Article – Labor's missing the mark

August 24, 2013
John Black
The Australian
KEVIN Rudd returned to the prime ministership with a strong reservoir of goodwill from Australian voters, as measured by his initial positive net satisfaction rating.
This goodwill produced an immediate surge in Labor voting intention that has since subsided nationally; and in the key marginals it has sunk past the critical point where it can be revived.
The reasons aren’t hard to find.
The new Rudd government’s actions on asylum-seekers and the mini budget have been disproportionate vote-losers in marginal seats, and ever since then Labor’s campaign has failed to reconnect with those voters who supported Rudd’s return and voted for him in 2007.
When we look at the demographics of those who swung to Rudd in 2007, and the voters clustered in the present marginal Liberal seats, we can see considerable overlap of the two groups.
This is because when the political tide went out on the Gillard government in 2010, the marginal Liberal seats left behind were those won by Rudd in 2007 (see tables online).
The ALP campaign in 2007 was all about “working families” and we see them here: middleincome mums and dads, with two or three kids under 10 and attending a government school.
Dad has a trade certificate in a course such as engineering and a job in manufacturing or transport; mum has a TAFE certificate in hospitality or services and a blue-collar job in transport or manufacturing. Some hold down white-collar jobs in admin or in the retail sector.
Maybe I’ve missed it somewhere, as this has been the most boring and directionless campaign from Labor I’ve experienced — and I am old enough to remember Arthur Calwell — but I have yet to hear Rudd reprise the term “working families” once in this campaign or talk about costof- living issues.
And if Labor were concerned about the cost of living for lower-income groups — especially for those on welfare living in cheaper homes in the outer suburbs — why would Rudd Labor start its 2013 campaign with a mini budget promise to raise the tax on cigarettes so that it would be cheaper to buy a dot of speed than a packet of roll-your-own? This tax will cut the consumption of tobacco, but perhaps not in the way it was intended.
The last time Rudd increased the tax on cigarettes — usually paid by blue-collar blokes in fluoro vests — was in early 2010, and his primary vote dropped 8 per cent the following weekend, after which Rudd lost his job. You would have thought Rudd would have remembered.
Sitting above working families on this list are Pentecostals, and this group was typical of the sort of activist and mainstream religious groups that swung towards Rudd in 2007, including Baptists, Lutherans and Mormons. These groups tend to live in the outer urban seats Rudd won in 2007 in southeast Queensland and Sydney.
We work with a lot of Christian groups in education. I like them and I find them tolerant of dissenting views, but not exactly outspoken advocates of gay marriage.
So why would Rudd take a front and centre role as an outspoken supporter of gay marriage reform, if he is seeking to regain and hold the votes of the outer-suburban Christian families who put him into office? It hasn’t worked, to put it mildly, as the evidence from the Queensland marginal seats is clearly showing.
Looking at the demographic groups that make up the 2013 marginal seats (see tables online), the fact Australian-born and English speakers are over-represented tells us the marginals tend to be light on for migrants and non-English speakers, so they are unlikely to be living next door to migrants, let alone asylum-seekers.
The marginal seats also contain the Rudd 2007 groups such as tradesmen with a TAFE certificate and a full-time job in construction. The female spouse tends to have a full-time job and the workforce participation rates for men and women tend to be exceptionally high.
There’s not much public transport about and they drive themselves to and from work.
These high participation rates are needed to pay mortgages that were in the $1800 to $3000 range in 2011. These home-buying families would have moved into what looks like their first four-bedroomed home during the past five years.
Others would be renting in the same streets and would be more mobile, saving for their first home. Both groups would tend to be connected to broadband. Given the reliance on construction jobs in these seats and the large number of young, mobile renters, a rejigged first-home buyer’s scheme would have been a popular campaign announcement from either major party.
We don’t see the smaller religious groups such as Pentecostals, which would be present if grouped with other evangelical religions, but we do see the big agnostic group. It is hard to see either of these groups being particularly supportive of the government’s policy on asylumseekers.
At the other end of the marginal demographic spectrum are the groups we find in the safest seats: for Labor, Liberal and National. In an election campaign, these demographics normally receive little attention from the three major parties.
The groups found in safe Green-Labor inner-urban seats include younger students or professionals, or gay men and women. In safe regional Labor or Nationals seats, we find the low-income single-person families, the unemployed, those on disability benefits, living in lower-cost housing with no internet.
For the Coalition, these groups include rich professionals with lots of degrees, often working from a very expensive home office closer to the CBD.
These families also tend to have young gen-Y kids living at home, twittering happily about their social lives, thinking about starting a family and working out ways for someone else to pay for it.
Marriage equality and the national disability insurance scheme reform would resonate strongly with these socially liberal groups, but not with the voters in the marginal seats Labor or the Liberals need to win.
Tony Abbott’s paid parental leave plan also would be a big hit but, apart from marginal seats such as Brisbane and Bennelong, this extraordinarily generous scheme will be wasted for the Coalition in terms of bums on seats in the House of Representatives.
There is one thing, however, which these rich, inner-city seats have in spades, and that is well-paid and even better-connected political advisers, who seem to have been influencing the formation of policy for both major parties at the expense of their marginal-seat candidates.
We’ve been profiling state and federal elections going back 50 years and there are some patterns that have been pretty consistent across that time.
First, state campaigns are about spending money, typically money provided by the commonwealth. State campaigns therefore tend to focus on where you spend money. State leaders like to dress this up as policy, whereas it is really about pork barrelling and sandbagging and taking advantage of weaknesses in your opponent, especially if they’ve outlived their usefulness or have become demonstrably incompetent or corrupt.
Federal governments are about raising and spending money and, unfortunately for Rudd, former treasurer Wayne Swan bequeathed to Australia six successive deficits and zero economic credibility. Rudd’s new Treasurer, Chris Bowen, has sought to repair this legacy by increasing taxes that have hit Labor supporters in marginal seats, especially in Adelaide, southeast Queensland and western Sydney. The asylum-seeker solution also has hurt Labor in marginal Queensland seats with lots of Christians and very few migrants.
Rudd has failed to repair this short-term damage by running a state government-style campaign where he travels around the country promising to spend money in various seats.
The Northern Territory tax lurk is the most notorious example so far.
This sort of campaign by Rudd has no demographic links to key groups in other seats and hence has no leverage. This means Labor’s campaign has so far sunk without trace in the key marginal seats.
It beggars belief for this old Labor bloke that Abbott can get away with an unfunded PPL scheme that is redistributing scarce resources to rich kids and hide $30 billion worth of tax increases or cuts to jobs and services for Rudd’s 2007 working families and retirees.
It’s a pretty impressive effort by Rudd and his advisers, but not perhaps one to put on the CV.
John Black is chief executive of Australian Development Strategies and a former Labor senator for Queensland.
Courtesy of The Australian.