Some general thoughts on the election outcome.
First, I have to concede immediately that the betting markets got this one right. Unlike polls and pundits, including me, they consistently predicted the return of the government. Before I’m convinced that there’s a real phenomenon here, though, I’d like to see an instance where the betting markets correctly predict a Labor win against the apparent odds.
Second, Labor suffered again from holding off too long on key policy issues. The tax policy went OK (but would have done just as well if it had been announced earlier), but the forest policy was clearly a disaster in political terms – the substantive merits are more complex, but precisely for that reason needed more argument and explanation. Instead the whole thing was left until the last few days of the campaign. The Labor planners ought to have been able to work out well in advance whether they could work out a deal which would satisfy the unions while achieving enough protection for the forests to keep the Greens onside. If it couldn’t be done, a political strategy to deal with the consequences needed to be worked out. Instead, they seem to have floated the policy and hoped for the best. This allowed Howard to announce a non-policy in response, without any time for Labor to do anything about it.
Third, and contrary to a lot of post-election claims, the campaign showed that health and education can win elections. The problem for Labor was that Howard was willing to outbid them, putting a heap of money into both bulk billing and state schools, even if it was poorly targeted (in policy rather than electoral terms) and hedged about with all sorts of silliness, like the idea of going through P&Cs. As I said several times during the campaign, Howard’s concessions, on Medicare in particular, mean that he has admitted defeat on the core ideological issue of the size of government.
Fourth, there’s economic management and interest rates. Undoubtedly these were the winning issues for Howard, as he had hoped. Contrary to Ken Parish’s argument, I don’t think you can really separate the two. And it was always going to be hard for Labor to make the case that Howard’s reputation on this score is overblown (I did so here, but I’d hate to try and condense it into a 30-second spot). A big problem here is the continuing memory of Keating, whose exceptional arrogance makes the mistakes of fifteen years ago still powerful electoral ammunition for the government – it’s as if Gough Whitlam had been able to run against the 1961 credit squeeze.
Finally, there’s the prospects for Howard’s next term. It’s clear enough that he will be able to push through the remaining elements of his 1996 program, the full privatisation of Telstra and a final instalment of industrial relations reform. For the rest, his campaign platform was designed to match Labor – he hasn’t got a mandate for anything much in the way of free-market reform. It’s possible that, as on some previous occasions, he’ll repudiate his promises and embark on a new round of radical reforms. But my guess is that this won’t happen. Even the Telstra privatisation will cause a lot of political pain. In any case, there aren’t that many options on the table. Tax reform is unlikely to be affordable, the government is now committed to saving Medicare and bulk billing, and pushing privatisation on to Australia Post seems most unlikely to me.
The big issue is whether we continue to avoid a recession. The imbalances we’ve piled up in terms of household debt, the trade and current account deficits and the inflated price of houses can only be sustained, if at all, with low world interest rates, and those rates depend on the willingness of the Chinese and Japanese central banks to sustain them. As I said on election night, Howard’s reputation as a good manager owes a lot to luck, and luck always runs out in the end. But Howard’s luck has lasted longer than most.
fn1. Does anyone know if there are betting markets for state elections? If so, did the markets predict Bracks over Kennett?
fn2. As Andrew Norton points out, Family First actually opposes privatisation, but the government’s position is strong enough that it will certainly find some way to make a deal.