Debt versus jobs: battle lines drawn for next election
The battle lines in national politics have now been drawn along a fault line summed up by two four-letter words: debt and jobs.
In the one corner we have the Rudd Government, justifying an audacious program of pump-priming in order to protect jobs; in the other we have the Opposition, telling us it’s all about debt.
The key to understanding the jobs versus debt debate is that this is not an argument about economics – it is a battle to manage the national agenda.
And the stakes are high, as this weeks Essential Report shows,
the performance of the rival political parties is largely determined by the ground on which the battle is joined.
Ask the population which political party is better at protecting jobs and Labor is ahead by 13 points. But switch the question to who is better at managing Australia’s debt and the Coalition is up by 22 points.
What this means is that the debate on economic management really depends on the question that is being asked. This is entirely consistent with political research conducted by US pollster Vic Fingerhut all the way back to the 1960s.
Whenever the question is who ‘is better at handling the economy’, right of centre parties romp it in. But when the question shifts to which party is better at ‘handling the economy in a way that helps ordinary working people’, parties of the Left prevail.
It’s a simple but potent distinction – if the economic debate is an abstract like debt – put your money on the Tories; put people into the economic equation and Labor is back in the game.
That distinction is also backed by this Essential Report; despite awful polling in recent months the Liberals are still up eight points on handling the economy; but when we ask about handling the economy in a way that helps the punters, Labor is up by 10 – that’s an 18 point switch.
The point here is that in establishing a debt versus jobs debate both political parties are playing to their strengths; the Liberals by turning the debate into an abstract number; Labor in trying to turn it into a job that means something to someone like you.
What the Fingerhut theory suggests that no matter how smart he is, Rudd will struggle to win on debt; and no matter how worldly Turnbull tries to be he will always lose on jobs.
So the battle becomes one of agenda management – the dark art of convincing the public your issue is the one they should really be concerned about..
In this regard, I think the Liberals start with a natural advantage – figures on debt are released regularly and every time it provides an opportunity to highlight the high levels of debt as Labor battles to keep the economy ticking.
In contrast, Labor is trying to win a debate based on saving a job that you haven’t lost yet – the sort of intangible that is a little hard to illustrate.
At present Labor is combating this by highlighting the long line of nation-building projects that its stimulus package is creating, and casting the Liberals as being hypocritical by opposing these investments even when they welcome them at a local level.
This is a good debating point for Labor, but a more potent line of attack will emerge when work actually starts on this projects and the photo of the school is joined by a photo of the worker in the hard hat who is spending their time building the school hall rather than lining up at Centrelink.
Until we see the faces on the jobs created, Labor can be expected to struggle, in the meantime they could do more to prick the Liberals’ debt balloon by comparing it to the levels of debt in other comparable nations.
This debate will be a long haul and by year’s end we are all going to be so sick of these two four-letter words that we will be throwing our own expletives at them.
But don’t under-estimate the importance of making the two issues important – at the end of the day, the party that establishes its frame as the indicator of economic competence will have the rails run to the ballot box.
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