Weekly column for The New Daily.
Tony Abbott has more to lose from the Canning by-election outcome than Bill Shorten, but both men have stooped to either whipping up foreigner-anxiety or appeasing xenophobia in order to maximise their party’s vote.
The Political Weekly: Voters are more likely to believe a politician if they say something negative about their opponent than if they say something positive about themselves.
With the Canning by-election campaign ramping up, Tony Abbott’s decision to visit Indigenous communities now muddies a narrative that should be built around jobs and the economy.
The Political Weekly: Coalition in-fighting, Julie Bishop’s tactical move and cries of racism.
While the parties vie with each other to favourably spin the results of the weekend’s state elections – where one Labor government was routed and another may yet cling to victory – one clear lesson is the Greens can become collateral damage when elections are fought over jobs.
For whether the results are attributed to local issues or national ones, seen as a message for the Prime Minister or the Opposition Leader, or simply a matter of a government’s time being up (or not), both election outcomes were predominantly about jobs, or lack thereof.
Protection and growth of employment prospects was always going to be a pivotal issue in both campaigns. Tasmania and South Australia have the nation’s highest unemployment rates, and the apple isle also has the lowest weekly wage. Job insecurity is high across Australia and jobs have become the major parties’ chosen battleground.
So the two considerably divergent election outcomes could generally be explained as being due to local issues, but more specifically the result of voters holding certain parties to account for the poor state of employment.
If there’s a message that Prime Minister Tony Abbott should take from the South Australian election outcome it’s that SA voters don’t take lightly to their slightly dodgy but still famous car manufacturing industry being abandoned and then run out of town by the Federal Government.
Successive industry ministers have recognised over several decades that the perceived importance of car manufacturing jobs extends beyond the directly affected electorates. They threw money at the increasingly unviable industry not out of the goodness of their hearts but to hold off the dire electoral consequences. And now Abbott knows what it’s like to release that particular beast.
While the South Australian count is not yet concluded, there are enough trends evident in the vote counted so far to draw a few conclusions. The SA Liberals achieved a modest swing in their primary vote, but failed to draw a similar amount away from Labor in order to secure enough seats to form government. This suggests some of the 60 per cent of voters who thought the Liberals would win stayed with Labor in protest.
Granted, this protest vote may not have done as much damage if the South Australian Liberals had run a half decent marginal seats campaign, but that is another matter altogether.
Interestingly, according to the ballots counted so far, the Green vote in South Australia increased by almost half a per cent. This trend runs counter to the slew of state, territory and federal elections since 2010 where their vote dropped. The status quo vote for the Greens in South Australia suggests they were neither blamed nor particularly acclaimed for their contribution since the previous state election. For good or bad, the election was about the major parties and the Greens survived by keeping off the jobs radar.
In contrast, on the same day as the South Australian election, the Tasmanian Greens and one-time partners in a Labor minority government lost eight percentage points from their vote and three of their five seats in the state’s lower house.
Undoubtedly many factors combined to produce that result, but there’s no denying that jobs played a significant part. Abbott and the Tasmanian Liberals ran strong on reinvigorating the forestry industry; essentially putting jobs before the environment.
It’s clear from this strategy that the Liberals’ private market research showed voters were ready to seek retribution for what they perceived to be a weak Labor Party rolling over to the Greens’ environmental demands instead of protecting jobs. Labor’s vote dropped by about 10 per cent in the Tasmanian poll, thereby ceding majority government to the Liberals for the first time since the Groom Liberal government was elected in 1992.
If the Greens are perceived to be thwarting jobs in Western Australia they may suffer a similar fate to their Tasmanian colleagues in the WA Senate election re-run that will be held on April 5. Western Australia doesn’t face the same job pressures that bedevil South Australia and Tasmania, though the downturn in the mining boom would be causing some employment anxiety.
Additionally, the Australian Greens no longer have a power sharing arrangement with the incumbent federal government and cannot be held directly responsible for jobs in the way the Tasmanian Greens were.
Yet there’s no doubt the Abbott Government will assist WA voters in recalling that the Greens were responsible for Julia Gillard’s broken carbon tax vow and the “job destroying” impost that resulted from it. The Coalition will likely lay the mining tax at the Greens’ feet too, now that Shorten has conveniently blurred his stance on the failed profit sharing mechanism.
