Two peas in a pod of discontent
Date August 31, 2013
Peter Hartcher - Sydney Morning Herald political and international editor
The overwhelming view among voters is that Labor has blown it.
The opinion polls tell us who's winning the election and who's losing. Focus groups tell us why. The political parties rely on them heavily to guide strategy. This week, Ipsos Research convened groups in western Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne.
If Labor still likes to think of western Sydney as its heart, then it needs to get itself into the intensive care unit because it's in the process of cardiac arrest.
They invited me to sit and listen to a mixture of Labor, Liberal and uncommitted voters. They all earn low to middle incomes or, in the case of some of the Melbourne voters, they have retired.
Unlike most focus groups, these are largely undirected - participants are invited broadly to discuss the election and the economy so any of the specifics that emerge do so spontaneously.
The starting point is that neither Kevin Rudd nor Tony Abbott is liked or appreciated.
''I think Tony Abbott is a giant wanker,'' says Rose, a Brisbane woman in her 30s.
''I think Kevin Rudd is a bigger wanker,'' rejoins the woman sitting next to her, Nikki, around the same age. ''His own party doesn't want to work with him.''
With the exception of one Melbourne woman in her 60s, a devoted Liberal named Dorothy, no one had a kind word for Abbott except to compliment him on his physical fitness.
And even that is questioned as an unalloyed virtue. One woman points out the amount of time it takes to maintain high levels of fitness and Nikki wonders: ''Is he going to continue doing all that exercise if he's elected?''
And the kindest thing anyone has to say about Rudd is that ''I like him better than I liked Gillard'' and this is greeted with nodding all round.
At one point, an older Melbourne woman, Kathy, expresses her general frustration at the political situation by forcefully proposing: ''Let's get rid of all the men and put a woman in charge!''
''What, like Julia Gillard?'' counters Dorothy, to a chorus of ''I don't think so'' from the other women in the group, including the Labor sympathisers.
''The thing is,'' says Peter, a Brisbane man in his 40s, ''neither Rudd nor Abbott is actually dumb. They are both quite intelligent.''
''They are not likeable fellows,'' John chimes in, emphasising ''likeable''.
''I think you've hit it,'' says a third man.
It's ''who you hate least'', rejoins John, who identifies as a Labor supporter.
It is only the Queensland blokes who mention the Greens at all. And while they have kind words for Bob Brown, they can't remember the name of his successor: ''It's some lady.''
The next common theme that quickly emerges across all the groups in all cities is that voters have trouble finding compelling policy differences between the two main parties.
It's not so much that they don't know what the parties' policies are. The groups touch on quite a few. It's more a case that many of the parties' policies have converged to the point where they have become hard to tell apart.
Just as Labor toughened its policy on boat people to seem as muscular as the Liberals, so have the Liberals moved to seem as caring as Labor on school funding.
And where people in the focus groups bring up some of the specific policy ideas that the Coalition has pushed during the campaign, it turns out they don't much like them. The most vehement objections are the ones to Abbott's own signature policy, his paid parental leave scheme.
Sean, a 40-ish Sydneysider at a group gathered in the suburb of Smithfield, says: ''$75,000 for six months is a lot of dough to sit at home and have a kid. I never had that, my wife never had that.''
The women are harsher. ''I don't like Abbott's parental leave policy,'' says Divina in Brisbane.
''It's bullshit and it's unfair,'' Rose concurs with feeling, to agreement all round.
''They want to give people money to have babies,'' says Ruth, a Melbourne woman in her 60s, with some indignation.
''It's absolutely ridiculous,'' says Kathy.
Even the staunchest Liberal of the lot, Dorothy, won't defend this one: ''Tony will get my vote but he's made a blue on this one.''
And the Coalition policy to buy fishing boats at Java seaports, so they can't be used by people smugglers, is widely dismissed as silly.
''They're going to spend millions of dollars buying boats from Indonesians so they can buy more boats,'' says Will in western Sydney, although Dorothy insists that it's worth trying.
And in Brisbane and Melbourne, the groups express suspicion over the Liberals' decision to keep their budget costings a close secret to the final days of the campaign.
