The controversy-ridden book on the future of the Liberals, Liberals and Power, was launched on Friday by Alan Jones, who as the Australian‘s report of the launch noted, knows a thing or two about plagiarism himself.
My (unplagiarised, unghost-written) chapter was on the Liberals and the issue cycle. The basic theory is that the major parties each “own” issues, in that there is systematic pattern over time of poll respondents saying that they prefer one party over the other for that issue. These perceptions are only loosely related to actual policies and performance; they are stereotyped impressions of the parties that are substitutes for actual information.
The Liberals own taxation, national security, defence, migration and tend to do well on the economy (though this one is more performance dependent); Labor owns welfare, education, health, industrial relations and beats the Liberals on the environment (the Greens are a complicating factor for this issue).
Because issue ownership tends to be fairly stable over time (though the margins by which parties lead on their own issues fluctuates), issue cycle theory suggests that it is the relative importance of issues, more than the party’s performance as such on the issues, that determines which party has an issue advantage.
My argument in the chapter is that the medium term issue cycle was very much running against Liberal issues, and therefore the Coalition was at a significant disadvantage in the 2007 election, and would have been even without the shorter-term leadership problems.
Since the election, the Newspoll ‘very important’ issue ratings suggest that things have started to move a little in the Coalition’s favour. The economy is well up as an issue, national security slightly up, and Labor issues of the environment and industrial relations are down. However, Labor’s big two of health and education are virtually unchanged.
As noted, the economy is more performance-contingent than other issues, probably because performance is relatively easy to measure. While the Coalition holds on to a small lead over Labor as a party on the economy, Rudd leads Turnbull as the most capable of handling the economy. So far Labor has been able to largely neutralise the Coalition on the economy, but this issue has to be the Liberals’ best hope for avoiding the the scenario we have seen in the states, of Labor turning a modest initial victory into a massive majority that at least temporarily cripples effective opposition.