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Aboriginal policy - not an issue Howard can win on

By Peter Tucker - posted Friday, 6 July 2007

If you subscribe to the theory of issue ownership in electoral politics, and I do, then it is unlikely that John Howard’s “national Aboriginal crisis” will be decisive in boosting his popularity with the voters.

This may or may not be good policy; I don’t know. It is no surprise that Dennis Shanahan thinks it is while Jocelynne Scutt thinks it isn’t. I will leave them and others to debate policy values and effectiveness: what I am interested in for this paper are the electoral consequences. I am not cynical enough to state that Howard orchestrated this to be another “Tampa boost” for his electoral fortunes - rather that, now the policy decisions have been made, they deserve some electoral analysis.

To “own” an issue in politics means that, in (enough) voters’ eyes, your party will do a better job of delivering on that issue than the other party. The theory is well known and accepted by political practitioners, although surprisingly little appears in research and scholarly literature. Perhaps it is one of those concepts that is taken as a “given” in the cut and thrust of every-day political strategy and tactics.


Notwithstanding, the University of Missouri's John Petrocik is one writer in this field, and for those interested in the theory it is worth reading this 1996 article.

The theory has a number of assumptions at its heart.

One is that voters make their vote choice based on the few issues that dominate their thoughts on voting day. For example, it is the received wisdom that the issues of the economy and national security delivered victories in 2001 and 2004 to the man who “owns” those issues, John Howard.

The theory also holds that every party has its own inherent terrain where it claims its voters. In Australia, Labor benefits when welfare issues such as health, education and social services dominate; the Liberals and Nationals when it is the economy, interest rates or border protection. Former political advisor to Bill Clinton, Dick Morris (even if Peter Brent’s character assessment of him as a “spiv” is correct) was right to maintain that it didn't matter who was the most effective debater; what mattered was whether the issue was your issue: "If it was, you won. If it was not, they won."

So, it is not necessarily vital to win the public debate - what matters is that the discussion is centered on an issue you own. That is why I believe, for example, contrary to some commentators, that bad economic news (say a rise in interest rates or unemployment) would not be curtains for John Howard. Issue ownership theory maintains that if voters are spooked by the economy then they will turn naturally to the party perceived to be the best fixers of the economy, and that is Howard’s conservative coalition.

So what to make of Howard’s current focus on Aboriginal welfare? Kevin Rudd, if he understands politics at all - and providing he is prepared - must be struggling to keep the grins in.


What, Rudd happy with Howard dominating the media on Aboriginal issues? Here are three issue ownership “rules” that help explain why Rudd has every opportunity to prosper from Howard’s foray.

Rule 1: Promote your issues to the top of the list.

It is important to get the issues that voters believe you are best to deliver on to the very top come election day. John Howard was masterful, many commentators have argued, in the way he pushed the economy and border protection - his issues - to the forefront at previous elections.

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About the Author

Peter Tucker has worked in Tasmania as an advisor for the Liberals in opposition and in ministerial offices for both Labor and Liberal governments. He is author of the Tasmanian Politics website, and is a researcher at the University of Tasmania’s School of Government.

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