It stands to reason that in the absence of credible solutions to persistent problems, unhappy voters will seek alternatives, look for someone to blame. It’s not rocket science.
Despite the practical limits to what governments can do (outside of a mining boom) they must at least offer hope – a believable prospect of better times ahead, and a sense that contemporary struggles will lighten.
Sustained wage stagnation which is as endemic since the GFC as the original crisis, coupled with rising energy and housing costs, are however, testing these limits. All the more so, when politicians’ boast of good times, and of economic policy settings that are just right.
Enter Bill Shorten’s “inequality” pitch, “stage two” of his well prosecuted “fairness” case against the Abbott-Hockey 2014-15 budget, and much since.
As Seven’s Mark Riley has noted, “inequality” is the pejorative version of that earlier fairness emphasis, and one which speaks more sharply to a deepening grievance.
Shorten, to quote Bob Dylan, “is brave ‘n getting braver”, informed by the cut-through power of bold new left campaigns run by Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders.
The Coalition likes to pillory “inequality” as fiction, refuting the claim it is at a 75-year high in , or even that it’s getting worse.
If literally true, Malcolm Turnbull has little to worry about. His defence is a slam-dunk. Right?
Unfortunately, it is not so straightforward.
This is a battle between heart and head. Labor cites statistics also, but Shorten’s real purchase is the sense people have that they are going backwards. That is, not just failing to get ahead, but losing ground in relative terms. The rich-are-getting-richer, you’re not.
Statistical rebuttals cut only so much ice when the feeling of creeping disadvantage is so widespread.
In a representative politics, there’s always a moral weight in speaking for the silent majority, the long-suffering, forgotten, mainstream – just ask John Howard.
Howard’s rare skill was to leverage that demos of critical electoral mass not only from opposition but also in government – albeit aided by the mining boom’s rivers of gold.
But they were unusual circumstances. Now the Liberals are having it done to them.
Persistently flat wages do not merely suppress growth, they dent morale, weaken institutional affections, and invite volatility.
It wasn’t Donald Trump’s conservatism that propelled him in 2016 so much as his status as a radical outsider storming the citadel. Hillary Clinton was the boring institutional filling in a sandwich of discontent. Like Sanders, who energised the youth vote, and rounded up sundry disenfranchised progressives, Trump, prevailed as the candidate of the disestablishment.
Similar strains overpowered the elite/institutional cross-party consensus on Brexit, nearly toppled Theresa May, and played an important supportive role in the election of the newcomer (if progressive centrist) French President, Emmanuel Macron.
The lesson is this: in politics, it doesn’t matter whether people are worse off, better off, or about the same. It matters how they feel on this.
Shorten might not have all the answers but he’s doing a better job of hearing the question.