Is the Howard government running against the issue cycle?

In the Liberal election post-mortem, I think at least three levels of factors will need to be considered: the transitory, the cyclical, and the structural.

The media puts most emphasis on transitory factors, because these generate the material needed to fill the space and time allocated to Australian politics. Into this category I would put things like leadership issues, interest rates, various stuff-ups, and the campaign strategy. Most what-ifs belong here – what if Howard had left in 2006 and allowed Costello to establish himself as PM, what if Howard hadn’t promised in 2004 to keep interest rates low or if interest rates had stayed low, etc?

There will be some lessons for the future in all these experiences, but at least in principle things could fairly easily have turned out differently, and could turn out differently in the coming years. Analysis of these factors will have only modest value for the Liberals in planning their next move. Howard will be gone, and interest rates will be Kevin Rudd’s problem.

My main interests are in the other two sets of factors. Various aspects of public opinion in Australia are cyclical, with people’s views going back and forth without any long-term trend. Some of this opinion is of the what-is-to-be done variety. We have several decades of data, for example, showing that the public changes its mind over time on the balance between taxing and spending and on the right level of migration to Australia. We also have about 25 years of reasonably consistent survey questions on which issues people think are most important. The public’s basic stance on these matters may be stable – unemployment bad, hospitals good etc – but what varies is the emphasis placed on them as issues affecting votes.
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