The political case against big-government conservatism

I’ve posted regularly on the Howard government’s big spending habits. While I think much of this spending is unwarranted on policy grounds, it’s going to be hard to resist while Liberals still believe that it works politically. In this morning’s Weekend Australian I outline an argument as to why big-government conservatism isn’t a viable long-term strategy for the centre-right (there’s more detail in my Policy article).

The argument has parallels with the mummy party/daddy party thesis. Voters view political parties in stereotypical terms, seeing Labor as stronger on ‘welfare’ issues such as health, education and social security, and the Liberals as stronger on tax, defence and immigration (Newspoll’s list is the most accessible). Like most stereotyped views they are not completely immune to reality, but as the general public often has a poor grasp of actual trends they tend to form judgments based on their general perceptions of the parties, rather than their real record or (for Oppositions) their alternative policies.

This is one reason why despite increasing spending more quickly than the Keating government on education, health and social security over the last few years, and at a considerable rate by any standard, the Coalition still trails Labor as the better party on these issues. Using the Australian Election Study measure, the Coalition has recovered some of the ground lost as they cut the Budget deficit in the mid-1990s, but they are not back to their 1996 position. And as I say in the Weekend Oz:

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