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The fight for the kitchen table

9 Nov 2010

First Published on The Drum 09/11/2010

Nations may rise and fall by the sweep of history but governments are decided at the kitchen table, where all politics becomes not just local, but personal.

This is the place where bills and mortgage payments are pored over, family budgets are scrutinised, jobs and school are discussed. It is the space in family life where things have to add up.

Anyone trying to dig Labor out of its current hole could start by turning their attention to the kitchen table, because if this week’s Essential Report is anything to go by, Labor is in the middle of an increasingly messy food-fight.

Before we go to the numbers, a little polling theory applied to recent history. Essential’s Washington-based pollster Vic Fingerhut has a neat theory. Having polled in USA, Canada, UK, Western Europe and Australia since the 1960s, Vic has picked up what seems like a universal truth.

When you ask voters ‘which party is better at managing the economy’, right- of centre parties tend to enjoy a 20-point advantage. No matter how competent or hopeless the conservative party actually is, conservatives are seen as better economic managers.

But when you bring people into the equation and ask ‘which party is better at managing the economy for ordinary people like you’, the advantage slips away and the result is an advantage to the party to the Left.

There are all sorts of variations on this language – ‘managing the economy for working families’ is one form some may be familiar with, but the rule applies: Left of centre parties are perceived as being on the side of working people.

Under this theory, economic debates are not run on their merits, they are actually about framing issues according to the strengths and weaknesses of the respective party brands.

When the test on the economic question is about management capability like keeping interest rates or inflation down or managing government debt, conservatives should thrive.

But when the economic issue relates to ordinary people, like standing up to corporate power, providing secure jobs and helping them pay for their groceries, parties to the Left should do better.

In a world where there is little difference in the actual economic policies of the major parties, driven as they are by Treasury and Reserve Bank advice, the political challenge becomes one of agenda management, ensuring that the economic debate is played around issues that should benefit you.

For Labor that means keeping economics as close to the kitchen table as possible, being seen to manage the economy for ordinary people.

This was the approach in 2007, where concern about the Howard Government’s IR agenda was focussed on issues like job security and cuts to take-home pay through individual contracts. It wasn’t so much that IR defeated the Liberals, it was that the economic debate moved to the kitchen table.

Viewed from the kitchen table, responses to our questions on economic management make depressing reading for Labor. The first column ranks importance of economic issues, the second gauges which party is seen as best at managing the issue (a negative reading meaning the Liberals are ahead).

Very concerned Labor-Liberal difference
Petrol and energy prices 60% -10
Excessive executive salaries 54% +2
Affordability of housing 53% -5
Not enough regulation of banks 53% -10
Jobs going overseas 47% -6
Food prices and inflation generally 45% -13
Interest rates 44% -13
The age pension 37% +4
Not enough regulation of large corporations 36% -3
Improving wages for low income earners 34% +14
Taxation 32% -14
Not enough superannuation 32% -9
Government debt 31% -27
Unemployment 26% -1

A few things are clear from these results.

  • • Families are feeling under stress – prices of petrol energy and top the list of concerns and food prices are in the top five. This is the heart of kitchen table economics and the Liberals are seen as having double-digit leads. Somewhere between FuelWatch and GroceryWatch, Labor has given up its natural advantage.
  • • The Hockey effect is real. Not only are the issues of executive pay and bank regulation high on the list of voter concerns, the Liberals are seen as better at doing the job of regulating the banks.
  • • The only areas where Labor does have an advantage are best described as ‘welfare economics’ – the aged pension and looking after the low-paid – noble causes, but hardly mainstream politics.
  • • Ironically, the areas where conservative parties should be leading are actually low priorities for voters – despite the over-blown hype government debt is at the bottom of the list, while interest rates are mid-level. Unemployment, largely due to the low level of joblessness (a Labor success) is seen as a low priority, although Labor has received little credit for keeping it there.
  • • Finally, Labor is lagging behind the Liberals in a range of issues it should own. How can the Liberals be seen as better at dealing with superannuation, when their policy is to oppose the increase in compulsory contributions? When did the Liberal Party stop a single job being sent offshore?

What we are witnessing is not a merit debate, but a failure to frame and prosecute an economic debate in a way that makes sense to voters. So Labor is not leading on areas of traditional brand strength and it is trailing in areas where it has performed well in terms of economic outcomes.

While the economy is travelling strongly, the government stimulus saved jobs and interest rates remain historically low, somewhere along the way Labor has lost touch with the kitchen table.

These figures should sound a warning to Labor that it better find its way back soon or it will find someone else has taken its seat.

Peter Lewis, Director, EMC