Wayne Swan has been working hard over the last few days to blame inflation on the previous government. But will the public believe him?
In the Newspoll series of questions on which party is better to handle various issues, inflation has been one of the Coalition’s strengths. Of the 43 times Newspoll has asked about inflation since 1990, the Coalition has been rated as better 41 times, with an average lead of a huge 17.7%. One of the exceptions was the Downer leadership meltdown in late 1994 which affected all Liberal issue ratings, the other was a smaller wide dip in July 1992 (can anyone remember what was happening that month?).
If both Labor victories in Newspoll were because of self-inflicted Coalition political wounds, it means that Labor could not win the inflation issue on its merits despite having inflation below 2% for a couple of years in the early 1990s.
Though the Liberal winning margin seems sensitive to inflation performance – for example, it dipped when inflation spiked after the GST was introduced – this seems to be an issue that the Liberals ‘own’. They still had a big lead despite the GST effect.
If so, this seems contrary to the general theory of issue ownership, which suggests that voters use party stereotypes most when it is difficult to assess actual performance. For the general public, there is a well-publicised single indicator of inflation in the CPI, which would seem to make it relatively easy to make simple coincidence=cause assessments.
Time will tell whether Labor can take inflation from the Liberal list of owned issues. Labor won’t be the only people hoping that inflation will be seen as a Liberal legacy. The RBA mandarins in Martin Place, who really are to blame for our inflation problem, will be just as eager for somebody else to pay the political price.