Thursday, November 22, 2007

SPIN DOCTOR: Flawed from the beginning

The Coalition had the wrong message

On the morning after the Coalition’s last defeat in 1983 the conservative commentator Frank Knopfelmacher appeared on ABC radio and was asked why he thought they had lost.

He replied with anger: “They had nothing to say and they kept saying it”.

The same can’t be said about the Coalition this time. It has had a message, but the wrong one.

It was encapsulated in its slogan and the Prime Minister talked it up again in yesterday’s final campaign address, which was overshadowed by the controversy about the distribution of fake campaign material...

As Mr Howard said: “I haven’t heard Mr Rudd talk about full employment. I haven’t heard him talk about further reducing unemployment. Unlike me, he does not have a goal of reducing unemployment to three per cent during the next term.”

That was actually an embellishment on the goal John Howard set at the beginning of the campaign when he said there was “no reason why the current unemployment rate in Australia should not be markedly lower than it is and certainly with a ‘three’ in front of it.”

But the sad truth is that neither goal is something that Australians currently want.

And it should have been obvious. Advertising works best when it hooks into a perceived need. A promise of water works well during a drought. A promise of jobs works well during a recession.

But a promise of even more water when people already have more than they can handle is unlikely to work at all.

Right now almost anyone who wants a job has one and knows that there are more going begging. In the ACT (Australia’s tightest labour market) there are actually more jobs vacant than there are people available to fill them. A promise of even more jobs adds nothing.

It’s the same with John Howard’s broader (and uncomfortably abstract) concept of “growth”.

You won’t find any politician acknowledging it before election day but Mr Howard was broadly right when he told parliament in March this year that working families had never been better off.

A promise of even faster economic growth, an even greater boost in spending power, isn’t particularly compelling when spending power has climbed an extraordinary 25 per cent since the start of the decade.

Particularly not when the Reserve Bank has mentioned “growth” in the same breath as “inflationary pressures” on every one of the last ten occasions on which it has pushed up interest rates.

It is possible the see our lack of interest in the Prime Minister’s primary selling proposition as a classic “insiders” versus “outsiders” divide: The insiders who have jobs aren’t particularly keen on measures such as accelerated economic growth and WorkChoices that might make life uncomfortable for them while reducing unemployment further. The outsiders who want jobs would welcome the growth and welcome WorkChoices.

Or so the argument goes. But the other truth that no politician will acknowledge right now is that there are very few outsiders left. The head of the Treasury Ken Henry made the point in a leaked address to his staff in March. By and large what is good for those of us with jobs is good for the nation.

Electorally and economically the Coalition chose the wrong selling points in this election, and when they had installed the backdrop and started talking they couldn’t stop.