Rebecca Huntley Columnist

Rebecca is a director of The Mind & Mood Report, an author and social commentator with a background in publishing, academia and politics. She holds degrees in law and film studies and a PhD in Gender Studies.

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Bar set low: What voters say they want from an Abbott first-term and why Malcolm Turnbull keeps coming up

Published 04 September 2013 10:21, Updated 26 November 2013 18:35

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Bar set low: What voters say they want from an Abbott first-term and why Malcolm Turnbull keeps coming up

Tony Abbott’s paid parental scheme is attracting flack from voters for being too generous. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

With the election just days away, BRW columnist and researcher Rebecca Huntley took her team into the field to take the pulse of ordinary voters. As she reveals in this exclusive piece, voters expect Tony Abbott to cruise to victory. But they are yet to be convinced of his economic and business credentials.

Here’s the good news for Tony Abbott, who now looks almost certain to become Australia’s new prime minister after September 7: voter expectations of the incoming Coalition government will be very low.

While this underlines the apathy of much of electorate towards the election, it is actually a good thing for Abbott and his team. The excited hopes generated by the Kevin ’07 election created a landslide but also a high bar which the Labor government failed to clear. Better to surprise and delight an electorate who think little of you than disappoint an electorate that believed the hype.

I am writing this less than a week before an election, after a week in which my team of researchers and I conducted discussion groups in Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland. We sat in living rooms and backyards in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Cairns and Dubbo with groups of voters aged from their late teens to mid-70s.

All groups were underwhelmed by a lacklustre campaign that was short on policy discussion. The campaign has seemed to be all about personality and slagging off the other guy. There was very little positive said about either Rudd or Abbott. Positive, almost wistful, things were said about Malcolm Turnbull. (“Wouldn’t it be great if he was the leader?”) The consensus was that the Liberal Party would win and that the general desire for a change of government was far stronger than either Rudd’s (somewhat overrated) appeal, or the question marks about Abbott as a person and potential leader.

As one 30-year-old woman from Sydney’s west put it: “Everyone is over the Labor games. They scraped in by the skin of their teeth last time. It’s been a mess and we want them gone.”

While our qualitative research matches the story being told by the published polls, it also hints at potential challenges for an incoming Liberal government. Which policy areas should be addressed to surprise and delight the voters who have opted for the “better than” option?

Everyone is over the Labor games. They scraped in by the skin of their teeth last time. It’s been a mess and we want them gone

Voters will demand a focus on economy

As I discussed in a column for BRW a few weeks ago, job security was the big topic among groups, a topic they felt had been neglected in the campaign. Participants hoped a new government would do whatever possible to invest in industries with the capacity to thrive and employ people in the future.

In this respect, there was some debate about what these industries of the future really are. “Should we be propping up car manufacturing when it is so easy to buy good cheap cars from Asia?” asked one young man from inner-city Sydney.

At the same time, neither party seems to be committing to funding tertiary education enough. Isn’t education services a better bet than car manufacturing? “They are pulling out all this money from universities but investing all this money into keeping Holden. They are saving it because it is an Australian icon, not because it will be good for the economy.”

What about investment in agriculture? This was one area where regional and urban voters alike believed there was a future and the government could do more to support farmers in their struggles with the supermarkets (no, not another Grocery Watch, but something that will actually work). An Abbott government will have to focus on explaining to the voters how it will support those future growth industries and what it will do to boost job creation.

Interestingly, there was frustration expressed at the extent to which the boat people issue has come to dominate domestic politics. Even those against the idea of Australia accepting more asylum seekers said there was too much emphasis on the issue and the solutions seemed unconvincing. “We’re going to make stronger borders? It’s the election issue. I can’t believe it,” one respondent said. “Get over the boat people. You can’t stop the boat people,” was another typical comment. Unless Labor changes its position on asylum seekers, we may see a period when the issue moves to the background, which would be a welcome relief for many voters. An Abbott government will not be judged on how many boats arrive on these shores but how many Australians it keeps employed.

Parental leave unpopular

Abbott’s paid parental scheme attracted some flak for being too generous. While there was strong support for paid parental leave per se, the Liberal scheme was seen as over the top. This makes me think the Liberals’ PPL scheme could afford to be scaled down to a more modest measure, as long as it offers at least the same as the current scheme. The new government could do more to encourage businesses to offer flexible working arrangements, quality part-time work, on-site childcare and take a strong stand about the representation of women on boards. If they did step back from their PPL scheme as it exists at present, I suspect it will be like the abolition of the baby bonus, where relatively few tears were shed.

While the view of the Liberal Party as better managers of the economy remains strong, there was a tension among participants between those concerned about the impact on the economy from cuts to the public sector and services and those keen to see the end of big government spending, which they associate with two terms of Labor government. But in general, the view was that whatever happens to the economy will hinge more on global markets and China than anything the federal government might do. “The economy is so dependent on international markets. It won’t make much of a difference. The Chinese control us more.”

What was clear – both from this round of research and a report we published in August on regional Australia – is that the community understands the importance of a
world-class broadband network. The perception that the Liberal Party’s commitment to building one is weak remains a concern for voters, especially those in rural and regional Australia. “I think the NBN is the future, and to do a half-arsed job on it, like Abbott plans to do, then that’s a problem. There’s no point spending $20 billion on it if they end up using shitty bits of copper to connect up to people’s houses. It defeats the whole purpose.”

Voters are often presented as being very short term and selfish in their decision making, thinking “what’s in it for me?” That is largely true. They are also viewed, cynically, as making decisions based on personality and trivia. But how could they not, given that appears to be what this campaign has largely been about?

Underneath the self-interest and the silliness, searching and important questions are being asked by Australians about what kind of country we are going to be in the near future. Which industries will provide jobs? How will we work and live in an ageing, resource-constrained society? And is the solution – the path to prosperity – to spend or to save?

As usual, there are more questions than there are answers. But the big question, which is unlikely to be answered by the election result, is: Where is the leader with the capacity to get us there?

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