Perverse small-target strategies leave voters guessing

Oppositions often run small-target strategies. It’s been pretty special to watch an incumbent government run one.

On the one hand, this approach by the Turnbull Government has its logic.

Looking at nothing but precedent, you’d bet on a first term government holding power. Yes, even after the recent upsets in Victoria and Queensland. Commonwealth politics is still very different to state politics. It has a different dynamic. The chance that this government would be the first Commonwealth government since James Scullin to lose an election after one term is low.

But on the other hand, the strategy leaves voters with a dilemma.
A vote at an election is either an endorsement (or rejection) of the performance of a government’s previous term, or an endorsement (or rejection) of its promises for the future. The two are of course related – previous performance offers some guide about how promises might be fulfilled – but what use is that if the government is coy on its future plans?

It is striking how many policy issues have been ruled out, are seen as out of bounds, or deliberately downplayed throughout this campaign – issues that have dominated the elections of the past, issues that have swung votes, issues that have led to the downfall of leaders and governments.

Take climate change policy for one. For the last decade Australian elections have featured complicated, emotional and often arcane contests about emissions trading schemes, carbon taxes, the cost of emissions restrictions on living standards, and the ability of Australia’s parliament to affect the global climate.

But this year you’d be hard-pressed to find much discussion on the national stage about the fact that not only does Labor have a policy to reintroduce the emissions trading scheme, but the Coalition’s direct action scheme has a built-in mechanism – the so-called safeguard mechanism – that could easily be switched into a full-blown trading scheme at will.

Labor doesn’t overemphasise its policy for fear of sparking the sort of criticism that characterised the last three elections.

For its part, the Coalition doesn’t want too many voters to know about their safeguard mechanism because the whole thing relies on a confidence trick. The Turnbull Government is building an emissions trading scheme that doesn’t look like an emissions trading scheme.

In this sense, climate policy is not just bipartisan. It is deeply misleading. Voters deserve to know that debate on Australia’s role in global climate policy has been ruled out.

Same with industrial relations. The reforms to union management that were the justification of the double dissolution in the first place have been underemphasised to the point of constitutional negligence.

When Turnbull became leader last year it looked like the ducks were lining up for changes to penalty rates. I wrote about this at the time. Earlier this month Turnbull even ruled out legislation to enact the minor penalty rate change recommended by the Productivity Commission – that is, bringing Sunday penalty rates in line with Saturday ones.

Both Labor and the Coalition have decided to defer to the independent Fair Work Commission, which will make a decision on penalty rates sometime after the election.

But penalty rates are such a minor part of Australia’s industrial relations system – and the proposal to bring Sunday rates and Saturday rates together is such a minor change – that this hardly counts as any policy at all.

Ironically, Tony Abbott – the leader who declared WorkChoices “dead, buried and cremated” – had a more prominent policy on industrial relations in 2013, when he was very clear that the Fair Work Act was going to be reviewed for its red tape burden.

After the success of Brexit many supporters of the Remain camp have focused on the apparent ignorance of voters. It is certainly true that people make votes with less than complete knowledge. How could they do otherwise? A vote to change a government is one of the most complex, information-intensive decisions we ask the population to make.

Even voters who are relatively informed compared to their fellow citizens are, in an absolute sense, highly under-informed. There is just no way a single voter could maintain a working knowledge of the sheer volume of policy responsibilities of the Commonwealth government. Governments are so large, have their fingers in so many pies, and affect our lives in so many ways.

That’s what makes the deliberate, strategic shrinking of the range of political debate so perverse.

The next government, whether it is under Bill Shorten or Malcolm Turnbull, will have an industrial relations policy and they will have a climate change policy.

It shouldn’t require painstaking detective work for voters to figure out what those policies are.