November 13, 2003 | Graham

It’s not national security that is killing Labor, it is lack of trust.

There’s a comforting Labor myth (comforting if you’re a Labor supporter anyway) that the only reason John Howard is Prime Minister is because he has “dog whistled” the xenophobic vote using the refugee and national security issues. Like all good myths, it has a basis in fact, but it is not ultimately true.
Howard is in control because voters just don’t trust Labor. A good example of why they don’t trust Labor happened yesterday. When Access Economics announced their estimate that the federal budget surplus for this financial year would be $6.9 B – considerably higher than the government’s estimate – Mark Latham, Labor’s Shadow Treasurer said, “now is the time to be talking about tax cuts because under this government, year by year you have tax increases” (as quoted in AFR).
Almost immediately he was contradicted by Anthony Albanese, Shadow Minister for Employment Services and Training who according to the AFR said ‘that it was not the time to cut the federal government’s tax take, particularly “to be contemplating reducing the top marginal tax rate or raising the threshold at which it kicks in”. He also is quoted as saying “Australia is one of the few countries in the world without a wealth tax”.
In our analysis of the last federal election we found that voters saw Howard as looking back while Beazley looked forward, but they were confident that Howard could deliver the past while they weren’t sure that Beazley could deliver the future. So, even though they were attracted to Beazley’s promises they weren’t prepared to move across for them – they were sticking with certainty. There was also a huge question mark over Labor when it came to taxes and finances.
The reason refugees is such a difficult issue for Labor is not so much because of what Labor says, but because it can’t make up its mind what it really believes. There are some vocal members on the right who are indistinguishable from the government while there are vocal members on the left (including newly elected federal president, Carmen Lawrence) who are indistinguishable from the Greens. Both positions have electoral advantages, but not if, as a party, you appear to hold them simultaneously.
Those on the left, like Albanese, create a similar problem with respect to taxes and finances. There are only two areas where Howard is seen to be clearly superior to the ALP, and that is in foreign affairs/defence and the economy. Not only do these internal ALP battles in these areas increase the perception of Howard’s superiority, but they draw attention to Labor’s weakness and more importantly, “untrustworthiness” in these areas.
As a consequence, when Labor does talk about issues where it is more highly regarded than the Government and where it can win votes – issues like health and education – voters want to believe them, but they aren’t prepared to trust them. By this public display of division Labor ends up negating its positives as well.
It is all very well for frontbencher Wayne Swan to say this morning that this is a sign of healthy debate in the party, but the public won’t accept this argument. Not that parties need to keep all the debate behind closed doors, but you can’t have two shadow frontbenchers slugging it out. A backbencher taking an opposing view can actually enhance your vote by providing some institutionalized empathy with those voters who disagree with you on this issue but will probably vote for you on wider issues. But if you are going to allow frontbenchers to conduct this sort of policy debate in public in this way, then get used to opposition.

Posted by Graham at 4:39 pm | Comments Off on It’s not national security that is killing Labor, it is lack of trust. |
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