The part of this morning’s Newspoll that stood out for me wasn’t the down in the usual ups and downs of party support and leadership satisfaction, it was the results of the question on which party the respondent thought would ‘best handle the issue of the economy’.
Labor was five points in front (44/39), the first time it has been in front under Rudd, and indeed the first time it has been in front since March 1990. Admittedly Newspoll didn’t again ask this precise question between 1990 and 2005, but chances are that if they had Labor would not have been in the lead. The ‘recession we had to have’ took hold shortly afterward, and on more precise economic questions on inflation, interest rates and unemployment Labor was behind.
Perhaps this bad result for the Liberals on the economy is a residual Barnaby effect – a finance spokesman vague on the difference between a million and a billion is not exactly confidence inspiring – plus a downward general ‘Liberal performance’ perception that seems to infect all their issue ratings, regardless of whether or not anything relevant to that issue has occurred.
But if it is not these factors, it is a worry because this is one of the few issues – the others being taxation, defence, national security and immigration – on which the Coalition has a history of strength relative to Labor.
The case for it being a lasting problem comes from the apparent good performance of the economy under Labor, at least compared to other countries. Because the economy is fairly easy for voters to assess, there is less reliance on party stereotypes in rating economic performance than for other issues. The case for it being a temporary problem is that there has been a big drop in just a month, which suggests recent highly salient factors may have had an impact.
By coincidence, Tony Abbott gave a lengthy speech on the economy today. Some of it is clearly aimed at assuring his own side – claiming ownership of the party’s history on this subject, and impliedly distancing himself from the quasi-socialist ideas of his mentor BA Santamaria.
But while the rhetoric ticks boxes, the detail was less impressive. The stimulus programs are easy targets for wasteful spending, but even in the unlikely event the Coalition wins the 2010 election they’ll be largely over anyway. It’s structural cuts that need to be made to deliver a low-tax agenda, and there are none of these in the speech. With the Coalition opposing Labor spending cuts, and promising a big spending increase of its own to fund parental leave, we are just left hoping that no announced cuts is a political tactic and not a governing strategy.