''They have the election in the bag so they don't have to bring out their costings,'' says Rose.
''They're keeping the smokescreen up. I'm scared it's going to be like Campbell Newman but on a bigger scale.''
The large-scale public service cuts imposed by Queensland's conservative Premier are not on the minds of the groups in Sydney and Melbourne. But they weigh heavily in Brisbane.
''Campbell Newman raped us [in Brisbane, where he was lord mayor] and now he's doing it to Queensland. He went to the election promising he wasn't going to cut,'' says John.
''How long do we have to accept this shit, as people? Why can't they be held accountable for what they say?''
Frank says: ''If we were Europeans, we'd be in the streets protesting. It's because we're Aussies that we just cop it.''
And there's deep concern and resentment across all the groups that both major parties carry on with an unaffordable and unfair system of government handouts.
The Coalition gets, if anything, even more criticism than Labor on this. Abbott's parental leave policy is part of it but it's much bigger than this.
After hearing of Abbott's policy to make payments to long-term unemployed people who take and hold a job for at least a year, Peter says: ''How come they give money to the unemployed - what about the people who've been working for 25 years?''
Barbara, in Melbourne, wants to know ''why are they giving money to a Cadbury factory in Hobart?'', a reference to Abbott's promise of a $16 million grant. ''Is it a government factory?''
In western Sydney, Josh, in his 40s, spoke for his group when he voiced resentment at their perceived position as the financiers of other people's handouts: ''We are all blue collar and all in the same class. We are in the class that gets bent over and screwed on tax.
''Everything we earn - wages, bank accounts - is out in the open,'' he says. ''We're not upper class that can hide stuff. We're not the class living off the government. We are the mainstream. We're the ones who pay for it all.''
And an exasperated Frank in Brisbane summed up the feeling of many: ''If the country's finances are so f---ed, why don't they stop giving away money?''
And yet, despite all of this, not one of the participants in any group suggested that Labor would be better to deal with any of the components of the problem.
No one defended Labor's handling of the budget, nor its performance on dealing with the handout mentality.
One of the self-described blue-collar workers of western Sydney is uncontradicted when he says: ''Labor is good if you wanna sit back and they'll look after you … The Libs are the ones who, if you wanna get up, work up a sweat, they'll look after you.''
Even the declared Labor sympathisers didn't try to defend its record or speak on its behalf. If Labor still likes to think of western Sydney as its heart, then it needs to get itself to an intensive care unit because it's in the process of cardiac arrest.
Labor has been largely written off. On its conduct, when discussion turned to Labor's leadership coups: ''We must look like a dickhead country when all that happens,'' says Ruth, who is otherwise restrained. Her comment meets general concurrence.
And, on its conduct of the national budget: ''When John Howard was in, the country was at its best, then Labor comes in and spends the lot,'' says Ian of western Sydney. An older friend had told him it was ever thus.
''It's been this way for 50 years. The Libs come in and build the bank account up, then Labor comes in and spends it all.''
And here is the reason that Rudd's scare campaign on Abbott's alleged secret plan for ''cuts, cuts, cuts'' isn't working. Even the Queenslanders who are angriest about the conservatives' cuts at the state level, even though they are apprehensive of Abbott, are resigned to an Abbott government.
They don't like or trust Abbott. Rather, they are putting trust in the Liberals' brand. It's product identification, a vote for the party of Howard and Peter Costello.
There is even an implicit assumption that it might be unpleasant but that it is necessary. The overwhelming sense, spoken and unspoken, is that Labor had its chance and has blown it.
''I do believe,'' says Bob in Brisbane, ''the Libs will slash and cut and the deficit will be reduced. We are in for that cyclic change now.''
John, a self-identified Labor man, reluctantly resigns himself: ''They will hurt lower and middle people as they do it, then we will change the government in six or eight years.''
Bob says: ''The Libs will get in. Does anyone here doubt that?'' Around the table in Brisbane, where the conservatives' cuts are still smarting, there is silence.
Read more: http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/ ... z2dVD5odXf