Game of narratives

Budget and Budget reply set the terms of election battle

Andrew Hughes

PHOTO: AAP

Government and governance, Arts, culture & society | Australia

15 April 2019

What should Australia expect from the election campaign? Andrew Hughes sets the scene.

An election has been called and Australians will head to the polls in five weeks.

But what can we expect in the coming campaign? Look no further than this month’s Budget and Budget reply. They have set the tone and narrative for how each major party will try to woo the vote.

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First to Labor. Bill Shorten in his Budget reply speech stuck so closely to the Labor playbook on delivery I actually think he wrote it.

There was the tangibility of loss (the personal case studies of people who have lost out under the Coalition), the social aspirational policies (better Australia and curing cancer), and Liberal Lite economics.

The tangibility of loss is a nice negative strategy by Labor. It is accurate because these are real stories. And as real stories, they have the credibility and authenticity that a direct message from Labor does not. But they also play on the fear in our minds of “What if that was me?” It moves a distant and difficult policy to being a personal, close issue.

Then there is the subtle fear messaging, signalled by the three- or four-word introductions of “Only Labor can…” and “Do you want…or more of…” Again – simple, effective messaging but definitely the scare.

On Thursday night we also saw, yet again, an Opposition Leader backed up by a cheer squad in the public gallery to give the impression of popularity. And of course, there’s also the promise to everyone earning less than $125k on becoming a winner should they back Labor. Simply reduce the risk, increase the vote.

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On that point, the Liberal-Morrison Lite offering on the tax and economic front was done exactly for that reason. We’re just like them here, but we do social progression too.

Addressing cost of living through bigger tax cuts on low- and middle-income earners was a nod to the fact that Labor’s going to find it hard to get their living wage up without becoming a one-term government.

Weaknesses in details regarding negative gearing and franking tax credit policy were brushed over in the pursuit of that good ol’ Labor-Liberal chestnut, the greater good, or the common folk.

That class warfare narrative was clearly front and centre.

How we define ourselves now is markedly different to even five years ago. There are more and more of us in the working poor category. Again, this is a Labor strength – social welfare, education, and health all play into this narrative and can be developed across a campaign individually to inflict damage on the Coalition’s moderate flanks which have been left to drift under Morrison.

The Coalition voting record on the Banking and Disability Royal Commissions are perfect tie-ins, as are the personal stories of people who have been affected by Coalition policies in these areas. And socially progressive policies on Indigenous affairs, immigration, and climate change give Labor more strength. Increase the value, increase the vote.

But it won’t be easy for too long.

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The Coalition’s narrative of strong economic management is a hard one to beat in election mode, especially when backed up by tax cuts, bracket creep adjustment, and heavy investment in small- and medium-sized enterprises which had Peter Strong, the small business association spokesperson, grinning like a Cheshire Cat.

Quickly, they are learning to copy Apple’s product launch strategy, itself copied by Labor many times now. When you have an unpopular leader, have popular policies which do the heavy lifting for you. Reduce the risk, increase the vote.

The Coalition, however, needs to leave behind the hyper-conservative policies and focus more on its natural strengths of economic management. This includes providing a ladder of opportunity for the middle class to reach the upper levels in society, implementing reform such as Gonski 2.0 that Labor could never land with the Senate of this current Parliament, and keeping the regions onside.

The Nationals need to help themselves more too – they are being outflanked not only by One Nation but, more worryingly, by the Shooters, Fishers, and Farmers. If they were mounting a serious federal campaign, they would probably win three or four Senate spots off the Nationals. Increase the risk, decrease the vote.

As this campaign kicks off, Labor is in the box seat of having the stronger narrative, but only thanks to their policies – not their leader who still remains the non-preferred Prime Minister. This means they also have more to lose if the Coalition can increase Labor’s perceived risk, and thereby increase their own vote.

It should be a very interesting campaign indeed.

This piece is part of Policy Forum’s Australian Election coverage, and published in partnership with The Australian National University.

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