Given the option, most politicians would prefer to do what the community wants instead of what it needs. But governments that configure their policies to meet only the voter popularity test inevitably will be faced with a humongous bill and the twin terrors of debt and deficit.
The solution to this conundrum is surprisingly straightforward: Simply convince the public to support an otherwise unpopular but necessary government action. While not quite an act of sorcery, this ability to transform public opinion can help a politician or government lead a relatively charmed life. And it is often seen as the measure of a truly effective government.
Kevin Rudd once had the knack, being able to turn public opinion 180 degrees in his favour. His most audacious prestidigitation was as opposition leader in 2007 when he told Australians made comfortable by years of middle-class welfare under John Howard that “this reckless spending must stop“. Capturing the public’s imagination as well as that of the media and political commentators, Rudd made fiscal responsibility the new black and thereby relegated Howard to the Whitlam and other Profligates’ Hall of Shame.
It’s a matter of record that Rudd’s eventual successor as prime minister, Julia Gillard, did less well in convincing Australians to bear a little carbon price pain for some climate action gain. Gillard did, however, prove to be a more adept apprentice as time went on, transforming both the potentially unpopular increase to the Medicare levy for the National Disability Insurance Scheme and the scrapping of the surplus into actions widely welcomed by the media, commentariat and broader community as sensible and appropriate.
And now Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey are proving to be keen acolytes, converting what could have become public opprobrium into widespread support for scrapping assistance to the car manufacturing industry.
Abbott and Hockey did this by slowly but persistently chipping away at the locally-based but foreign-owned operations’ credibility, questioning their intentions, and undermining their grass-roots support by implying they were nothing more than spivs and carpet-baggers.
The Productivity Commission inquiry into the domestic car manufacturing industry, the results of which were never in doubt, was meant to be the final piece of damning evidence against car industry subsidies. But events moved more quickly than the government expected after Hockey clumsily called Holden’s bluffin December.
Despite Hockey’s over-reach, public opinion has moved from supporting the local manufacturers to the government. Back in January 2012 an Essential poll found 68 per cent of Australians supported the current levels of assistance to the car manufacturers and 58 per cent supported giving them even more. Public approval of subsidies was still high at 58 per cent in October last year, but by December only 45 per cent approved of subsidies to Holden (and even less of increased subsidies to keep Toyota in Australia). The latest poll by Essential finds support has now dropped to 36 per cent*.
This change of sentiment suggests Australians can see the broader merit of some tough decisions being made by the government, which is admittedly easy to do if it’s not your own pay cheque on the line. The next test of whether Abbott and Hockey have mastered the alchemy of public opinion transformation will come when the federal budget is handed down in May.
By all accounts, the first Abbott/Hockey budget is going to be a harsh one – for households, businesses and marginal seat holders.
Having talked tough on fiscal responsibility since being elected (although not consistently walking that talk), the government’s gestures and incantations – from MYEFO and the Commission of Audit to keynote speeches and feature articles – are all crafted to shape voter expectations into acceptance, if not support, for a budget that shares the pain around. The age of entitlement, according to Hockey, has become the age of responsibility. In short, he’s trying to recreate the Rudd magic of 2007.
Expectations management for the budget is just the beginning. The many reviews and inquiries, accompanied by thought-bubble debates in the media suggest the government is also trying to frame the debate, shape views and normalise unpopular reform plans for a range of contentious matters including welfare payments, privatisation of government assets, the unions, and the ABC.
The government may see these also as a simple matter of convincing the Australian public to want what the country needs. But the latter point – what the country needs – might well become hotly contested ground.
* The Essential poll questions on subsidies for the local car manufacturing industry vary, but nevertheless indicate a downward trend over time.