Eden-Monaro voters of all persuasions have given a thumbs down to Tony Abbott’s paid parental leave scheme.
The plan - which is under strong attack from Labor - was seen as too generous by the focus group of voters in this bellwether seat. People thought it should be means tested, believing it was unfair that women who earned high incomes received paid parental leave.
They were sceptical about how it would be funded. Most thought ordinary people would end up paying, as they felt big business - which would be levied to help finance the plan - was likely to pass on the costs.
The Eden-Monaro group held its fifth discussion last Wednesday and Thursday; it will have its final word on the campaign early next week. The seat is held by Labor on a 4.2% margin.
A Liberal-voting middle aged woman from Merimbula said the government’s more modest PPL scheme was “a much better plan overall. All paid maternity should be means tested so as not to just favour the high income earning women.”
Another Liberal supporter described the current scheme as “more affordable”, while a Labor voter from Cobargo said the Abbott plan was “nothing more than a vote grab”, with the $75,000 cap being “ridiculous”.
A Greens voter from Jerrabomberra said the Labor approach was “more economically viable” and fairer.
But some voters who preferred Labor’s existing PPL scheme believed it should include more parents.
A few Liberal supporters liked the Abbott plan; although having concerns about how it would be funded, they agreed with it being open to all Australians and thought the generous cap was fair.
An older male from Bendoura said that maybe this was the wrong time for the plan as the economy was slowing “but I suppose we have to start somewhere. Why discriminate on wages?… The woman on $80,000 a year still has financial commitments to fill, just the same as someone on $40,000.”
Many older participants, regardless of their political affiliations, did not think women should be paid for having babies and did not believe governments should be paying for parental leave.
They commented that the money would be better spent on health and assistance for older Australians and more child care places and lower fees.
A woman who votes Green from near Braidwood said: “Why should parents get funded to have kids anyway? The chaos created in businesses when workers go off and have babies is only matched by the chaos created when they come back and are on the phone every ten minutes organising babysitters. It is also very unfair to the employees who don’t have babies but don’t get six months off with pay.”
An Eden older woman suggested: “perhaps we should get rid of all middle-class welfare - then we could lower taxes and provide an incentive to work harder. Many singles are hit to pay for others’ kids.”
A Narooma older Liberal-voting male said he was not a great fan of any type of parental payments, “except where they are used to increase productivity. For one thing, they are discriminatory, not everyone benefits.”
With the likely composition of the Senate after this election both unclear but important, especially if there is a change of government, almost all the participants, regardless of how they vote, thought that one party should not control both houses of parliament. They believed the Senate had an important function in reviewing legislation and providing balance to make sure the government of the day did not pass through inequitable laws.
“Without the Senate a ruling party with a large majority could push through virtual dictatorial laws,” said a Liberal-voting male, while a female Labor supporter said that “someone needs to apply the brakes when necessary.”
A Greens supporter believed that, “if you had both houses controlled by one party, there’d be no debate about anything.” But on the other hand, “if control was split, the lower house would pass a bill and the Senate would block it and nothing would get done, which wouldn’t be very good. I suppose that’s where it is important to have a mixture of both major parties and some members of the minor and independent parties in each house, so it’s not just a matter of one party having the majority and doing what they please without any discussion.”
But opinion was split along partisan lines about the minor parties, with some saying they provided balance and others saying they would have too much power. “I do not want the country to be controlled by one or two fringe dwellers,” a Liberal supporter said; a Greens voter believed that having the Greens and independents holding the balance of power meant there was genuine debate.
A few voters said that having one party in control of both houses would allow legislation to be passed instead of being blocked in the upper houser.“The make up of the Senate should be as a result of the will of the people,” said one; another complained the Senate had been “hijacked by party politics” and did not perform its original house of review functions.
Many participants, especially Liberal supporters, were critical of the Greens. They did not trust the minor party and were more likely to have changed their opinions of the Greens for the worse since the election was called. They hoped the Greens would not hold the Senate balance of power in the next term.
A Liberal voter said the Greens were “one of the major factors of the Labor failure in government,” adding that “to be dictated to by a minority of votes is an anachronism - as bad as, if not worse than, one party dominating the Senate.”
A Labor supporter from Tuross Heads condemned the Greens’ “poor performance - they have become a pain in terms of having to change legislation.” She said that if the Greens had left the carbon plan as it was, the carbon tax would have been an emissions trading scheme and “not hurt the pockets of working people with higher electricity bills. The Greens are responsible for this.”
A Green supporter defended the party saying “I know the Greens are criticised for being inflexible, but really they are sticking to their principles, something Labor and Liberal never do if they can compromise. Is this good or bad? Depends on your viewpoint.”
When they talked about how they felt towards the leaders, people largely divided along party lines. Many, regardless of their affiliation, were critical of both leaders and parties and did not trust Tony Abbott or Kevin Rudd. They thought both were misleading the Australian people and were generally less certain about who would win the election or who they would vote for. There was a strong sense that these participants were over the election and had switched off from the campaign.
One Liberal supporter said “trust - I don’t think they know the meaning of the word. I don’t really trust either party at the moment, very confused as I like some of Ruddy’s ideas and I like some of Abbott’s too, but I dislike some of both of their ideas.” A Labor supporter said she was becoming “totally bored with both leaders, sick of hearing what the other party didn’t do and would just like to hear some detailed plans on what each intend.”
People were asked to assess whether this election campaign was more or less negative than earlier ones - they were shown an advertisement from the ALP and Liberal parties as examples. While many thought the current campaign was very negative and designed to evoke fear, people generally divided along party lines in their responses.
Labor supporters and one Liberal were more likely to agree with and be convinced by the Labor ad “He Wins, You Lose”, saying it was a realistic depiction of what the Coalition government would do to services and jobs if elected. But Liberal voters thought Labor appeared to be desperate in resorting to an attack ad.
Overall, voters of all persuasions were tired of the negativity and fear mongering of the current campaign and wanted to hear positive messages about policies to improve the country. Some thought localised campaigning that focused on local issues would be better than the current focus on leaders, and that that type of campaign would encourage them to pay more attention.
But overwhelmingly, participants had very little knowledge of what local member Mike Kelly and Liberal candidate Peter Hendy were campaigning on in the electorate. They had not heard much from either candidate and were unimpressed with their perceived low profile. With the exception of a few voters, most people’s opinions largely followed party lines.
People were asked which of the two main candidates they thought better for Eden-Monaro and were then asked who they thought would win the seat. They were evenly split on who they thought would win. Liberal supporters and some others thought Hendy would win; they felt he was a good candidate and would be better for the seat.
There has been a small shift towards Hendy since the last time the question was asked in the group.
In contrast, Labor voters and some others said Kelly would keep the seat and felt he had performed well and preferred him to Hendy.
Although campaigning had increased in the seat, it is not consistently across the electorate with some voters seeing the two main candidates or their volunteers in their area and receiving material, but others getting very little and not seeing either candidate.
THE RESEARCH: The Eden-Monaro online focus group is conducted by Essential Research (with recruitment by Your Source) for the University of Canberra’s ANZSOG Institute for Governance in conjunction with The Conversation.
The group’s views will be tracked up to the election.
Twenty four participants took part in the discussion last Wednesday andThursday. This was the fifth of six planned discussions.