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.