Gittins: Who's better at running the economy?
Many are pleased the Liberals are back in power. It makes a sort of sense that the party of the bosses is better at running things than the party of the workers. Ross Gittins explains.PT3M51S http://www.canberratimes.com.au/action/externalEmbeddedPlayer?id=d-2thic 620 349 September 10, 2013
At last. God's in his heaven and all's right with the world. The rightful rulers of this country are back in charge, so now things can only get better. You think I'm joking? I'm not.
There's an American psychological test called the implicit association test which asks people to divide nice words and nasty words, black faces and white faces, into two categories and do it as fast as they can.
When journalist Malcolm Gladwell, author of Blink, tried the test he was so dissatisfied with his score he did it over and over, trying to improve his results. Why? Because he's half Jamaican - with a fabulous afro haircut - but the test revealed him to be unconsciously prejudiced against black people.
Illustration: Simon Letch
It turns out more than 80 per cent of all those who have taken the test were found to have ''pro-white associations''.
Gladwell explains our attitudes towards race and gender operate on two levels. We have conscious attitudes, things we choose to believe, which we use to direct our behaviour consciously. But the test measures our unconscious attitudes, ''the immediate, automatic associations that tumble out before we've even had time to think''. Such unconscious attitudes affect our behaviour without us realising it.
I believe something similar operates in our unconscious attitudes towards the two main political parties. We see the Liberals - the party of the bosses - as the party best suited to run the country.
Sometimes enough of us feel sufficiently rebellious to install Labor - the party of the workers - but this leaves many of us uncomfortable and yearning for the return of the masters. And when, sooner or later, it becomes clear Labor isn't doing well, no one is terribly surprised and we rush back to the security of our pater familias.
You don't understand anything about the underlying forces of Australian politics until you understand that.
It applies particularly to the economy. For decades pollsters have asked people which side of politics is better suited at managing the economy. And for decades the almost invariable answer is the Coalition.
There was a time during the term of the Hawke-Keating government when the economy was doing well and Labor was ahead on this question. But such times are the exception. Normally, Labor judges its success just by the extent to which it has narrowed the gap with the Libs.
It follows that the more the economy is seen as the dominant issue of federal politics - as it has been since Gough Whitlam's day - the more the Libs are seen as the natural party of government.
No one believes this more fervently than business people, of course. Business is always uncomfortable with a Labor government, but the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd government proved much less adept at maintaining good relations with business than the Hawke-Keating government.
So much so that the economist Saul Eslake has noted ''the extent and depth of antipathy among the business community towards the present [Labor] government - which goes way beyond the normal inclination of most business executives or owners towards centre-right governments''.
A big part of the problem was Labor's resort to the language of class conflict, starting with its decision to rename the original mining resources rent tax as the resource ''super profits'' tax.
New governments always enjoy a honeymoon with the electorate and a lift in business. But this time it's hoped the turnaround in business confidence will be big enough to lead to a recovery in non-mining business investment, which has been weak for several years.
The resources boom and its high dollar, the end of the housing credit boom and the return of the more prudent consumer, and the continuing digital revolution mean that, although the economy has been travelling well enough overall, various industries have been hard hit by ''structural change''.
Most of these structural pressures are beyond the influence of government policy. That's particularly true of retailing, which includes a lot of small businesses and has been doing it especially tough.
The temptation for hard-pressed business people to blame their troubles on a Labor government has been irresistible. The change of government will make them a lot happier. And the more confident business is about the future, the better it's likely to do. The test will come when businesses realise their underlying problems haven't gone away.
Business people are usually highly critical of anyone seen to be ''talking down the economy''. But, we've learnt, this ethic applies only when the Coalition is in government. Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey were talking the economy down for at least three years, and many business people were publicly agreeing with them.
Of course, the assumption that Liberal governments always manage the economy well - that, in Abbott's revealing phrase, it's in their DNA - is wrong, just as the assumption that Labor governments are always bad at it is wrong.
The hope that all our problems will evaporate now the good guys are back in charge is wishful thinking.
But that doesn't stop our deeply held assumption to the contrary - an assumption shared by both Liberal and Labor politicians - from having real effects on our behaviour. One of the surprising truths of economics is that, to some extent, our expectations are self-fulfilling.
And already the budget and boat-people crises are over.
Ross Gittins is the economics editor.