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The party of initiative …

May 15th, 2007

Since opinion polls are undertaken as a basis for news stories, it’s probably inevitable that the results are given more significance than they deserve. Before we get too carried away with Labor’s good result in the latest Galaxy poll and Newspoll it’s worth recalling a couple of basic points

* Opinion polls are samples with a margin of error, and fluctuations of 2 per cent or so can be expected as the result of chance variation (if you believe in classical hypothesis testing, you can say that such a change is statistically insignificant). So the fact that Labor gained 2 per cent in the latest Newspoll means almost nothing, except as a pointed lesson to people like Greg Sheridan who tried (while covering himself in qualifications) to make a trend out of the 2 per cent drop in the previous poll

* Swinging voters are not close followers of the political scene with finely balanced preferences tipping from one side to the other as a result of careful analysis of the latest news. There’s no reason to expect a budget to have a big impact on votes, especially when it contains few surprises. The government is probably right to say that the impact of the Budget, which is essentially to remind people that economic conditions are good, will be felt gradually over the next couple of months.

That’s the good news for the government. The bad news is that the government’s cleverness in stealing the most attractive components of Labor’s policy is likely to prove either ineffective or counterproductive. As far as public expenditure and taxation is concerned, the big news is that Labor is once again the party of initiative. Most people are unimpressed by tax cuts, and would prefer an improvement in services, delivered without the ideological riders that the government insists on attaching to almost everything (university grants conditional on AWAs, micromanagement of state functions to ensure Commonwealth credit and so on). The same is true, in the absence of a dramatic shift in government policy, on climate change. It’s only on Industrial Relations that the government is acting and Labor reacting, and even here Rudd’s link of IR and family issues has to some extent turned the debate around.

The party of initiative doesn’t always win, particularly if people are worried about dangerous radicals lurking in the shadows. But with Rudd offering a safe pair of hands, this fear is unlikely to be as effective as it was in the past. Howard has shown himself capable of pulling rabbits out of the hat in the past, and it looks as if he will have to do so again.

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  1. May 15th, 2007 at 18:15 | #1

    PrQ,
    Good to see some reasoned analysis on the polls.
    I would disagree with one point, though. Because most people believe they are at or below median income (as you pointed out some time ago IIRC) people do want to see improvements in services as they believe most of the burden will fall elsewhere. To me, if you point out to people that they are in fact actually going to pay for it themselves the outcome may well be different – they may actually choose to cut the government out of the loop and pay for it themselves directly.

  2. Dylwah
    May 15th, 2007 at 19:07 | #2

    I think it is fair to say that Australian voters like to have a few characters tucked away in the odder corners of our houses of parliament. they don’t even mind if some of them get some real responsibility, Killen for instance. But they do like a safe pair of hands. they want their captain in the slips cordon, by right, not privilege. The winger ought to have a bit of dash, but if they regularly drop sitters, then they are out. (insert fav sporting metaphor here) Unfortunately, as in all races to the bottom, the safest pair of hands is often the tiddlywinks cup. As Labor flips it’s ideas into the air some are bound to find a welcoming receptacle.

    Rabbits, there was a time when I rode my treadly around this wide brown that when I saw rabbits I would shout: “The Calici virus is coming”. The last time I did so was during a child’s birthday party, no one was amused, I haven’t done so since. But if Howard pulls that particular magic trick lets hope there are some ready to act like a kiwi farmer and slip a few carcasses past quarantine.

    Oh, and I loved some of those Mullah Nasruddin stories, they reminded me of Anansi stories and the odd Rumi. There have been a few pictures of Costello running lately, Rumi teaches us that there are “Two ways of running�.

  3. jstrocch
    May 15th, 2007 at 20:55 | #3

    Pr Q says:

    It’s only on Industrial Relations that the government is acting and Labor reacting, and even here Rudd’s link of IR and family issues has to some extent turned the debate around.

    The one area where Howard tries to be a radical reformer turns into his achilles heel. He should have stayed true to his nominal committment to social conservatism. Greed got the worser of him.

    His right wing ideology drove him to tearing up the industrial relations system. This is one initiative to which the popular response will be: thumbs down.

    Conservative populism is a guaranteed winner in a stable democracy. BUt the two parties cannot resist constructivist tendencies towards financial elitism (LN/P) and cultural elitism (ALP) matters.

  4. observa
    May 15th, 2007 at 22:43 | #4

    “Howard has shown himself capable of pulling rabbits out of the hat in the past, and it looks as if he will have to do so again.”

    The only one I can think of is, have the Libs got something up their sleeve to ambush Rudd with, re his past answers on Burke? Certainly Rudd’s initial response suggested they could have acquired some damaging evidence and are sitting on it. In that regard I can’t get out of my mind that Campbell fell on his sword all too willingly for a fairly innocuous ‘crime’ by any standard. OTOH perhaps he personally had had enough of politics, as he did say he was off to industry again.

