The battle for trust begins – Round 1: the budget

The party that proves the best at juggling economic prowess with fairness will enjoy almost certain electoral victory. The Coalition faces its first test next week.

Having received a refreshed double dissolution trigger from the Senate last week, the Turnbull Government has a mere two months to reassert the Coalition’s traditional economic superiority over the Labor Opposition.

This is necessary if the Government is to be re-elected on July 2. Economic management is one of the top issues that voters say influences who they choose to support on polling day.

However, that’s not to say it’s the only electorally influential issue – health, jobs, a fair tax system, housing affordability and education are also high on the list.

When Malcolm Turnbull became Prime Minister a bit over six months ago, he technically had up to a year to sell voters his vision and plan for Australia before having to face the polls at a traditional election towards the end of this year. In choosing to flush out the Senate with a double dissolution election, the PM shortened that timeframe by several crucial months. July 2 was one of the latest dates by which the DD election could be called.

The tighter timeframe might not have been an issue if Turnbull had not squandered much of the period by leaving policy options “on the table” only to rule them out later. Such was the fate of a mooted GST increase, income tax powers for the states and most recently cuts to negative gearing.

The PM might argue that such kite flying is part of having a grown up policy discussion with voters, and necessarily involves keeping options open until one is chosen.

However the traditional, and considerably more tidy process for floating policy options – a green paper to elicit community views and a white paper to detail the final Government position – was jettisoned by Turnbull and Treasurer Scott Morrison soon after they took on their new roles.

Accordingly, voters might see the PM as having a vision for Australia – even if it’s only a vague notion of it being something about innovation and there never having been a more exciting time – but may still have little or no idea what his Government stands for beyond that.

The Opposition has wasted no time filling any such perception vacuum, bombarding voters with the message that Turnbull is a willing human shield, deliberately positioned between possibly corrupt corporates and Labor’s efforts to make the top end of town pay more.

Its call for a royal commission into the banking sector is part of that strategy, even requiring a neat backflip on the party’s previous opposition to holding such an inquiry.

It’s no surprise then that even though voters perceive the Government and Opposition as being quite similar on a range of attributes, the two are considered to be worlds apart when it comes to being too close to big business (Coalition 27 percentage points ahead of Labor) and looking out for the interests of working people (Labor 19 points ahead of the Coalition).

The net result of the PM’s policy meanderings combined with Labor’s tar and feather campaign is that next week’s budget has been set an impossible task.

Perceived competence will undoubtedly weigh heavily on voters’ minds when they make their selection on polling day. However, that attribute will also be assessed against perceptions of fairness.

Firstly, the budget must be economically responsible enough to satisfy the financial markets and economics writers, whose endorsement will be taken by voters as confirmation of the new Government’s economic credentials.

But as we learned with the Abbott government’s first budget in 2014, this year’s economic statement must also be seen to be fair. Meeting this expectation is far more challenging than retaining an AAA rating because the measure of fairness is entirely in the eye of the beholder. Labor has managed to compound this difficulty by creating the perception that any such measure must include “making the wealthy pay more”.

Turnbull’s rookie Treasurer, Scott Morrison, has been charged with the tricky task of navigating this minefield, although he is ably assisted by a number of wise heads, such as the former Costello staffers in his office including Phil Gaetjens, who was also the head of treasury in NSW for four years.

However, the bulk of the budget sales task will fall to Morrison, as it does to every Treasurer, and will be the most challenging test yet of his political salesmanship skills.

It will be crucially important for the Treasurer to engender trust in as many voters as he can during the eight-week period between the budget and the election. Voters need to be confident that he knows what he’s doing and has the interests of all Australians at heart.

That’s why Morrison’s recent deviation into social commentary was a potential misstep for a fledgling Treasurer. Addressing the National Conference of the highly conservative Australia Christian Lobby on the weekend, the Treasurer argued that families must be “strong and functional” for “order in our society and the stability required for a productive and prosperous economy”.

But then he took a step beyond, claiming “all of this is put at risk” when families “fall apart and become dysfunctional”. The homily ended with a list of the “long-lasting negative impacts of divorce,” especially for women.

Voters from non-traditional families are unlikely to feel confident that a Treasurer with such an apparently binary view (marriage good/divorce bad) can produce a budget that is fair for all, regardless of one’s marital status.

Indulgences such as Morrison’s weekend speech also make the re-election task more difficult for the Prime Minister. Having unearthed the “who do you trust” meme from the 2004 federal election campaign, Turnbull would not welcome his Treasurer complicating that decision for voters.

The PM’s apparent preference is for the election to be a simple choice between him and Labor Leader Bill Shorten; a choice recently described by Deputy PM Barnaby Joyce as “between someone who has actually made a quid in their life, made a success in their life, which is Malcolm Turnbull, or the nation being run by Bill Shorten.”

Perceived competence will undoubtedly weigh heavily on voters’ minds when they make their selection on polling day. However, that attribute will also be assessed against perceptions of fairness.

Not only will next week’s budget be expected to strike a balance between the two, so will the entire election campaign. Accordingly, the leader who proves the best at juggling these often conflicting expectations will take his party to almost certain electoral victory on July 2.

Author: Drag0nista

Political columnist at The New Daily | Editor of Despatches & AusVotes 2019 | Author of On Merit, a book on the Liberals' *women problem*. Former Liberal staffer and industry lobbyist. Studying the entrails of federal politics since 1989.

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