So while the Greens will be campaigning to be given a balance of power position in the Senate to keep the Abbott Government from the worst of its excesses, the Government will press for the Greens to be prevented from being able to block the repeal of “job destroying” laws. Meantime, Labor will quietly do its best to harvest votes away from the Greens with selective preference deals.
The Greens may believe that every time Abbott opens his mouth “the Green vote goes up“, but the opposite effect is more likely.
On April 5, a Greens Senator will be elected (or not) predominantly because of what WA voters perceive their party has done (or not) to protect and foster jobs in that state. Other factors such as climate change, asylum seekers, health, education and sharks may play a role, but it will simply come down to jobs.
If you’re not yet tired of hearing about Australian jobs, you soon will be. Now the Western Australian Senate election re-run and two state electioncampaigns are under way, with several campaign launches taking place last week and on the weekend, voters are going to be inundated with allegations, innuendo and selective truths about which party is the greater job-wrecker.
Job security – or its proxy, economic management – consistently rates as one of the most important issues to Australian voters. And it’s a time-honoured rule of political communication that voters are more likely to believe a politician saying something negative about their opponent than something positive about themselves. That’s why negative campaigning is so effective.
So these elections will feature party messages about job creation, but the predominant narrative will be that the other lot will put your job at risk.
Granted, it’s not hard to evoke job anxiety in the current economic climate. The resources boom has finally come off the boil, the broader business sector is rationalising (read: laying people off) as the economy contracts, and thousands of job losses have been announced or occurred before and after the election of the Abbott Government. This has left the nation with the highest unemployment rate in more than a decade, which may go even higher if Treasury forecasts are accurate.
The two states going to the polls on March 15 currently have the nation’s highest unemployment rates(Tasmania 7.6 per cent and South Australia 6.6 per cent), while the state going back for a new Senate election has the lowest (5.1 per cent). So for quite different reasons, none of the voters in those states will likely be enamoured with a party that destroys jobs or prevents them from being created.
Yet that is the contention the major parties will attempt to pin on each other. Abbott will blame the carbon tax, mining tax, the renewable energy target, unnecessarily burdensome regulation (aka red and green tape), the unions and bad economic management by Labor. Shorten will say Abbott’s in the thrall of big business, making plans to strip away workers’ pay and conditions while throwing hard-earned taxpayers dollars at wealthy superannuants and executive mummies.
The outcome of the state elections is neither here nor there for Abbott. If Labor manages to retain either of the governments, it can do little more than be a minor irritant at COAG and slow down what is already a glacial pace of reform through that entity. Labor states could of course stymie any attempt to raise the GST – which needs the agreement of all states and territories to change the legislation – but it’s reasonably safe to assume Abbott won’t attempt that reform during this term.
The WA Senate election re-run is another matter. The fresh election brings with it new candidates, new preference deals and probably even new parties. It also provides WA voters with the opportunity to lodge the ultimate protest vote by potentially affecting the prospects of the Abbott Government’s signature reforms like the carbon tax, mining tax, Direct Action and Paid Parental Leave.
The voters of Tasmania and South Australia may rally against the Coalition because of jobs lost, but the comfortably prosperous in WA may lash out at Abbott’s Senate team because of concerns their jobs are under threat. It’s therefore no surprise the Coalition is already framing the Senate election re-run as a pseudo state election to elect “a strong Western Australia Liberal team … to get the best outcomes for Western Australia” rather than one that determines who holds the balance of power in the Senate.
Labor essentially created the unemployment bogeyman in 2007 when it, ably assisted by the ACTU, whipped job security concerns to a near frenzy when campaigning against PM John Howard’s WorkChoices. PM Kevin Rudd managed to avoid the lumbering monster during the GFC with an economic stimulus package aimed at keeping and creating jobs. Yet a darker aspect of job anxiety, which had existed since the Howard years, rose again with demands for PM Julia Gillard to place limits on foreign workers and to stop the boats.
And now the jobs war has turned full circle, with the Coalition Government placing job losses squarely at the feet of the Labor Party and a union movement that it intends to demoralise completely.
