Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Voter volatility caused by politicians' bad behaviour

The latest political excitements in Queensland and Canberra leave a lot more at stake than the future of Tony Abbott and the fortunes of the Coalition. They show the rules have changed in Australian politics, with lessons for politicians on both sides.
What's important for the good government of the country and the economy, however, is that the pollies draw the right conclusions.
Abbott's ministers are right to conclude that politics has become quite volatile, with voters capable of swinging from one extreme to the other between one election and the next. That's what we saw in Queensland on Saturday, and what we may see - to a lesser extent - in NSW next month. It's what the polls say would happen federally if an election were held today.
The first implication of this volatility is that, across the nation, no party stays in the wilderness for long.
In consequence, parties that indulge in blanket negativity in opposition, or vindictiveness towards their opponents when in government, won't have long to wait before the other side gives as good as it gets.
Until that lesson is learnt, it will be a race to the bottom in standards of political behaviour, which will only heighten voters' willingness to throw out governments.
Another implication is the end of the fair go. With the defeat of Coalition governments in Victoria last year and Queensland last week, the comfortable assumption that voters invariably give first-term governments a second chance to prove themselves has gone.
What's more, Julia Gillard's Labor government went within a whisker of defeat in 2010.
There's been a breakdown in voters' "brand loyalty". Some people remain rusted on to Labor and some will vote Coalition no matter what, but the proportion of voters willing to change their vote from election to election - and vote one way federally and the other in their state - is much higher than it was.
The classic swinging voter used to be regarded as someone who took little interest in politics between elections, but if my pilgrimage is any guide, they've been joined by people who follow the politicians' antics closely.
So what has brought this change about? The politicians want to blame the advent of the 24-hour media cycle, including social media. The game moves ever faster, with far more pressure on governments to react to every little thing that comes along and on pollies who "misspeak" in some way.
The media's attention span is much shorter, which makes it harder for governments to explain and justify their reform proposals. Mixing metaphors, this should make it easier for someone in the gun to stonewall until the spotlight has moved on. In practice, the intensity of the blowtorch is so great that offenders crack, adding to the instability.
There's a fair bit of truth to this complaint, but if the pollies think it does most to explain their predicament, they're deluding themselves. The greater explanation is that decades of ever more manipulative behaviour by our politicians have destroyed their credibility and eroded our trust and loyalty.
One problem is their preference for appearing to solve problems rather than actually tackling them. Another is the utter unreality of election campaigns, with all their unaffordable bribes and pretence of painless solutions to problems.
The biggest problem, of course, is decades of broken promises by both sides. Gillard broke her promises to balance the budget and not to introduce a carbon tax. Campbell Newman promised not to sack public servants. Abbott campaigned on the restoration of trust and high standards, but also made promises he can't have intended to keep - and didn't need to make to win.
The great risk from all this is that politicians ignore their own part in causing voters' caprice and convince themselves the public will no long countenance unpopular economic policies.
The biggest issue in the Queensland election was voters' rejection of a massive program of privatisations used largely to reduce government debt. But I'd wait for the outcome of the NSW election - where Mike Baird is promising to devote the proceeds from a smaller program to building new infrastructure - before concluding asset sales are now verboten.
Some Abbott ministers are concluding the public's rejection of last year's budget means voters don't care enough about debt and deficits to be willing to bear a little hip-pocket pain. This is self-delusion.
It conveniently forgets the calculated unfairness of Joe Hockey's choice of budget savings, all the broken promises and the government's ignominious climb-down from its pre-election claim that a "budget emergency" existed but could be fixed instantly and without pain.
The ubiquitous strategy of oppositions getting elected by making themselves a "small target", with promises to do nice things and not do a host of nasty things, is now revealed as a dangerous weapon. It works well enough if the incumbent government is on the nose, but leaves you without a mandate to tackle the difficult problems you inherit.
There's a difference between being tough and being extreme. Newman was sacked and Abbott is in trouble because of their unforeshadowed extremeness - both in their policies and their way of implementing them.
Trust can be restored and tough measures accepted if our politicians stop lying to us and playing favourites in the solutions they propose. Putting up leaders who are remotely likeable would also help.