It’s the timeless sales pitch for joining a political party: A megaphone and bad hair will only get you so far, the real way to effect political change is from ‘inside the tent’.
But when it comes to politics, we’re not happy campers. Membership of mainstream political parties is on the slide, with Labor’s shrinking and disaffected base a key area of debate during the weekend’s National Conference.
Essential polling this week shows meeting the Prime Minister’s target of 8,000 new members this year will be a serious challenge for the party. In fact, to achieve the target will mean improving the current performance by a factor of about 8,000.
This week we asked about membership of all sorts of social, community, recreational and political organisations and of all these categories, it is the political parties that are suffering the most.
Tony Abbott’s attempts to turn the nation’s richest households into welfare victims has resulted in a self-inflicted political wedge that turns the Coalition’s creed of self-sufficiency onto its own support base.
It was the sideshow of budget week, reporters scouring the nation for hard-working Aussie families, victims of Labor’s decision to finally begin winding back the system of universal direct cash payments that became a feature of the Howard years.
Manufacturing outrage at the moves to cap payments to families on incomes of under $150,000 was always a big ask; after all a constituency of 15 per cent – concentrated at levels far above the threshold – is hardly a mass movement.
As results from this week’s Essential Report show, the measures had the majority support of not just Labor and Green voters, but also Coalition voters and families earning above the threshold.
The compelling narrative emerging from the Canberra Press Gallery is that Labor is dead, Gillard is a dud leader and the whole show should put itself out of its misery and hand power to the Coalition.
It’s a message reinforced with the release of each major opinion poll; take this week ‘Budget falls flat’, ‘Gillard on the nose’, ‘More troubles with boatpeople’.
The problem is that polls and analysis are completely different beasts and if you judge the national debate purely on the numbers, there is a very different story – a government weighed down by a major reform, stabilising in key areas.
1. Preferred Party
The Coalition has an election-winning lead, but it is two years out from the election. The polling numbers have been stable since the announcement of the carbon tax – proof that Labor requires a long game if it is to win the next election.
This week’s Essential Report actually picks up a minor bounce to Labor, exaggerated by some rounding issues, but like the other polls, Labor is behind but not miles behind.
|2PP||Election 21.8.10||4 weeks ago||2 weeks ago||Last week||This week|
Today’s budget will pit Treasurer Wayne Swan against an increasingly grumpy elephant in the corner, with growing concerns about cost of living pressures beginning to colour people’s broader outlook on politics.
Since the Global Financial Crisis, Essential has been picking up a growing determination by people to rein in their spending and increase savings; but at the same time grocery prices, housing prices, fuel prices and the cost of water and power have all been rising.
The result has been an almost emotional response for many voters – “we are trying to do the right thing with our household economy, but we are being frustrated by forces beyond our control”. The following responses complied as part of the Channel Ten Essential Lifestyle Index, illustrate the point.
|Affordability of groceries and general household items||17%||64%||43%|
|Affordability of your housing – mortgage/rent||41%||39%||39%|
|Affordability of electricity/gas/water||10%||78%||28%|
|Affordability of petrol||7%||81%||16%|
The vindication of Lindsay Tanner’s thesis that the Canberra Press Gallery has turned politics into a celebrity blood sport may be the fact that his key argument is being largely ignored.
Behind the war stories, Tanner’s thrust is that the trivialisation of politics is a natural function of a media industry fighting for its very survival under the pressure of technological change, increased competition and dwindling audiences.
With so much focus on our twin domains of media and politics we couldn’t resist using this week’s Essential Report to test some of these propositions.
First, we tested people’s level of interest in politics, finding that while older Australians are highly engaged, younger people increasingly are not.
Pollsters are regularly accused of treating politics like a sporting contest, so given there is no fresh data over Easter it’s time to indulge our inner footy fantasy.
Easter is bit like quarter time in a big game, the key contests are developing, both sides are giving us glimpses of their respective strengths and weaknesses while individual performances are coming under the microscope.
And if you look at the Two-Party Preferred scoreboard Tony Rabbit’s Blues are well ahead of Real Julia’s Reds after a scrappy start to a quarter that was ultimately dominated by one critical play.
The Scoreboard (2PP)
The most intractable global conflict in the past 100 years, the struggle of the Israeli and Palestinian people to co-exist, confounds rather than polarises the Australian public.
With a bitter public debate playing out between conservative commentators and sections of the Australian Greens, this week’s Essential Report finds that when given the options of black or white, the general public opt for grey.
As we did recently with attitudes to Muslims, we asked the questions to understand, rather than inflame the issue. What we found was an electorate that is not picking sides and is prepared to admit the issue is too complex for simple solutions.
Q. What, in your view, is the single biggest obstacle to peace in the Middle East?
|Total||Vote Labor||Vote Lib/Nat||Vote Greens|
|Unwillingness of Israelis/ Palestinians to compromise||33%||38%||31%||37%|
|The Israeli (housing) settlements in areas which Palestinians claim for an independent Palestine||6%||6%||7%||14%|
|Israel’s oppression of Palestinians||8%||8%||8%||15%|
|Palestinian terror attacks on Israelis||5%||3%||7%||5%|
|Infighting between the various Palestinian organisations (e.g. Hamas and Fatah)||6%||5%||7%||4%|
|Inaction by the United Nations||3%||4%||3%||2%|
|Opposition to Israel from other Middle Eastern countries||8%||7%||9%||-|
The Prime Minister has been dedicating a significant slice of stump time in recent weeks to explaining the differences between the ALP and the Greens, how one emerges from real-world struggles and the other is a group of out-of-touch extremists.
A similar debate has been being waged within the Greens following their underwhelming NSW state election performance, where a local candidate’s intervention in the Middle East peace provided the platform to portray the party as a collective of bat-faced ideologues.
But as the debate about the Greens’ orientation gains pertinence as they move to assume the balance of power in the Senate a more basic fact is being missed: Labor voters and Green voters agree on just about everything.
A review of findings to Essential Research questions over the past few months finds that on nearly every big debate the similarities between Greens voters and Labor voters far outweigh their differences.
Beyond its gob-smacking human tragedy and the looming economic catastrophe, the Japanese tsunami has thrown a radioactive wildcard into the global debate over climate change.
The fallout from the meltdown of Japanese nuclear reactors will undermine the until-now successful attempts by the nuclear industry to reposition itself as part of the global warming solution.
As this week’s Essential Report shows, the public had been coming around to the idea that developing nuclear power in Australia was acceptable. This has changed dramatically over the past seven days with one quarter of all Australians changing their position.
Q. Do you support or oppose Australia developing nuclear power plants for the generation of electricity?
|27 Jan 09||20 Dec 10||Total||Vote Labor||Vote Lib/Nat||Vote Greens|
Context is everything. All of a sudden Labor’s political predicament does not seem as dire; no-one is dead or missing; nuclear reactors aren’t melting down; the only after-shocks are electoral.
The enormity of the Japan catastrophe wipes everything else from public consciousness, allowing a wounded prime minister and her team to step back from the limelight, reflect and regroup.
As this week’s Essential Report shows, there is a path to repairing the damage the government has suffered and a way of setting up a debate that could, in the long-term, see it regain the political initiative.
Like so much in politics, the secret lies in the questions you ask. Ask whether people support a price on carbon and the answer is a decisive ‘no’.
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