If this morning’s Newspoll (pdf) on which party would best handle various issues is right, the Coalition’s policy change to support signing of the Kyoto protocol has seen it drop 10% to 15% as the party that would best handle the environment. That’s their lowest score on the evironment ever. Their decision to drop WorkChoices has seen their rating for industrial relations drop 7% to back where it was when the original WorkChoices was in force.
Their decision to defend the Howard government’s record on the economy has seen them drop 9% as the party that would best handle the economy.
Their unknown policies on a range of other issues have seen similar drops in health (9%), education (8%), water planning (7%), welfare and social issues (7%) and national security (11%).
So whether the opposition agrees with the government, disagrees with the government, or has no policies the results are much the same.
Issue ownership theory assumes that it is pretty rare that voters have more than the vaguest idea what policies parties have, and instead they infer which party would best handle issues from prior perceptions of the party and recent general performance. The Coalition’s leadership problems and chaos on the apology and industrial relations, plus the ongoing Ruddmania on the other side, are driving these results. The Liberals are still ahead on the economy and national security, as issue-ownership theory would predict based on past strong results, but those issues are experiencing the same trend as all the others.
In recent work I have been doing on issue ownership I have found that the recent general performance theory holds up much better for the Coalition than for Labor. I’ve studied this by looking at survey-to-survey movements in the two parties’ ratings as best to handle and seeing if they move together.
My statistical skills are rather limited, but generally if we compare movements in the Coalition issues of inflation, interest rates, and tax the correlations between them are above .8 (where 0 would mean no statistical relationship, and 1 would mean a perfect statisticial relationship). The exception is immigration, which correlates at around .6, at least partly due to some large movements around Tampa and the Rau/Solon debacles. There are a relatively small number of surveys on the economy, defence and national security.
The same thing can be seen with Liberal movements on Labor issues. They have .8 correlations between their rating movements on welfare and education, industrial relations, the environment, and unemployment.
Correlations with leadership satisfaction are a bit lower but still high, on around .7.
For Labor, there are high correlations on the Liberal economic issues, but on their own issues the correlations are all over the place and no more than .7 and as low as .13. The most common are in the .4 to .5 range.
The numbers needn’t match the Coalition’s (in reverse) because Labor can lose and gain from minor left-leaning parties as well as the Coalition. But based on the general theory that most voters know too little about the issues to make specific judgments, except for the main economic issues that have clear and well-publicised indicators and the occasional very high-profile story, we would still expect most issues to move closely together most of the time.
I don’t really have a good theory as to why Labor’s ratings seem to show so much more issue autonomy. Perhaps the Liberals, despite a long period in government, just don’t leave a strong issue impression on voters. That leaves them very reliant on strong leadership, and in deep trouble when they do not have it.