  5. May 15th, 2007 at 23:14 | #5

    Most people are unimpressed by tax cuts

    Really. Why do people fret about the idea that if you cut taxes it will be really hard to put it up again later on when you might need to.

  6. May 15th, 2007 at 23:32 | #6

    Terje,
    I would agree – personally, I do not trust politicians a lot. I fail to see why we continue to trust them to allocate about half our national wealth. I cannot be on the basis of a proven success record.
    .
    observa,
    I had a chat with him a few days ago. His relief at leaving seemed genuine.

  7. observa
    May 15th, 2007 at 23:52 | #7

    Sounds like a sensible bloke then Andrew. What’s he up to(going to do) in private enterprise? Advising big corpora on emissions trading or the like?

  8. swio
    May 16th, 2007 at 00:09 | #8

    If Howard had left the industrial relations system alone I doubt he would ever have been down by more than 10 points on the two party preferred vote. It would have been a tough job for Rudd to hold him out until election day with a lead that size. Workchoices has killed the government in the electorate. To my mind about 10% of the electorate simply switched from the co-alition to Labor based on that issue and are no longer interested in what either side or the pundits have to say any more. They are now switched off and just waiting for the election.

  9. May 16th, 2007 at 08:50 | #9

    Fear seems to be a big factor with voters. Whether it’s the fear of employers or the fear of boat people it seems to drive a lot of people.

  10. May 16th, 2007 at 10:40 | #10

    observa,
    I think in his case the usual “spend more time with family” may actually be true. He has a young family. Plenty of good boards to join over here, looking for some political oomph and environmental knowhow. Look for him on the ASIC director rolls sometime soon, I would have thought.

  11. observa
    May 16th, 2007 at 11:42 | #11

    “Fear seems to be a big factor with voters.”

    You may well be right Terje or perhaps it comes down to who can play on those fears the best. Here’s a snapshot of the true picture of IR at present http://www.news.com.au/adelaidenow/story/0,22606,21730999-5003680,00.html
    http://www.news.com.au/story/0,23599,21733545-2,00.html
    compared to the fear factor of ‘draconian’ Workchoices.

    Now for a glimpse of the fear of GW
    http://www.news.com.au/story/0,23599,21740468-1702,00.html
    A couple of observations about the results of beating up the fear of GW. Certainly the fear of GW is there in the results, but it has had the effect of making the punters resigned to the fact we’re stuffed – a la
    “A greater proportion of respondents in the new survey – 41 per cent compared to 20 per cent last December – said they believed there was little Australians could do to combat the effects of climate change”
    OR we better get cracking with nukes.

    Now that may not exactly be the outcome the peddlers of fear/concern are looking for.

  12. May 16th, 2007 at 13:24 | #12

    observa,
    Amongst the AGW believers there seems to be a few schools of thought – those who believe we:
    1. are doomed;
    2. need to lose a lot of our population and go agrarian;
    3. need to take a huge drop in living standards, but can continue a semblance of our current lives;
    4. can make up the difference by a smallish drop in living standards with a swap in power sources and a few other changes;
    5. can simply switch to nukes and go on as before; and
    6. need to change nothing as AGW is a good thing.
    Of course, this is to segment a continuum, but I think you get the idea.
    I think only options 4 and 5 are viable politically. Any politician coming out with 1 through 3 would be laughed out of Parliament – but maybe not the Senate. View 6 would probably put you in the National Party.
    Neither 4 nor 5 are really threatening and I think that, where the issue has struck home, most seem to be reasonably comfortable even with option 4 and trust that the “right” decision will be made.
    The fear just does not seem to be there.

  13. observa
    May 16th, 2007 at 13:37 | #13

    Have no fear about 1 through 3 http://www.news.com.au/business/story/0,23636,21740785-31037,00.html
    Maybe they know they can be warm and fuzzy with Rudd and Kyoto and subsidised rainwater tanks and carry on business as usual. Why wouldn’t they after 3 years of Kyoto?

  14. observa
    May 16th, 2007 at 13:48 | #14

    And how would you feel as world’s best Treasurer with your electoral popularity inversely proportional to consumer sentiment? Is there no God in Heaven saks Pete?

  15. May 16th, 2007 at 20:07 | #15

    4. can make up the difference by a smallish drop in living standards with a swap in power sources and a few other changes

    I believe that 4 is possible (eventually), but the transition will be more difficult and more expensive that many (especially on the left) believe. i.e. It will take more than a bit of emissions trading between the power companies, and the pain will be greater than a few tenths of a percent off GDP growth.

    For example, I fail to understand how the aviation industry can survive in anything like its current form in a carbon constrained world. Has anyone explained to the punters that they won’t be able to fly to Surfers for $59?

  16. May 17th, 2007 at 11:04 | #16

    carbonsink,
    So you sit somewhere between 3 and 4 – perhaps with an emphasis on 3.

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