Longing for grown ups to cut out the silliness
Tony Abbott has access to more focus-group polling than I do, and he's clearly doing something right because he still looks like romping home at the next election. But I really wonder if he is listening to the big message.
Voters are fed up with tricky political manoeuvres and policies that may win a tabloid headline but don't actually make sense.
They may be worried about rising asylum seeker arrivals, they may be justifiably dismayed with this government's inept handling of the issue, but what they really, really want are politicians who solve problems in a civilised and constructive way and who focus on issues important to their lives - the economy, health, education. They want a choice between grown ups.
In recent times, it seemed the Coalition leader was hearing this message, cutting back on the sloganeering doorstops in fluoro vests where he warned of imminent carbon-tax Armageddon and concentrating instead on speeches and announcements about what he'd do if elected.
But then came the illogical pronouncement that he would save $1.3 billion by cutting 6000 refugees coming to Australia from what he called ''the front of the queue'' - an intake level that only five months ago he supported when he was desperate to stop some of his own concerned backbenchers from crossing the floor to vote for a possible solution - as a means of dissuading people smugglers.
It got the desired Daily Telegraph screamer ''Abbott Shuts Door on Human Tide'' but it didn't survive even a moment's sensible contemplation. Surely reducing the chance of coming through normal channels could only make people more desperate and more likely to get on a people smugglers' boat? A Coalition spokesman responded that it was ''predominantly a savings measure''.
It was wrapped in the old incendiary rhetoric: the asylum increase is a ''peaceful invasion'' (aren't countries invaded by people wishing them ill, rather than people wishing to join their society?) and the suggestion that the people are ''illegal'', when claiming asylum is not.
Even his insistence that asylum seekers on bridging visas do some work - a very good idea - is presented with the rationale that it would do away with the ''something for nothing mentality'' and the situation that refugees will ''enjoy life on the Australian taxpayer without giving something back''.
Why should we assume that someone who has risked their life to get to Australia and build a new future would expect ''something for nothing'' or would seek to give nothing back?
Is it any wonder a recent Newspoll for Griffith University's federalism project found that fewer than 30 per cent of the electorate think federal government is the most effective tier of government at doing its job. That's not an indication of a lack of faith in a particular individual. It's a pox on the whole institution.
Voters, according to qualitative pollsters who ask them these things, feel disillusioned and mistrustful. They want a government that is stable and competent and a leader they can trust. They want a grown up in charge.
The Coalition is ahead in the polls but the well-documented unpopularity of both leaders suggests that, for many, the ''grown up'' question remains unanswered.
Labor wants to frame this central competence question around voters' doubts about Abbott, using the benefits of incumbency to sharpen the comparison.
Julia Gillard points to the government's economic record, the Asian century white paper and her education and disability reforms as evidence of a plan.
The Coalition wants to frame it around Labor's ''lies'', particularly on the carbon tax, its policy failures - for example, on asylum and the mining tax - and the reputational damage from various state and federal scandals. It's already producing election material entitled ''Labor's rotten'' with a picture of Labor's logo literally rotting, covered in blowies and emitting a noxious looking gas. ''Labor's costing you more every day,'' is the subhead.
Abbott will use the memory of the stability of the Howard years in comparison with Australia's recent sense of political chaos, already regularly slipping in a more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger message that ''there is nothing wrong with this great country of ours that a change of government wouldn't improve.''
But voters remain unsure who to trust even on the issues they care about; 66 per cent put management of the economy in their top three issues, up 2 percentage points since July and 4 since last year, according to a poll this week by Essential Research.
More trust the Liberals than Labor on the issue (45 per cent to 31, but 22 per cent don't know who to choose and the gap between the parties is narrowing.)
And both parties realise they are somewhat cornered by economic pledges already made. Labor is trying to keep its promise to return the budget to surplus but is indicating another global economic deterioration may make it impossible. The Coalition has promised to deliver bigger surpluses than Labor while abolishing the carbon tax, delivering its own tax cuts and its Rolls-Royce version of paid parental leave. Even senior Liberals aren't sure how that can add up and Abbott is now warning he may not be able to deliver everything he has promised ''straight away''. Cutting the asylum intake is apparently the first in a series of announcements about budgetary savings.
And the tight fiscal situation makes it harder for either party to promise new policy on the other issues voters think are important: health (in the top three issues for 57 per cent of the electorate, up 10 percentage points since July, with slightly more thinking Liberals are better to handle it, and 25 per cent unable to pick between them) and education (35 per cent put it in the top three, with Labor overtaking the Liberals over the last year as the party seen as best to handle it).
A straw poll I took this week on Twitter turned up similar themes: education, health and the economy were the most frequent replies, with a strong undercurrent of scepticism anything could be delivered with competence or vision.
Earlier in the week, the two former leaders - Kevin Rudd and Malcolm Turnbull - appeared on the ABC's Q&A. They had a grown-up discussion about education, the economy, taxation and climate change. Lots of facts, no inflammatory rhetoric. Exactly why people like them.