efforts, acceding to the proposed GST increase as the only way to restore Commonwealth funding for health and education.

And then there is the Coalition itself, for which the GST is a totemic political issue after John Howard took it to an election and still managed to win. There remains a belief within Coalition circles, although perhaps an ill-founded one, that close adoption of the Howard approach would deliver a similar outcome for the current regime.

However, it seems the faith of Howard acolytes has been shaken by the Abbott-like anti-tax campaign being run by the Labor Opposition. For surely, in voters’ minds at least, one great big tax is as bad as another.

There are also some Coalition MPs, like Turnbull supporter Russell Broadbent, who vividly remember that Howard’s GST election “win”involved the loss of 18 Coalition seats.

To paraphrase another Australian prime minister, politics may not have been the whole reason for Turnbull’s retreat on the GST, but it was certainly a factor.

Labor will certainly claim Turnbull’s abandonment of the GST increase as a win, and have already laid the groundwork for it to be depicted as an embarrassing backdown for the PM.

Shadow Treasurer Chris Bowen was quick off the blocks yesterday, saying the PM was in a “muddle” on GST, didn’t have the political backbone to back the policy, and if he didn’t “proceed with increasing the GST, which we all know he wants to do, it will be humiliating for Malcolm Turnbull”.

It’s also likely the Opposition will try to confect a schism between the PM and his Treasurer, who appeared to be gung-ho on the GST increase until as recently as a week ago.

However, the most damaging criticism that Labor will level at the PM is that his GST backdown is yet another example of Turnbull abandoning his principles to mollify detractors within the Coalition parties.

This line of attack is reportedly one of three being rolled out by Labor in the lead up to this year’s federal election.

The Opposition hopes to win back “soft” Labor voters attracted to Turnbull’s progressive views, and who have tentatively switched their vote to the Coalition, by casting doubt on the PM’s willingness or ability to stand up to his conservative colleagues and deliver on those views.

The tactic was given its first major outing on the first day of Parliament when the Opposition moved immediately to suspend all other parliamentary business to give the PM the opportunity to reaffirm his commitment to matters of principle that he’d previously supported, such as an emissions trading scheme, marriage equality and a republic.

The Government unsurprisingly shut down the debate, providing Labor with the justification to argue Turnbull doesn’t have the “ticker” to pursue the matters he believes in. That sentiment was echoed in Bowen’s weekend comment that the PM doesn’t have the political backbone to defend the GST increase.

Even so, being accused of political cowardice over the GST may turn out to be the least of the PM’s concerns. Much more devastating are the ancillary questions that have started to emerge: If Turnbull doesn’t stand for emissions trading, marriage equality, the republic, or a GST increase, what does he stand for? And if he stands for offshore detention, cuts to health and education funding, and a plebiscite on same-sex marriage, why did the Liberals bother changing leaders in the first place?

As one media commentator has already opined: “What is the point of Malcolm Turnbull, Prime Minister?”

This is a question Turnbull cannot afford to become a mainstream preoccupation, given much of his appeal is currently vested in not being Tony Abbott.

The ploys are back in town as Parliament resumes

Federal Parliament resumes this week and the slow drip of opinion polls over the summer break will again become a torrent as the polity gears up for the election year.

Today’s Newspoll, the first for 2016, suggests voters hit the pause button over Christmas, with political views not changing perceptibly since the end of last year.

The Coalition Government remains comfortably ahead, at 53-47 in two-party preferred terms, even managing a slight increase in its primary vote (up one point to 46 per cent) despite the Jamie Briggs resignation in late December.

Support for the Opposition has also held up, with Labor’s primary vote increasing by one point to 34 per cent.

Even more encouraging for the alternative government is that its leader, Bill Shorten, has bounced back from his dismal preferred prime minister ratings. However, despite gaining six points since the previous Newspoll on this measure – and Malcolm Turnbull dropping one point – Shorten’s support in the prime ministerial stakes remains 39 points behind Turnbull at 59-20.

Newspoll, rightly or wrongly considered the most “influential” of the nation’s opinion polls, also canvassed voter views on a hypothetical increase to the current goods and services tax. Even if accompanied by tax cuts and compensation, a GST increase was opposed by 54 per cent of respondents compared with 37 per cent who supported such a move.

Compared with other public pollsters that have been tracking the issue, the Newspoll result suggests opposition to the GST increase is growing. The Ipsos Poll reported in November that 52 per cent of respondents supported (and 41 per cent opposed) a GST increase accompanied by tax cuts and compensation. And an Essential Poll in July found 38 per cent in favour of an increase, with 42 per cent against.

If new iterations of these polls also identify an increase in opposition to a GST hike, Labor will consider its anti-GST campaign to be a potential election winner. Accordingly, Shorten wielding lettuces in a supermarket near you will become as ubiquitous as Tony Abbott in a high-vis vest during his campaign against the carbon tax.

In fact, this first stanza of the election year will be characterised by political parties trialling election strategies to see which have traction with voters and which are a waste of precious campaign funds.

As in most other elections, the strategies will be based on the issues that are of most concern to voters: good economic management, jobs, education and health.

On the economic front, Labor is focussing on tax – increasing some, such as the tax on tobacco; closing loopholes that corporates use to minimise tax; reducing tax concessions for the well off; and opposing changes to the GST.

However, as the year progresses, the Opposition will face increasing pressure to demonstrate that its plan for economic repair involves more than changing a few imposts.

Labor will be hoping to offset any concerns about the party’s economic competency with social policies – particularly on education and health – that align with voters’ priorities.

The re-commitment of funds to implement the final two years of the Gonski plan announced last week by Labor should shore up the party’s traditionally strong credentials in this area. So should the health policy reportedly due to be announced soon.

However, it doesn’t help Labor to have one of its own questioning where the money’s coming from.

Even though industrial relations doesn’t appear to be a high priority issue for many voters, with only 8 per cent nominating it as such in November last year, the major parties have elected to make it a campaign battleground.

The Coalition, particularly during Abbott’s time as leader, has been intent on crippling the vast and cashed up campaign capability the union movement has developed in recent times.

This on-the-ground expertise was deployed with lethal effect in the Victorian and Queensland elections, overturning Coalition governments in those states. The ACTU has also flagged it will “launch an online war” during this year’s federal election, with online activism being part of the union movement’s frontline campaign.

Abbott aimed to pre-emptively strike against this capability by destroying the credibility of the labour movement through the royal commission into union corruption, and smear Labor by association with proposed “union reform” legislation that the Opposition would have no choice but to reject.

Incidentally, that legislation will be reintroduced to Parliament this week, ostensibly setting up a new double dissolution trigger, although the likelihood of a DD election is considerably slim.

For their part, Labor has opted to stare down the Coalition on IR, matching the Government’s vaunted plans to crack down on dodgy unions with their own legislation to clean up unscrupulous employers. Tied in with the Opposition’s depiction of big business as tax dodgers, as well as allusions to the Prime Minister’s personal wealth, Labor is counting on the Coalition being hurt more by its close association to corporates than the ALP is to unions.

Industrial relations aside, the Coalition’s main election strategy will centre on repairing the economy, not only because it needs to be done but because economic competency is one of Labor’s weaker suits.

But as today’s Newspoll suggests, the Government has a long way to go before convincing voters that an increase to the GST is a necessary part of the economy’s renovation.

Ultimately, voters will go with the party they think will do the right thing – for the economy as well as the community. As a result, trialling election strategies this year will be as much about building trust as proving policy competence.