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December 19th 2013 print

Peter Smith

Swings, Slides And Hard Landings

If the polls are taken at face value, in the one hundred days since the election, 350,000 voters have switched from the Coalition to Labor. Honeymoons are not what they were

pendulumI must be missing something. It may be to do with being away. Some critical foul-up must have befallen the Abbott government which miraculously, in this internet age, has been kept from the rest of the world. How else to explain the rapid shift in voter allegiance since the last election? If the polls are taken at face value, in just one hundred days, 350,000 voters have switched from preferring the Coalition at the last election to preferring Labor? Obviously, honeymoons are not what they were.

Part of the answer might be found, I thought, by taking a walk on the wild side and finding out what those on the left think. I emailed a left-wing chap whom I know who is personable, intelligent and honourable, if that can be imagined. He came at me with guns loaded. He asserted that in three months the new government had destroyed diplomatic relations with Indonesia, put our relationship with China in jeopardy, broken a promise on public education funding which might further erode the relative educational performance of our children, demolished the car industry and left Qantas out to dry.

So there you have it. However, leaving the hyperbole aside, there was nothing I didn’t know about. For the most part the government was hijacked by events (Indonesia, China, Holden, and Qantas) which were none of its doing.

Yes, the government made a mess of dealing with education funding. This was hardly believable after winning an election based on trust. The Holden matter could have been handled with more finesse by Joe Hockey to put it mildly. But it is hard to see how the matters involving Indonesian and China and Qantas and even Holden were messed up; unless approached from and attitude of mind determined to see fault.

All in all, after years of the most incompetent Labor governments imaginable ,the new government appears to have being given very little leeway – at least by the 350,000 who just switched back as though they had simply gone through a temporary flirtation. And, it has to be remembered, in the face of the opposition blocking the repeal of the ‘iniquitous and despised’ carbon tax. Obviously enough voters didn’t retain their rage.

Whatever is going on it has surely nothing to do with the tribes that occupy the left and conservative sides of the political spectrum. Not much swinging goes on there. It is remarkable that minds of such different perceptions spring from one and the same human species. Who knows whether it is down to nature or nurture? It doesn’t matter; never the twain shall meet. They are both stuck on their respective sides.

Being stuck is clearly not the position of the 350,000 swingers. At issue is their mindset and what this says about Abbott’s capacity to turn them around. What kind of mindset led them to switch so readily from one side to the other?

Do they have gullible minds perhaps; easily swayed by the ABC and Fairfax press? A gullible mind would be one, for example, that thinks there is a chance of Ayatollah Khamenei or his henchman President Rouhani giving up their ambitions to build nuclear weapons. The best way that Abbott could persuade these kinds of voters to switch back would be to front the cameras more often using inflated language about a bountiful future.

Some might have the kind of mind which is persuaded by the last book read. In this case the last six months of government will be more important than the first. Timing will be the critical factor.

A less promising scenario for Abbott is that the 350,000, or a sizeable proportion of them, are returning to their norm. This scenario can’t be easily dismissed. Really, it is very difficult to understand the magnitude of the apparent swing back to Labor after so short a time unless the swingers’ vote against Labor at the last election was aberrant. Why wouldn’t it be thought that the march of the welfare state, biased news reporting, and prejudicial education was pushing the electorate leftwards?

It has to be remembered that Howard succeeded by eating into the Labor heartland – his battlers. Abbott will have to emulate Howard to succeed. The last election should have been his to win by default. The previous governments had been so bad and disreputable that a drover’s dog should have been able to win. As it was, Abbott had to pull out all the stops in years of disciplined campaigning to pull it off.

Shorten looks better than Rudd or Gillard. How could he look worse? Governments, however competent, make mistakes. I would advise Abbott to work out how to appeal to those battlers otherwise the polls suggest he will enjoy just one term. Now is the time to understand that, not six months before the next election.

Peter Smith, a frequent Quadrant Online contributor, is the author of Bad Economics