August 30, 2004 | Jeff Wall

A volatile, untrusting electorate will make the election especially interesting.

I have been thinking about a way to illustrate how volatile, untrusting, and “different”, the Australian electorate is today.
The opinion polls are volatile, but polls taken before a campaign commences often are. Minor parties – especially Greens and Independents – seem to be doing well, but that is not really new.
Perhaps the vest way to illustrate the electoral “mood” today is to have a look at the one issue that has been consistently influential in Australian elections over the last 40 years – the economy and its impact on voters hip pockets.
In 1961, the Menzies Government went within one seat of losing office – to a disunited and fractured Labor Opposition – because the 1960 budget had been a horror one and the resulting credit squeeze angered voters who had basically stuck with Menzies since the early 1950’s.
In 1975, high inflation and interest rates, and a perception of economic incompetence, destroyed the Whitlam Government. Eight years later, the recession of the early 1980’s and the drought tipped Malcolm Fraser out of office.
Move on to 1993. Rising interest rates and the lingering impact of the “recession we had to have” would have sent Paul Keating into political oblivion but for John Hewson’s promise of a GST.
Three years later, the electorate did what it was distracted from doing by the Hewson GST debacle, and removed Keating, not for his arrogance, but for high interest rates and his earlier recession.
Now to 2004. By any measure these are boom times for the Australian economy. Interest rates are historically low, inflation is at its lowest in almost 40 years, unemployment is low, people are spending up and business confidence and consumer confidence are high.
If history were the guide, the Howard Government therefore ought to be an absolute shoe-in.
The fact that it is behind in the polls, and that the election is very much an even money bet, serves to prove my point – the electorate is volatile, it is untrusting, and the once predictable electoral environment is no more.
Having said that, I find it interesting that both sides want the electorate to “trust” them.
That is a high risk strategy, a higher risk for the Government, but still a risk for Labor.
The electorate inherently no longer trusts politicians, it does not trust governments, and it does not even trust oppositions.
Re-building public trust in our democracy and our political parties and politicians will take a generation. It won’t be achieved between now and 9 October.
So there is a risk for Mark Latham in pitching his campaign at the “trust” question because an untrusting electorate will probably end up voting for the party it trusts “more” than the other.
And, if interest rates and economic management are key determinants, then the prevailing good times might actually tip the balance in John Howard’s favour.
But when it comes to “trust” in the wider sense, then Howard has a real problem.
Boat people, weapons of mass destruction, and misleading the electorate individually won’t make the difference, but, taken together with the electorate’s volatility they represent a potentially fatal “mix” for the Government. That’s why John Howard yesterday repeated time and time again that he wanted the electorate to “trust” him to keep interest rates low and the economy strong.
I suspect the election will come down to whether voters trust one side “more” or the other side “less”. There is simply no chance they are going to trust either side substantially, let alone totally.
That makes the contest ahead interesting, and unpredictable!

Posted by Jeff Wall at 7:49 am | Comments (1) |
Filed under: Australian Politics

1 Comment

  1. Perhaps the real risk for Howard in running on “trust” is that there is a lot more hard negative evidence about his government on this front than there is on the opposition. This is simply the result of his having been in government for quite a while. He’s also hamstrung by his apparent decision to stonewall on how long he will serve and on children overboard – not giving an answer is hardly an effective strategy in building up trust.
    I think he would have been better advised to run on economic issues pure and simple and he may yet try to switch the battleground, but it may be too late for him.

    Comment by Alex McConnell — August 30, 2004 @ 8:25 am

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