The Liberals and the issue cycle

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.

3 thoughts on “The Liberals and the issue cycle

  1. Interesting. It sounds like your ‘issue cycle’ theory is actually pretty much the same as Mark Latham’s in his ‘The Latham Diaries’.

    The only real divergence is Latham believed that in while the punters have these stereotypes of the parties, and their own concerns bring one party or other to the forefront depending on how important one is over the other at any time, media coverage also plays a big part. The actual content of the coverage doesn’t matter (as most don’t have the interest or capacity to go into it deeply; even if the media were to cover it in depth) but how many stories there actually are about the decline of health care versus, say, whoever the latest Liberal Party whipping-race happens to be (Asians, Aborigines, Arabs, Nigerians, etc) or general terrorism fear-mongering.

    No doubt this theory will make politics even more dreary once added to each party’s tactical arsenal (as if having Latham repeat ‘ease the squeeze’ and Rudd repeat ‘working families’ endlessly weren’t bad enough).

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  2. Pete – The idea of the issue cycle certainly isn’t original, but I have not been able to find any prior Australian attempt to see if the evidence matches the idea. Some of the US research also tracks media mentions as you suggest. I don’t agree however that the content of that coverage is irrelevant. For example, though the Liberals normally win migration as an issue, the negative coverage of the Rau and Salon cases in 2005 caused the Coalition to temporarily fall behind Labor in the Newspoll best to handle series. This is a good test of media influence, because unlike lots of the other issues asked about these bungles had no practical effects on most voters, and so they were purely media-driven stories.

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