AFR Editorial: Disengaged voters aren't buying what either party is selling
Scott Morrison has turned to an energetic campaigner. Mick Tsikas
A clear message comes out of AFR Weekend's Ipsos pre-election focus groups: neither leader has inspired much confidence; neither party has a credible plan for the future; voters are sick of political change for no substantive purpose; and they’re disengaged from a campaign that has degenerated into a social media circus sideshow. Prime Minister Scott Morrison is seen as a bloke with convictions but also a salesman with little to sell, while Opposition Leader Bill Shorten is considered a union stooge who is competent but a bit smug. Nether is considered a great leader. The lack of appetite for change, partly a result of the Labor and Liberal leadership changes of the past decade, is worsened by the embarrassing nature of the political campaign. Even yesterday, two more prospective members for Parliament, one Labor and one Liberal, stood down after old Facebook posts written in poor taste have come back to haunt them. Yet these are the main stories of the campaign.
Mr Morrison has revealed himself as an energetic campaigner, who focus groups in Western Sydney think is emotionally in touch with what's going on in their lives. But he clearly lacks a big agenda. That’s partly because since the politically disastrous 2014 budget, the Coalition has lurched from one policy back-down to the next. It hasn’t taken on the industrial relations club and tried to create modern workplace laws that will support 21st-century workers in a flexible labour market. It hasn’t grasped the nettle on energy and climate, pretending that taxpayer-funded climate solutions have no cost, whereas market-driven ones do. A tax agenda was centred around an isolated company tax cut, but now anything except income tax cuts that barely give back bracket creep have been taken off the table. In health and education, the Coalition has relented to Labor’s big spending monuments reinforcing the new Labor idea that it is inputs, not outcomes, that count for students and patients.
All that means that the Coalition has left itself very little to actually run on. And that lack of platform means that the whole debate has been hijacked by the minor parties and peripheral campaign bric-a-brac around personalities, who said what on social media. That, in turn, further fuels a disengaged electorate that is polarised, fragmented and often disillusioned.
Fortunately, Australia hasn’t been disrupted so much that a Trump-like figure that deeply divides the nation has emerged. We haven’t fallen prey to strongman politics. Our mostly centrist politics means that there is no deep Brexit-type divide about Australia’s place in the world: climate change is the closest thing to an Australian Brexit divide. Foreign policy is mostly bipartisan, and reality has compelled Labor to embrace the Coalition's border protection stance. Australia’s big cities aren’t blighted with Parisian-style riots. Our public finances, while far from perfect, are not as dangerously blown out as in Europe or the US.
Yet there is an old adage in trade policy that those who stop pedalling will fall off the bike. Complacency is the main challenge to Australia’s modern prosperity. Labor at least has a policy platform that it has crafted over several years. The problem is that it is an internally inconsistent high-tax, high-spending agenda that won’t deliver what it promises to voters. It includes regulated pay rises with no productivity trade-offs, including direct taxpayer-funded wage rises to childcare workers that it can’t trust its own Fair Work Commission to deliver. It refuses to consider the scale of the hit to wages, jobs and the economy from its over-ambitious targets for cutting carbon emissions. It will slap increased taxes on property investors, retired investors and higher income earners. Its plan to lift compulsory super contributions from 9.5 per cent to 12 per cent of wages would cause the same reduction in take-home pay, argues the Grattan Institute. Yet Labor is running on the idea that it can somehow improve the lot of ordinary workers. It’s a focus group policy that, ironically, the focus groups don’t buy. The consolation for Labor is that voters don’t think much of the incumbent alternative.