ROSS GITTINS. Controversial reforms stalled until politicians win back our trust. (SMH 17.6.2019)

The less obvious one is that decades of misbehaviour by both sides have alienated so many people from the political process and turned election campaigns into such a cesspit of misrepresentation and dishonesty that, henceforth, neither side will be game to propose or implement controversial reforms.

The election was lost by the party proposing to remove a long list of sectional tax breaks and use the proceeds to increase spending on hospitals, schools and childcare, and won by the party that couldn’t agree on any major policies bar a humungous tax cut.

The risks to good economic policy are obvious. Labor concludes only a mug would try to get themselves elected on the back of good policy; the Coalition concludes you don’t need to be promising to do anything much to get re-elected.

Labor’s conclusion could be used to reinforce the political class’s widely held view that controversial reforms should only be pursued once in government, never from opposition.

Trouble is, the Coalition’s conclusion could be used to argue that, if you can get re-elected without any plans to fix things, why take the risk of proposing anything that could be unpopular?

But I think the threat to good policy runs even deeper. It comes from the electorate’s ever-growing disillusionment and alienation from politics and politicians, and from the two main parties in particular.

The vote for a changing array of third parties continued to rise, while the primary vote for both the majors was down – though more so for Labor than the Coalition. Until now, the rise of One Nation and other populist parties of the right has been a much bigger worry for the Coalition than the Greens have been for Labor.

This time, however, many former Labor voters in outer suburban and regional electorates used One Nation and Clive Palmer’s United Australia Party as a bridge to switch their vote to the Liberals.

In numerical terms, that’s why Labor lost. The point for good-policy advocates to note is that, when so many voters tune out of the political debate, but are still required to vote, they tend to make a last-minute choice based not on a well-informed assessment of how they would be affected by the rival parties’ policies, but on superficialities (“that nice Mr Rudd” or “Shorten looks shifty to me”), scare campaigns and negative advertising.

In other words, in a world where switched-off swinging voters aren’t even guided by informed self-interest, the scare campaign is king. To be blunt, the best liars win.

The Libs were convinced that former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull came so close to losing the 2016 election because of the success of Labor’s Mediscare campaign, conducted at the last minute using social media.

My theory is that, this time, the Libs resolved to turn the tables. This time they made much superior use of social media to run bigger scare campaigns about Labor’s “retirement tax” and “housing tax”. That was mere misrepresentation of Labor’s policies (most of which had strong support from economists and econocrats). The anonymous soul who dreamt up the “death tax” was an outright liar.

I think the biggest single reason so many outer-suburban and regional voters turned away from Labor was its opponents’ success (with much help from Palmer’s blanket advertising) in convincing those voters that Labor planned to increase their taxes.

In a world where switched-off swinging voters aren’t even guided by informed self-interest, the scare campaign is king. To be blunt, the best liars win.

My guess is that the next federal election will either see each side battling to out-scare the other – an orgy of lies – or, more likely, neither side being game to propose any reform of consequence, for fear of having it grossly misrepresented by the other side.

The more the bad behaviour of both sides – the broken promises, the hypocrisy, the spin, the abuse of statistics, the preference for bad-mouthing your opponents rather than explaining your policies – continues, the more both sides will turn from substance to empty populism.

And guess what? The more they do, the more voters will disengage and become more susceptible to lies and superficialities.

From the noises Anthony Albanese has been making, everything Labor did was wrong, and every triumphalist Liberal explanation of why Labor lost is right. The trouble with Labor selecting leaders from its Left faction is that they’re so anxious to prove they’re not left wing (which, these days, they aren’t) they end up standing for nothing.

It would be nice if, having worked a miracle and established his authority over the Coalition’s warring tribes, Scott Morrison now turns his mind to fixing at least some of the many bits of the economy that need fixing. We can but hope.

Ross Gittins is the Herald’s economics editor.

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2 Responses to ROSS GITTINS. Controversial reforms stalled until politicians win back our trust. (SMH 17.6.2019)

  1. Charles Lowe says:

    Thank you for a very challenging description, Ross.

    Superficially, I agree that Labor could decide (as it has so often and so boringly and so losingly in the past) to not campaign on good policy. I don’t think it will. I think that firstly its Leader (Albo or whomever) will ‘sell’ the ‘goodness’ of its policy far more effectively than Bill could’ve or did and secondly will deliberately seek to offset any perceivable particular threats to particular interest groups by specific compensation to them or even exclusion of them.

    Further, I believe that Labor will commit to a massive rebuilding of its depth of electoral credibility. I can’t see it having any other choice – particularly given your credible observations.

    Firstly Labor has Albo as its Leader. He is personally credible. Yes – he has wooed his Right Wing colleagues by his occasional endorsement of Right Wing sentiment (just as Shorten and Bowen endorsed Leftist perspectives). But he is seen as a human – a relatively ordinary person. A divorced Shorten married the Governor-General’s daughter!

    Secondly Albo can lead the necessary push within Labor to adopt the electoral funding regime instituted by Andrews’ Leftist Labor Gov’t in Victoria. And is capable of explaining exactly why that’s needed Federally and in NSW. When the Coalition opposes it, Palmer will be thrown in its face.

    Thirdly ScoMo has made himself such a singular target. He’s Australia’s tyrant. And will be easily knocked off for that reason alone.

    I am heartened greatly by the incredible career of one Senator Elizabeth Warren (MA).
    Harvard Professors don’t not disclose and sell desirable policy. And her rise to date has been comet-like.

    We shall see.

  2. John Doyle says:

    YES, Ross. Scare campaigns are king. My best friend voted LNP against his better judgment because the tax credit wind back was going to mean he would need the pension.The hip pocket nerve is very sensitive!

    By the way the “long list of sectional tax breaks” would never have been used as revenue for even 1 cent of spending. You weren’t born yesterday, Ross. You will know that no federal tax pays for anything. What it does is regulate the currency and makes fiscal space for more spending. All without influence of taxes themselves. So labor, unwilling to learn. shot themselves to defeat, all because they are still Wedded to neoliberal policies. all the major parties complicit and you journalists too, not to mention academia economics.
    Shameful, really

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