Don’t let the title of this post fool you. This is a very easy concept to understand.
One of the reasons the Coalition, during this term of parliament, have managed to keep their primary vote above 44% and the Labor Party’s primary vote below 38% in the aggregate of opinion polls is because they’ve understood how to persuade the public to cast a negative judgement on a single policy issue and have that single negative judgement cascade like a virus through every other government policy issue.
Essential Media’s final poll for the year asked respondents what was the most significant political event of the year. The poll found 41% answering with the implementation of the carbon tax. This was followed by Kevin Rudd’s challenge at the start of the year for the ALP leadership at 14% and Don’t Know at 13%. These results are quite telling.
The Coalition have spent the last two years attempting to make every political event about the carbon tax. Your baby’s crying: blame the carbon tax. You have a dispute at work: blame the carbon tax. You’re caught in heavy traffic: blame the carbon tax. You get the idea.
There’s a very good reason they have done this: they understand that the more emotionally polarised the issue, the more likely people will view it as highly important and if they can get enough of the public to judge the issue in a negative way, the higher the chance of that single policy judgement affecting views on other policy issues even if they seem unrelated.
Consider health, education and industrial relations as political issues. These areas are usually considered to be the ALP’s strengths. I have not heard the Coalition’s shadow ministers for these portfolios define policies with any substance on these issues. Yet if you look at polling that asks which party respondents trust to handle issues, the only one of these three where the ALP are considered to be stronger than the Coalition is industrial relations.
I am sure there are other polls that ask this question which will show the ALP ahead on their strong issues such as health and education, but that’s not the point. The decline in trust for the ALP on these issues since the last election has been significant even though the ALP have more than likely either kept things stable or improved the situation in these policy areas.
The decline of trust towards the ALP on these policy issues is not because the relevant shadow ministers Christopher Pyne and Peter Dutton are policy geniuses who have redefined the issues of education and health as a newspaper like The Australian would probably conclude. It’s because the Coalition, by narrowly focusing on the carbon tax with a cult like fanatical zeal, have managed to paint all public judgements on the government’s performance on policy issues in a negative hue.
The ALP’s response to this has been to define Tony Abbott as a negative opposition leader who doesn’t have a bone for civil discourse or decent standards of behaviour in his body but it simply hasn’t worked and it most likely won’t work. Case and point: there have been around seven books written on this topic and Abbott himself has authoured three of them.
Since the introduction of the carbon tax, the response to the issue has gone from a negative reaction to a more neutral reaction even though this hasn’t changed the underlying support for the policy. This is understandable because the reality of the issue was never about the actual policy. It was about the multiple vectors of emotional reactions attached to it. These included “the lie”, the concept of the rural independents and the Greens controlling the government undemocratically, the idea that the tax was being imposed without community consultation leading to the feeling of communal disempowerment from a “bureaucratic” red tape imposing government combined with the perceived fragility of the parliament and massive amounts of global economic uncertainty.
These emotional vectors haven’t died, they have merely spread to other policy issues like a virus.
Since the carbon tax as a policy now generates a neutral reaction from voters, the next item on the list for the Coalition has been asylum seeker policy which again has never been about the actual policy, but the multiple vectors of emotional reaction attached to it. There’s the concept of Australia as an island that needs to protected from the “peaceful invasion” from “illegal” foreigners. There’s the concept of the Coalition’s version of the “Australian” social license being trespassed by people “not like us.” There’s the view that having caved to the Greens on one issue, the ALP are attempting to overcompensate by going further to the right (whether that’s really the case detail wise is considered irrelevant) than the Coalition on the issue and last but not least the philosophical wedge where the ALP claims to be humanitarian yet they allegedly allow people to die at sea on “leaky boats.”
If that issue becomes neutral, the focus will turn to the next issue up the hierarchy of concern which is probably the budget surplus promise and on it goes.
The more links the Coalition make between negative judgement and the ALP government, the worse things get because the issues begin to link up into a system and once a system is established it becomes extremely difficult to break the public’s justification of their views on issues without administering some sort of community exorcism.
I think the lesson from all of this is that issues do matter. Many view the solution to the public’s disengagement with civic issues as one of getting people interested in the political process. I think the real solution is for the participants in the political process to speak to issues rather than make everything about partisanship and personalities.
The response from many on the ALP “side” to that statement is to blame Tony Abbott for tearing down the standards of public debate. This ignores the fact that he has been speaking to issues in the community (yes, without substance, but he has definitely been speaking to issues) and it also reinforces the view that the political process is the problem which plays into the various frames the Coalition has established over this term of parliament which can be summed up using the words “this government has no respect for people’s democratic rights.” (note the use of the word rights. It’s a very progressive word that the Coalition have subtly used a lot during this term of parliament).
Building up positive emotional vectors in the community is a very difficult and complex thing to do, but in the end, it’s a reality of government in this day and age and it’s extremely rewarding if a government is able to successfully achieve it.
If the Coalition under Tony Abbott win the next federal election, the ALP will likely be able to take advantage of this concept as Tony Abbott has left the Coalition wide open to attack on multiple issues. It’s just a question of which issue the community gives the most weight to, galvanising community support and ramming it home.