Don’t be distracted: it’s all about the budget

The Coalition Government wants people thinking about anything but the budget, which makes it Labor’s job to ensure voters avoid distractions and stay focussed on living standards and jobs, writes Michael Cooney.

Which were you thinking about this morning?

a) Anything but the budget?

b) All the budget bad news?

c) None of the above?

It’s the most important question in Australian politics right now.

Our political debate is at a fascinating and unusual tipping point. Usually a government wants to talk about its positive plans and an opposition wants to talk about the government’s negative record. Instead, right now the struggle is about which Government negative plan is most debated – the Liberal Party wants to talk about their attacks on “the other” (unions, the unemployed and asylum seekers), while Labor wants to focus on Government attacks on “middle Australia” (through Medicare and schools).

Parliament won’t sit for another month, so which wins will be decided by what the leaders choose to do in the media, not what transpires in the Senate.

This can play out in one of two ways.

If the PM’s team wins this moment, we’ll be talking about “anything but the budget”; the rest of the winter, and in turn much of the year, will be dominated by a combination of world events and by conservative tactics. They would love a mix of daily press conferences from the Prime Minister on matters far afield and odd “paperwork-for-the-dole” style announcements by his ministerial B-team. Where we stand right now, that feels increasingly likely.

There’s another possibility; the Abbott budget could remain the centre of the discussion, the big immediate hurt of petrol, pensions and GP tax giving way over time not to “anything but the budget”, but to “all the Budget bad news” – big long-term cuts to education, health and the hit to clean energy jobs. Naturally, this is where Labor wants the debate to be.

Which of those happens is much more than a test of media tactics or a contest between two politicians and their staffs, though there is plenty at stake there. In fact, this tactical struggle for the agenda of media coverage of politics is really a proxy for the two parties’ long-term understanding of the electorate itself.

Bill Shorten’s speech to the NSW Labor Party on Sunday began by reminding delegates of the tribute paid by Paul Keating to the late Neville Wran at his funeral earlier this year: “He had a PhD in poetic profanity.” Praise from Caesar. The main part of his speech then centred on Medicare – showing he knows what matters most.

Worryingly though, this was delivered to a Conference dominated by international relations and debates about rules, in which the economy was often a dependent clause. In hindsight, I wonder if Shorten was tempted to remind the delegates of one of the former NSW Premier’s most outstanding obscenities. This was the one Wran, then Labor’s federal president, offered in March 1983 in response to new Federal Labor leader Bob Hawke’s proposed election slogan of “Reconciliation, Recovery, Reconstruction”:

If the greedy bastards wanted spiritualism, they’d join the f***ing Hare Krishna.

Wran’s striking warning about the Australian electorate’s materialism didn’t occur to me in Sydney Town Hall during the Labor Leader’s speech. Embarrassingly, I didn’t even think of it as I left the building late morning and had my path through the anti-Israel protesters and petitioners cleared by a friendly band of dancing and chanting Hare Krishnas. It was reading Stephen Mills in The Professionals during the afternoon that I was reminded of Wran’s 1983 remark, when I came across the famous 1980 analysis of the electorate by Rod Cameron, then Labor’s federal pollster:

Doubt, lack of confidence, disillusion, political apathy and cynicism …

Interest in political philosophy, ideology, is very low. There is far greater involvement and interest in matters concerning the personal and their family’s financial well-being, and their day-to-day interest (sports, family concerns, leisure, recreation) than in even simple questions of ideology and government …

Authoritarian, racist, hardline about “dole bludgers,” refugees etc. They want political stability, predictability and moderation.

That’s still an important strand of insider opinion about “the mob” – but it’s marred by overstatement and oversimplification. The more complex truth is the Australian electorate is materialistic and transactional about politics – but this isn’t the same thing as being cynical or selfish. Quite the contrary: at election time, Australian voters are very disciplined in their political decision-making, and try hard to sift through the many grains of partisan debate to identify the real impact on their own living standards of the parties’ competing plans.

Of course, for all Wran’s private bluntness, he knew this complexity. His antidote to Hawke’s vague aspirationalism wasn’t some dumb “Sunday yarn” about knife crime, it was “jobs, jobs, jobs”. What’s required for Labor now is much the same as then: to reproduce the discipline of the Australian voter and to see through the politics of distractions, to what matters: progress in living standards and jobs.

This article was first published by The Drum Online on 29 July 2014. 


About Michael Cooney

Michael Cooney

Michael is a former Executive Director of the Chifley Research Centre. He was previously Speechwriter to Prime Minister the Hon Julia Gillard MP, Senior Adviser at the HR Coombs Policy Forum, Crawford School of Public Policy at the Australian National University, and was Principal Policy Advisor to Federal Labor Leaders Kim Beazley and Mark Latham.

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