It seems unlikely that any Labor hardheads attribute the party’s substantial and persistent poll lead to the suite of policies announced by opposition frontbenchers over the past year or so. As they no doubt know, the main reason for Labor’s lead has been the disunity and ideological confusion within the Coalition that has left it increasingly incapable of governing itself, let alone the country. The test for Labor is yet to come: uncommitted voters, not renowned for taking a keen interest in policy announcements between elections, may be expected to tune in as we get closer to polling day.
Since the election of Gough Whitlam’s government in 1972, electorally successful opposition parties (led by Malcolm Fraser, Bob Hawke, John Howard, Kevin Rudd and, most recently, Tony Abbott) have essentially pursued a small-target approach, seeking to focus on the alleged shortcomings of the government and minimise the vulnerabilities that a too-detailed policy manifesto can expose. Risk avoidance of this kind possibly reached its height when Kevin Rudd described himself as a fiscal conservative in 2007.
The most celebrated attempt to buck this trend was made by John Hewson, the Liberal leader who lost the “unlosable” federal election in 1993. His proposal for a goods and services tax is widely seen as the main cause of the defeat, with prime minister Paul Keating running a masterclass in how to take apart a sucker who gives you more than an even break. But it’s important to remember that the Liberal leader’s apparent inability to explain the detail of his proposed GST may have contributed to his defeat as much as the tax itself. As Keating advised, if Hewson couldn’t explain the detail, why should the voter bother trying to understand it?
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