May 28, 2004 | Graham

Budget research and remembering 1996

It was Wayne Goss who said before the 1996 election that Queenslanders were waiting on their front porches with baseball bats for an opportunity to bash the Keating government. In 2004 our qualitative research into how Australians feel about the latest federal budget suggest it is now John Howard’s turn to be bashed.
In 1996 the community was sharply divided. The larger part of it felt that they had been shut out of public debate through “political correctness”. They also felt that they had been tricked into voting for Keating by the LAW tax cuts. Labor had been in power for 13 years and had presided over record high interest rates and rapidly escalating debt. While the economy was recovering from the “recession we had to have” it didn’t feel like a recovery a mood which Howard captured by characterizing the recovery as “5 minutes of economic sunshine”.
Voters had had enough, and it didn’t matter what Paul Keating said, they were just waiting to ditch him. All John Howard had to do was to avoid any significant errors, and turn up on the day. Despite that, and an expectation that Howard would win, there was a very real concern that Keating might sneak back in, which made voters even more determined to vote him out.
In 2004 a large portion of voters feel that they have been shut out of public debate. They see Australia as “defensive, inward looking…”; that there is a “real sense of fear pervading Australian culture”; and “no vision, or hope that we can take control of our future”. Their evidence for this is a perception that inequality has increased and that the government bastardises minorities for political advantage.
They see the Tampa, the “children overboard” affair, and the reasons for going to war in Iraq, as being Howard’s equivalent of the LAW tax cuts. While there has not been a recession for over 10 years, they do not give Howard and Costello the credit. This belongs in their view either to Hawke and Keating, or to circumstances. Fears about interest rates and debt are still there, this time caught up in the housing boom. These voters are concerned about the housing boom because it decreases housing affordability, and because if it bursts it may hurt the economy. They see the boom as increasing household indebtedness, and likely to lead to higher interest rates.
At the same time as a large number of voters despises and distrusts Howard and gives him no credit for anything, there is a smaller group of voters which is passionately loyal to him and which sees Australia as being “…an incredibly fortunate nation. Not everything right, but not too much wrong.”
What does this mean for the budget?
It means that it really doesn’t matter what Howard, Costello, Latham or Crean say, voters have bought their tickets and nothing is going to dissuade them from embarking for their chosen destination at the election. Every promise in the budget is seen as a bribe. Take the baby bonus. This could be seen as a type of maternity leave. Most of our respondents are in favour of maternity leave, but they are not in favour of the baby bonus, including even a number of Coalition voters. This is because they believe it was given in a lump sum, rather than as a regular periodic payment over time, to make it more effective as a bribe. This is evidence to them of bad faith, which is then translated into concerns that the government won’t continue to support parents of new borns if they win the next election.
The tax cuts leave voters unmoved. Most don’t believe that they will get a benefit from them, while worrying about the people on low incomes. Some are aware of the problems marginal rates of tax create for the welfare to work transition; and a number believe that tax brackets ought to be indexed.
The only budget promise they did like was the decrease in taxes on super funds.
They didn’t like too many of Mark Latham’s promises either. The “learn or earn” policy was regarded with suspicion by some and “so what” by others, although on balance the reaction was positive. Labor voters generally didn’t think that Latham should be passing the Government’s budget as is and saw this as showing a lack of imagination in setting a new course for the country. Others were more pragmatic supporting the promise because he would be “wedged by the media and the government”, if he didn’t.
There was outright disbelief at Latham’s pledge to cut government spending by $8 B, but it didn’t really seem to matter to anyone – it was an acceptable untruth.
This marks a change in the approach of the left. In previous polling we have found them to have a very idealistic “all or nothing and winning government be damned” approach. Despite concerns that Latham may just be a working class Tory, they seem to have decided to conciliate now that government looks to be theirs’. It may also be that their hatred of Howard has got to the point where they will do anything to get rid of him, just like the country had with Paul Keating in 1996.
What does this mean for the election?
It means that Howard has lost the traction to change people’s votes. Whatever he says will be discounted because it will be seen to be politically motivated – in Howard’s interest, not the community’s. It is no longer Howard’s election to win, but Latham’s to lose. To win well Latham needs to keep doing what he is doing now – making modest promises; doing a lot of listening; and keeping on his social policy agenda. He will only get into trouble if he makes the mistake of trying to match Howard with policies.
Labor tends to think that it can educate its way into office and must have a full-blown revolutionary agenda on the table. This would be a disaster. Voters vote for emotional reasons and all of our research has been showing for some time that voters do not trust ambitious promises. To win politicians need to under-bid, not over-bid. Voters also see so little real difference between politicians that they are going for style rather than substance. All this was pretty much the case in 1996 too.
The biggest thing that Latham has going for him is that he is not John Howard, just as in 1996 the biggest thing that Howard had going for him was that he was not Paul Keating.
To view the research on which this article is based go to