If the major parties’ state and WA Senate campaigns go to plan, we may see the proportion of people with job anxiety rise from the current level of 55 per cent to something closer to the 67 per cent who were concerned about job security in April 2009 during the GFC.
Will the parties be concerned about the heightened state of anxiety among Australian voters, or will they see it merely as a means to an end? It would pay both sides to consider the collateral damage that’s starting to pile up.
ALP: Take a good look in the mirror. Latest post for The Hoopla.
Not one but three messages reverberated from the Abbott government’s cabinet decision yesterday to reject a request from iconic Australian fruit-processing company SPC Ardmona for $25 million assistance.*
Both Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane stated in no uncertain terms that the decision was a message for business that the days of government being a crutch for business were over. Labeled “an important marker” by Abbott and a “defining point” by Macfarlane, the rebuff signaled that industry restructuring should be led (and, by extension, resourced) by business alone.
Doing as much as possible to deflect any inferred responsibility for jobs lost through the decision, Abbott made a big play on the size, profitability and social conscience of SPC’s parent company, Coca-Cola Amatil. He expressed confidence that the multinational would do the right thing by the canning company and its workers.
And for the second time this week, the government also drew attention to the responsibility of companiesto strike wage agreements with unions that do not threaten their business’s sustainability over time. This is part of a strengthening government homily that companies must take more responsibility for their actions.
However, the big dose of tough love for the ever-demanding Australian business community will likely give little comfort to the recipients of the second message. Taken together, the Cadbury and SPC Ardmona decisions starkly tell voters one thing: some jobs are more equal than others.
Yesterday the Prime Minister rationalised the Coalition’s 2013 election campaign decision to support Cadbury with $16 million in assistance as development of “regional tourism infrastructure” and not simply propping up another struggling business. But at the time he seemed particularly focused on the continuing viability of Cadbury in Tasmania and the 200 jobs that the factory upgrade would add to state’s depressed economy.
The key to this apparent contradiction lies in votes – or more precisely seats in the federal parliament. The SPC Ardmona facility is nestled in the very safe Liberal seat of Murray, which Sharman Stone holds with a whopping two party preferred vote of 70.87 per cent. This healthy margin gives Stone some latitude to be a rebel at times, but it also means the Coalition can treat Murray’s voters with impunity without risking a backlash that bites. In fact the Abbott government could probably slay every first male child in the electorate and still retain the seat.
In contrast, the Cadbury factory is located in Andrew Wilkie’s Tasmanian seat of Denison, and is supplied by the dairy industry in the adjacent seat of Lyons. Not coincidentally, Liberal candidate Eric Hutchinson went on to take Lyons at the 2013 election from Labor’s big man Dick Adams with an almost 14 per cent (two party preferred) swing in his favour.
So the SPC Ardmona decision revealed that if you live in a marginal seat or one represented by a potentially influential independent MP, your job is important to the Coalition. Otherwise, not so much.
Finally, the decision not to protect the jobs of canners and, by extension, their fruit-producing suppliers, sent a decisive message to the Nationals: you can’t always get what you want.
Even though it remains perennially puzzling why this rural rump of agrarian socialists wields greater influence on Coalition decisions than its total vote or number of seats in parliament, they continue to do so. Most recently they were successful in convincing Treasurer Hockey to reject the $3.4 billion foreign takeover bid by US agriculture giant Archer Daniels Midland for local grain-handler GrainCorp. The “national interest” grounds on which he did so were spurious at best and sent a ripple of unease through the business community.
But now a similar public campaign in support of assistance for SPC Ardmona by Agriculture Minister (and deputy leader of the Nationals) Barnaby Joyce has failed. It may be that the Nationals expended their political capital on keeping the Yanks’ hands off our grain-handling infrastructure, or that any preparedness by the free traders in Cabinet to countenance further protectionist assistance for Australian businesses was consumed entirely by the GrainCorp decision. Perhaps it was simply because there are more marginal votes in the grain belts of rural Australia than in Murray.
Either way, the messages conveyed by yesterday’s SPC Ardmona decision may prove counterproductive for Tony Abbott. While he sees them as “an important marker” and a veritable line in the political sand, the message recipients may see them more as a challenge, an ultimatum and a call for retaliatory action.