Politics is greed management.

Politicians calibrate the self-interest of one group against the self-interest of another, merrily propelled by self-interest in votes. They try to manage this equity transfer without extinguishing incentive or inciting revolution, and, for the most part, they succeed.

It’s a competitive business with two main parties rationalising and critiquing slightly different settings, and outliers suggesting more radical tunings. Unsurprisingly, voters with assets to conserve tend to be conservative, while those with less generally favour redistribution. Go figure.

This unseemly tug-of-war is most evident at election time when political power is distributed.

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The policy stoush is currently focused on banking, negative gearing and superannuation, all three being raised by Labor and dampened by the Coalition.

The call for a royal commission into banking seemed transparently designed to bolster the popularity of Bill Shorten, based on the old Sanskrit maxim: the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

While this was arguably bad governance, it was good politics, so it became imperative for the Coalition to do something overtly unpleasant to banks. Thus, just as Donald Trump intends building a wall and having Mexicans pay for it, Treasurer Scott Morrison intends beefing up regulation of the financial sector and having banks pick up the tab.

Superannuation is a fast-growing, $2 trillion trough of private savings that can be plundered to fund all manner of election-winning promises. While hapless punters attempt to plan their retirement savings over decades based on known policy settings, successive governments have shown no reluctance about changing the rules at whim. Both parties have rationalised helping themselves to more cash from future contributions, the transition to retirement arrangements, and retrospectively from individuals with high balances, long-established on government undertakings that they wouldn’t attract tax.

Similarly, negative gearing is an unspoken class war being fought in the ‘burbs. It pitches haves against have-nots, with users characterised as either despicable rorting surgeons or innocent “mum and dad investors” trying to get ahead. It’s either all about fairness, or an assault on aspiration. Scrapping it on all but new buildings will either discourage investment, drive down prices of existing houses and increase rents, or make housing more affordable for young people and turbocharge new building in the exurbs. Pick your world view.

But banking, negative gearing and superannuation are just proxies for a larger economic brawl.

When you step back from the political dramas of the day — be they boats, batts or banks — elections are almost always about the state of the economy.

Irrespective of the truth, most voters have fixed perceptions of the capabilities of parties: conservative parties own economic credibility, while parties of the left own the notion of caring.

When times are good we tend to lean left and tinker with social settings, when things are tight and the shop needs to be managed more resolutely, we lean right. Like riding a bike by pushing each pedal in turn, our society advances.

In 116 years of government, we’ve pressed right 60% of the time.

The other evident theme this election is personality politics. A comparatively unpopular and unproven Bill Shorten fights a thus-far underwhelming Malcolm Turnbull.

Will Shorten prove himself capable? Might he be the antithesis of Abbott — a poor opposition leader but a great prime minister? Will Turnbull evolve into the socially liberal but economically responsible leader so many assumed he would be? Might he morph back into the civilising PM who can charm middle-ground soft and swinging voters?

We’ll fall for self-funded bribes; it’s an election. The monumental submarines-for-votes bribe to South Australians has a net incremental cost of at least $4 million per job created. It is a marginal seat-buying scheme that would make an African despot blush, but it is likely to reduce the threat of the Nick Xenophon Team in that state.

As is traditional, the rationale for the double dissolution will be largely irrelevant by July 2; it was never a burning issue, rather a justification for a clean-up of the Senate, which could well result in an even bigger mess.

Two significant points at play in the election will be expectations and incumbency, both of which deserve explanations that space does not permit here, but they will be crucial to the outcome.

Finally, let us not forget who makes the decision. Political partisans — many of whom subscribe to this organ — can follow political parties with the blind fervour of footy fans. But they won’t determine who wins — that falls to soft and swinging voters. For many of them, a vote is a grudge purchase that wouldn’t be made were compulsory voting not encouraged by fines.

They tend to view politicians with indifference or contempt. They suspect most want to get the job more than they want to do the job. They are accustomed to bloated promises and expect them to be broken. They are the true disbelievers.

Voting is thus an act of punishment, so the core task of the contemporary electioneer is to encourage these swinging voters to despise the other guys more than they despise their own side.

And on that happy note we are under starter’s orders for eight weeks of baby kissing and negativity.


*Toby Ralph is a marketer and board director who, among other things, has worked on nearly 50 elections around the world, including many for the Liberals in Australia. He’s published by Penguin and a regular on Gruen Planet.

As a Crikey subscriber and someone who began working as a journalist in 1957, I am passionate about the importance of independent media like Crikey. I met a lot of Australians from many walks of life during my career and did my best to share their stories honestly and fairly with their fellow citizens.

And I never forgot how important it is to hold politicians to account. Crikey does that – something that is more important now than ever before in Australia.

North Stradbroke Island, QLD

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