You may have heard the sound of something snapping in the federal election campaign this week.
In the wake of the last of the leaders’ debates, and the debacle for the Coalition of the Daily Telegraph attack on Bill Shorten over his mum, the leaders got back on their planes and buses to visit electorates across the country.
But something had shifted.
The Prime Minister didn’t have anything much to say out on the road: he was back defending Coalition seats. There was increasing pressure to explain where all his ministers were. There were conflicting messages about how he really did believe in climate change, but didn’t want the economy tied up in green tape.
There was a sense within the Coalition that its campaign had run out of steam, even before the official “launch” of the campaign in Melbourne on Sunday.
On the ground around the country, Coalition assessments have turned much blacker in the past week: Tony Abbott is gone in Warringah.
The NSW seats of Gilmore and Reid seem lost, and the Coalition may not even pick up Lindsay from Labor.
Cowper may be lost to Rob Oakeshott, and Farrer, despite Sussan Ley’s 20 per cent margin, to a local mayor.
Senior cabinet ministers are panicking and drawing in resources to protect their own seats.
Labor’s surplus promise
Even the prospect of the release of Labor’s policy costings didn’t seem to offer much hope for the Government, after Labor pledged it would create surpluses twice as large as the Coalition’s over the decade.
“Labor’s surpluses cannot be believed and the Australian people know that”, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said on Friday.
“They know the last time Labor delivered a surplus was 1989 and the Berlin Wall was still standing. Wayne Swan promised surpluses that never eventuated”.
The Coalition’s only problem with this argument is that, before it came to office in 2013, it promised a surplus in “each and every year” of its first term. And we are still waiting for that promise to be delivered.
Or in the splendid tense-contorting language of the Prime Minister this week, “We’ve brought the budget back to surplus next year”.
Labor’s promises were also made as the global financial crisis relentlessly tore away at government revenues, a situation which has only really been reversed in the last couple of years.
Shorten finds confidence
The Opposition Leader, on the other hand, has grown increasingly confident.
Mr Shorten is prepared to take more risks in how he answers questions and how he presents his policies. In a political world where we have lost a tolerance for nuance, the Opposition Leader has been prepared to inject more of it into his answers.
There is also a shift in Labor’s rhetoric on climate change policy: where it once kept emphasising how it was really only implementing Coalition policies with a few additions, it is now spruiking its policies as a much more aggressive attack on climate change.
The Labor leader is finding room to recalibrate messages, like revisiting arguments about intergenerational equity.
Mr Shorten’s economic frontbenchers are out there saying “yes, we are offering a very different take on how the country should be run”.
They may still be talking about “key investments” rather than “increased spending” and “budget improvement” rather than the removal of tax concessions. But the message is clear nonetheless: close tax loopholes — which Labor says benefit only small groups of people — to fund spending on child care, education and health.
The spending numbers are huge. But it says much about the lack of cut through of the campaign that a promise to spend $4 billion on child care subsidies during the next four years doesn’t really seem to have registered with voters, or even the promise to make dental care affordable to pensioners.
Labor will need to re-brand
Listen to the “vox pops” on radio reports and you are constantly reminded how little attention people actually pay to election campaigns.
So Labor’s biggest risk isn’t whether voters think the numbers in its costings add up, but getting over the entrenched view that it is not as good an economic manager as the Coalition.
Like Bob Hawke and Paul Keating in 1983, if as now seems expected, Labor wins, it will have to start from scratch in office persuading people that it can manage the budget.
And that makes the structure of its spending and taxing promises particularly interesting.
Election promises have increasingly become ones that stretch out until we are all dead, or at least for a decade.
But, built on the funds raised from measures like the proposed changes to dividend imputation and the taxation of trusts, Labor’s promised spending, in areas from schools to infrastructure, aggressively starts within the next term of the Parliament.
Voters will be able to assess Labor on its record in three years’ time.
Given the likely nature of the Senate, that is a strategy full of political risk. The likely Senate crossbench has signalled its hostility to many of the revenue raising measures Labor has set out, leaving a question over what happens if the money isn’t there to fund the new spending.
And there is the broader question of whether voters, in three years’ time, will be feeling better if the promises are delivered.
Forces beyond our borders
Labor has rightly talked of a possible global downturn, of a sluggish domestic economy and an economy “not growing in the right way” in terms of equity.
It argues it is prudent policy to spend the majority of the money it raises from closing tax loopholes on a budget surplus “fighting fund” to protect Australia from future downturns.
But what do its policies do to address its central attack on the Coalition over the domestic economy experienced by most voters — an economy that people do not feel is delivering?
You can’t really model the impact on the economy of individual measures, but Labor’s finance spokesman Jim Chalmers said on Friday, “what we are proposing today is in the economic orthodoxy more likely to grow the economy than what the Government is proposing”.
Chris Bowen argued Labor’s more generous investment allowance and larger tax cuts for low-income households would boost consumption, as would childcare subsidies by lifting disposable income.
Labor’s history is one of winning government when things have gone bad globally.
There is nothing it can do to stop that global trend if it happens again in 2019. But its political and economic task will be to deliver enough of what it has promised to overcome the voxpop of Labor, and lock in the shift in the debate about the role of government that lies beneath its 2019 campaign.
Laura Tingle is 7.30’s chief political correspondent.
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