In a sure sign Bill Shorten’s GST scare campaign is not having the desired effect on voters, the Opposition Leader on Thursday tried another way to shift the opinion polls in his party’s favour.
Using this first week of the school year as a handy platform, Mr Shorten ditched his negative campaigning to announce the alternative government’s education policy, which includes a commitment to fund the fifth and sixth years of the Gillard government’s Gonski reforms.
Coming in at almost $40 billion, the 10-year program aims to return Australia to the top five countries in reading, maths and science.
Labor plans to do so by increasing the Year 12 completion rate to 95 per cent, ensuring STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) teachers in secondary schools have tertiary qualifications, requiring all students to study maths or science to Year 12, and introducing the teaching of computer coding in all primary and secondary schools.
It’s always a risk for the Opposition to announce policy outside an election campaign, given the government of the day can either steal it or shoot holes in it. However the Shorten team has not shied away from the challenge.
To date, Labor has unveiled more than a dozen policies, including revenue-raising measures that crack down on superannuation tax concessions for the wealthy, close loopholes used by multinationals to minimise tax, and crank up tobacco excise.
In one sense the revenue measures are merely nods to popular concerns, but they also provide some fiscal cover for Labor by raising hypothetical funds that can offset any new spending.
‘ALP’s $48 billion black hole’: Birmingham
Unsurprisingly, the Government didn’t miss the opportunity to press this point, with Education Minister Simon Birmingham claiming the Opposition’s new education policy amounted to Labor racking up a “$48 billion black hole” in “largely unfunded” promises.
Labor strategists may have judged the party inoculated from such criticism given education is traditionally a policy strength for Labor and the Gonski reforms were a proven winner for the Gillard government.
However, voter confidence in Labor’s capacity to “ensure a quality education for all children” has dropped from 43 per cent in June 2014 to 31 per cent in recent times, while the Coalition is similarly rated at 30 per cent.
So it hardly seemed wise for Labor to draw voters’ attention to the fact that, until, Thursday, it had not yet committed to funding the last two years of the Gonski scheme, which also happened to be the most expensive.
Voters had likely assumed Shorten’s Labor was as committed to Gonski as Gillard’s Labor was. Now they may be wondering if Mr Shorten has neglected to tell them about other Gillard-era policies that he won’t commit to.
Announcement shifts public focus
In addition to creating voter concerns where there previously were none, Labor may have also made a tactical misjudgement by thrusting itself into the media this week.
Granted, it is the week before federal parliament resumes for this election year and Labor can’t be blamed for attempting to shift political debate to one of their preferred battlegrounds.
However it is never wise to interrupt (or draw attention away from) your enemy when he is making a mistake – and news feeds are currently dominated by stories of insurrection and infighting within the Government’s ranks.
Between Tony Abbott’s decision to stay in parliament, arch-conservatives refusing to abide by a plebiscite in favour of gay marriage, and NSW Liberals squabbling over pre-selections, voters are already being presented with ample reason to consider the alternative government.
As we learned during the Rudd-Gillard years, the electorate thinks very poorly of party instability. The risk for Labor is that voters see economic competence as more important.
Given Thursday’s education announcement has again drawn Labor’s economic credentials into question, the Opposition would have been better off postponing it until they’d unveiled additional revenue measures. They should have let the Coalition’s internecine antics dominate the media this week instead.
Paula Matthewson was media adviser to John Howard in the early 1990s and then worked for almost 25 years in communication, political and industry advocacy roles. She is now a freelance writer and communication strategist. Paula has been tweeting and blogging about politics, the media and social media since 2009 under the pen name @Drag0nista.
You can read more of her columns here