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From left field: Comments on the 2001 Federal Election Campaign

By Warwick Powell - posted Monday, 15 October 2001

The Great Debate

Labor supporters will have renewed enthusiasm after the performance of Beazley in last night’s debate (and Howard’s mediocre showing).

It couldn’t come at a better time for the ALP in the wake of Kernot’s residential conundrums and a first week that was largely dominated by international affairs and refugees.

Whether or not the debate’s so-called result amounts to much is a different matter altogether, however. While post-debate polls point to a Beazley ‘victory’, the voting impact of the debate’s outcome is negligible.


Newspoll has it that 47% of viewers weren’t swayed by the debate; 26% were more inclined to vote Labor and 20% more inclined to vote for the Coalition with a further 4% uncommitted. (3% said they’d vote for someone else.) In other words, taking into account the margin of error, the behavioural impact was negligible.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise though: behaviour is largely a function of habit and evolving dispositions. (As psychologists are happy to point out, ‘habits are habit forming’.) Which means that single events are never going to be decisive.

It’s taxing, very taxing

The commentariat has been fond to describe the election as a battle between a party that’s strong on global affairs (the Coalition) and one that’s strong on domestic matters (Labor). Of course, this is a bit of a misleading dichotomy because the lines of distinction are never that clear-cut.

In any event, there’s no way that the election campaign will remain focused or dominated by the so-called global events of terrorism and boat people. This isn’t because these issues will go away – far from it – but for the reason that at the end of the day national governments are about making decisions about taxing and spending. Which goes to the very heart of voter sentiments, the old hip pocket.

Beazley did well when talking up the things he’d like to spend money on. Education, health, aged care, the environment, job security and such like. Howard certainly isn’t so strong on the surface of it, but his position is pretty clear – raise revenue via the GST, make the States spend it on whatever they want.

The crunch will come, as the campaign nears polling day, for Beazley to deal with the other side of the equation. You simply cannot get through an election campaign with the world focused simply on one side of the equation – in this case, what Beazley would like to spend money on. If you’re spending money, you have to explain where that money’s going to come from.


Once again, that gets back to taxation. (What election hasn’t been about taxation?!) The budget details are likely to show a pretty small surplus. So Labor’s spending program will either have to be curtailed to work within the new constraints or revenue options will have to be considered. (I seem to recall a moments honesty from Labor Senator Steve Conroy about this particular trade-off!)

Labor botched the 1998 election because it couldn’t get it right on tax. And this was despite the hugely unpopular GST being on the table. The issue that will progressively emerge for Labor is whether it can get the taxation equation right this time.

Voters love the sound of spending programs, it sounds good, feels good and isn’t mean spirited. But they just as much hate the sound of someone reaching into their pocket to extract hard earned dollars. If the GST is here to stay, and let’s face it no-one is going to do much about it, then people are going to start wondering when it’s going to go up and by how much. And who will be the first to raise it.

Will it be the Party that has a big spending, dare I say it visionary, program? Or will it be the Party that’s renowned for its mean-spiritedness.

There’s a long way to go yet before election day. Labor’s spirits are surely up today, but there are some thorny issues out there to be dealt with. And as Labor fights its way back into the race, people will have no choice but to start asking the hard questions.

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About the Author

Warwick Powell was an advisor to the Queensland Labor Government 1992-1996, and was involved in marginal electorate campaigning. He is now a research consultant in private practice.

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