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.