Posted by Graham at 5:05 pm | Comments (5) |
Filed under: Uncategorized


  1. Ghraham you found in your research a “real sense of fear pervading Australian culture”; and “no vision, or hope that we can take control of our future”.
    But you then went on to plot a scenario where Howard is losing and Labor provided they have kept their mouths shut will stroll into office. I see a contradicion here. You have convinced me that Labor will win (Well almost, in my darker moments I think Howard is Nosferatu). But what kind of victory will it be? If your were campaign director it would be a non-hegemonic victory, a victory achieved not by winning the struggle for ideas and ideals, but rather for not being the other person. I think the Borbidge victory in Qld in 1996 is a classic instance of such a victory.
    The central problem of non-hegemonic victories is that one really has no mandate to address the problems which have led to your victory. Take for instance those revealed in your research and which I have quoted above. Can Latham keep his head down and then once he has won unveil his vision splendid?
    Won’t such an act merely deepen the cynicism of a weary electorate?
    Even more difficult for him will be trying to address the problem of fear. Much of this is endemic to neo-liberal economics, and as such Latham will neither be able to acknowledge or even attempt to address its causes.
    Yet let us assume again you are right and as you seem in tune with liberal pragmatism, I suspect you are. Latham takes the glittering prize of a non-hegemonic victory. There will of course be enormous relief to have gotten rid at last of Howard and his wonderful wife. That will constitute Latham’s honeymoon.
    Then what???
    I suspect that Latham will suffer the fate of Borbidge. Initially the Qld public were glad to see the back of Wayne Goss, the arrogant rational bureaucrat with his iron cage for us all to squat in.
    But such gratitude was fleeting and within three years Borbidge had reaped the fruits of a non-hegemonic victory.
    That is the fate you are fitting Latham and the ALP out for.

    Comment by Gary MacLennan — May 30, 2004 @ 10:51 am

  2. Gary,
    Most would prefer to be in government with a limited mandate, rather than in opposition with an unlimited one. When was the last time someone won in the Anglo Saxon world as an electoral “hegemon”? Maggie Thatcher?
    Anyway, Latham’s problem (if he thought a “hegemonic” victory was a possibility) is that there aren’t large distinctions between him and John Howard in most policy areas, and most of the public wouldn’t want there to be one either.
    Interesting piece on Latham reproduced here
    My research wasn’t suggesting that those who felt alienated were in the majority – you’d need to do proper quantitative research for that – just that many on the left felt like that. I doubt where they will be any more at home in a Latham Australia than in a Howard one.

    Comment by Graham Young — May 30, 2004 @ 2:42 pm

  3. I don’t know that the Henry Thornton article on Latham is in fact particularly interesting. It’s more a research paper than an opinion piece. Someone has done a trawl of all the negative things written about Latham before and since he was elected leader and chucked them all together in a single article. If you did a similar thing on Howard, Costello, Beattie, Carr etc etc you’d get a similar result (and an equally useless one).

    Comment by Alex McConnell — May 30, 2004 @ 5:53 pm

  4. The interesting point was the economic material. I’ve read Civilising Global Capital, and Latham has been pretty much influenced by what Wombat on the list would call the “Neo-Liberal” consensus.
    He dresses things up as being “Third Way”, but essentially he is in the classical liberal camp when it comes to running the economy.
    That will be a big disappointment to the left and it will be interesting to see how it plays out should he beat Howard. I think the left is prepared to cooperate to beat Howard, but after that he may well find that he has to rely on Liberal Party support to get his agenda through.

    Comment by Graham Young — May 30, 2004 @ 9:00 pm

  5. I actually suspect latham will inherit an economy on the downturn. The liberals have run australia with pedal to the medal, selling off almost all of our public assets, our off shore cash reserves are dismal and our housing sector has left australians with ridiculous and unsustainable levels of household debt. At some point household debt becomes overwhelming, slowing our spending and leading to the inevitable. The fact is Keating built todays prosperous and strong economny, and the liberals have taken it for a ride. They will be handing it over to latham just as it is beginning to sink, and latham will wear the blame. It stinks.

    Comment by alphacoward — May 31, 2004 @ 11:02 am

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