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Feels like an election year? Here’s why

Both political parties are lining up their elections strategies now, even though an election could still be a year away. AAP Image/Lukas Coch

The former British Prime Minister, Harold Wilson famously said a week is a long time in politics. If this is the case, then you have to wonder how long it will feel if the current Parliament runs it full course.

Lately, Australian politics has seen a flurry of activity on issues as diverse as asylum seekers, dental health, the National Disability Insurance Scheme and the carbon floor price - along with sideshows such as Tony Abbott’s encounter with the ABC’s Leigh Sales and Julia Gillard’s combative press conference. And there’s more to come too, with the government’s imminent policy response to the Gonski recommendations on schools funding.

All of this activity points to a Parliament focusing hard on the next federal election. For different reasons, both the Coalition and the ALP will be desperate to see the end of minority government and return it to what they see as its natural state – a strong majority government. Strategists in both parties, faceless or otherwise, will be sharpening their marketing tools to make this happen.

So it’s timely to consider the election strategies of the major parties and speculate on what might get them into government.

Voting drivers

Smart political strategy understands how voters make their decisions. A useful starting point is to reflect upon the last federal election, and consider the drivers of voting behaviour. The ANU runs the Australian Election Study (AES) a comprehensive survey after each election, and this data gives key insights.

In 2010, we know that most voters claim that they had made up their mind a long time before the election (at least 40%); yet we also know that the major parties have far fewer “rusted on” supporters than they used to. Interestingly, about a quarter of the voters polled claim they only decided their vote either a few days or even on election day itself.

This poses a problem for the major parties. If you set out the “big picture” policies too soon you risk losing your message, but leave it too late and your party looks like it is locked in a policy vacuum.

The 2010 AES gives a good sense of the policy priorities that drive voting intention. Health policy (and not sound economic management) was cited as the main issue in how people settled on their vote (27.3% compared with 21.6%). Just 7.6% cited global warming as the main issue - despite the attention given to the carbon tax.

But the 2010 election, of course, is just one example – some issues will feature more prominently than others at different times. But the usual policy suspects appear again and again: the economy, health and education. If parties get these key areas right, it can help a lot when it comes to election time.

Despite the media attention and public spats on the issue – immigration, while a concern, is unlikely to be one of the key deciding issues.

The Labor strategy

What does this all mean for the parties?

For the Gillard government, there is an interesting policy space which has now opened up. The ALP will be hoping that they have finally lanced a few poisoned policy boils, namely the mining tax, the carbon tax, and now off-shore processing.

The hope is that public support will at least soften on these issues. Labor will be pushing hard to renew its economic story, but as the Howard government could testify in 2007, this alone is not enough.

There are also lessons from the recent state elections for the ALP. The Northern Territory election was a reminder that the parties cannot take their traditional supporters for granted. Clearly local factors are at play, but Labor’s heartlands are disillusioned with the party. Its indigenous support fell away, and the party’s own review noted the declining support from other culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) groups.

Labor will have to remind them that they offer a distinctive social policy agenda.

The recent dental announcement, along with the National Disability Insurance Scheme may well be an outlier of other social policies to bolster support from low to middle income earners. Housing policy, the most unsexy of all social policies, might well form part of this strategy.

The Liberal strategy

What of the Liberals? There is a tension at the heart of Tony Abbott’s highly effective and aggressive strategy. The polls indicate it is working, but it is based on what the opposition won’t do, rather than what it will, if elected.

The current strategy puts repealing the carbon tax front and centre. Yet, as shown by the recent decision by BHP not to expand the Olympic Dam (while explicitly stating it was due to capital costs and not Australian taxes), this is a strategy with its limits.

The Liberals will also have to offer a positive vision, and its pledge on fiscal conservatism does little to demarcate it from Labor.

Herein lies the other problem for Abbott. He is the party’s most conservative leader in many years, yet the party also needs to appease its liberal base. At the last election, its commitment to a paid maternity leave scheme was an attempt to out-flank Labor from its left, and also address Abbott’s unpopularity with many women voters. The Liberals may well find a new policy area to attempt this again – perhaps work-life and childcare issues.

Whilst Labor might raise the spectre that the Coalition will launch Workchoices 2.0, Tony Abbott is determined to down-play the issue.

Both parties will also need to rebuke any suggestion that they occupy too much of the same policy space. AES data shows some hope here in that most voters do see some differences between the two.

A creeping Presidentialism in Australian politics means the importance of party leadership is growing in the minds of voters. All you need to do is look at the knifing of Kevin Rudd to see the role of leadership can be crucial.

Rational voters?

Whilst the policy debate is important, it also presupposes a focus on the “rationality” of how voters make decisions. Yet in truth, it remains a combination of many factors. To win outright, the parties will need to calibrate their strategies around this complexity.

Indeed, as the other famous Harold of British politics (MacMillan, not Wilson) is credited with saying, “politics, is events, dear boy, events”.

The fallacy of strategy is that it does not allow for the unexpected.

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