The mistakes the Coalition can't afford in an election year

Simon Cowan

05 January 2019 | The Canberra Times

A new year always brings with it new challenges and new hope. And since the government already has too many challenges, it could sure do with some more hope.

More specifically, it is in desperate need of an election strategy to give it hope of overcoming its crushingly poor position in the polls.

There are two priorities it can follow. The first, and perhaps the most important, is to stop inflicting more damage on itself. At the point last year when it should have been developing and refining an election strategy, it was removing yet another prime minister.

The second is to develop a competing, overarching, narrative to Labor’s so-called ‘fairness’ agenda. One of the government’s greatest weaknesses has been its inability to draw broader connections between its policies.

In following these priorities, there are three particular pitfalls to avoid.

The first is not to develop a radically different policy agenda. With a matter of months to an election, it would be foolish to attempt to develop detailed new policies from scratch now anyway. It is stuck with what it has.

Which means, contrary to the accepted wisdom in some quarters, the time for a radical policy u-turn to deal with the energy crisis has now passed.

With state governments dominated by Labor, and even Liberal governments disinclined to follow the federal government lead, there is little — perhaps nothing — the federal government can do that will have a meaningful impact on power prices. Nor would any policies be likely to endure very long after the federal election.

Of course the federal government has never been able to unilaterally impose a preferred energy solution, hence the detailed and painstaking negotiations around the NEG, but to re-attempt this so late in the election cycle reeks of desperation.

The second big mistake would be to try to outspend Labor in areas such as health and education. There are two reasons this won’t work. First, the government is bound to attempt to deliver its surplus, which limits its available cash.

Secondly, and more importantly, Labor will almost always outspend the government in these areas, because it has to in order to satisfy its base. Anything the government promises will simply be either dismissed by the electorate, or overspent by Labor, or both. This was the lesson of Turnbull’s Gonski 2.0.

The last trap the government should avoid is the promise of yet another infrastructure revolution to deliver the votes it needs. Every budget in the last decade, with precious few exceptions, has promised a massive new infrastructure spend. Delivery of these project is slow, and their merit questionable.

No better example can be found in the myriad of promises in recent years to build a very fast white elepha…, erm, train.

But the government is not without cards to play. Labor remains irredeemably weak on the issue of border protection and refugees. The fact it was not debated at the recent Labor conference suggests the current leadership is aware of this weakness. But there is little it can do to resolve the issue.

Assuming Labor wins government, it’s clear it will be faced with constant calls from within the ranks and by activists on the left, to fundamentally rethink our border protection program.

Yet we know from CIS polling released late last year that voters — in rich and poor suburbs alike — support the government’s refugee policies.

The government has also delivered a surplus; the first in 10 years. Though questions remain over the public’s enthusiasm for this, it is an economic achievement worth noting. The challenge for the government will be to prevent this being seen as the Coalition simply righting the budget for Labor to come in and spend recklessly again.

To avoid this, the government must convince people that economically rational decisions are in their best interest. Labor presents government as the solution to all problems; the Coalition must disrupt this narrative.

There are also credible concerns over the impact of certain Labor policies. Though the government attempts to harness discontent over Labor’s retirement incomes policy has been relatively ineffective, anger remains over these changes. And rightfully so. This is not good policy.

However the government must be able to explain the problem to people who are not of retirement age or facing a loss of income. They need a deeper message.

Labor has made fairness, or at least its version of it, central to many of its policies. The government lacks a competing theme. Its ability to develop one thus far has been fundamentally inhibited by its constant obsession with internal politics.

Further internal focus will result in a lost election. It needs to start convincing voters that the core ideas behind Labor’s policies are wrong, and building a coherent alternative — based on ideas that actually work.

Simon Cowan is research director at The Centre for Independent Studies.

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