Sometimes it’s hard to tell who is more out of touch: politicians or the media, two self-obsessed industries with deep reputational problems despite their endless self-congratulation. Events last week provided an illustration of the myopia of these two troubled groups.
As much as people in the press gallery — like me — hate to admit it, few Australians have much interest in what happens in parliament, or politics more generally. Last week’s parliamentary shenanigans — whether Scott Morrison fleeing in terror from his own parliament on Thursday afternoon, or Labor’s craven surrender on the government’s encryption backdoor bill — were a matter of indifference to most voters, and may as well have occurred in Gabon or Mongolia.
Thus the inevitable consternation at The Australian today about the confirmation that the Morrison government is one of the most deeply unpopular governments of recent decades: it continues to trail Labor in 2PP terms by 10 points. The narrative pushed by News Corp since last week is that Labor has made a stunning, strategic blunder on asylum seekers by supporting moves to transfer people for medical treatment in Australia, one that could hand Morrison the election.
This line, coordinated with the government’s claim that Bill Shorten was a threat to national security and was happy to help paedophiles, blah blah, hit a brick wall in the form of the company’s own polling. Worse, the one right before the country goes into a summer slumber until February.
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No, voters paid almost no attention to the stupidity in Canberra last week. They have real lives, in the real world, with jobs, mortgages and kids to look after. They may have a vague sense that there were some particularly stupid games played last week, but that would merely confirm their impression of a political class that is only interested in itself.
Moreover — alas for News Corp — voters don’t think asylum seekers are a big deal, not unless there really is a genuine crisis of the kind Labor allowed when hundreds of boat arrivals swamped the system. In fact, Peter Dutton is presiding over his own massive loss of border control: we are now seeing tens of thousands of asylum seekers arriving by air, and they’re far more likely to be bogus claimants and economic migrants than those who arrive by boat. But for whatever reason, it’s only maritime arrivals that push our buttons.
In the absence of an immediate crisis, asylum seekers drop down to the bottom of the list of issues that affect how voters vote. And in any event, the top items on that list never change: the economy and jobs, health, and education.
And while much of the political and media class were obsessing about some asylum seekers last week, our understanding of the economy changed significantly in the wake of the September quarter GDP figures and the reaction of the Reserve Bank about where interest rates might go. The actual GDP number — 0.3% — might be revised upward next quarter, and in and of itself is less important than what it illustrated: the extent to which wage stagnation is now undermining economic growth, and how it is forcing households to save less and less every quarter despite regular complaints about the level of household debt.
The national accounts were mainly of interest to economic journalists; their significance appeared to pass most political journalists by. But if you want at least one important key to much of what is going on in politics currently, it’s wage stagnation and the way it fuels voters’ perceptions the whole political-economic system is working in the interests of the powerful, and the politicians they give so much money to, rather than citizens.
The significance of last week’s parliamentary carry-on had nothing to do with who “won” or “lost”, or whether any particular issue creates a wedge to help one side “win”. It was confirmation that the political and media class has no idea what it important to ordinary citizens, large numbers of whom now either simply don’t enrol to vote, or don’t turn out to vote, or vote as early as they can so they can ignore the campaigns run by political parties and the media at the cost of tens of millions, or vote for minor and third parties.
If you’re not talking seriously about wage stagnation — and the Coalition literally has no policy to do anything about it, beyond continuing to predict wage growth will increase in the forward estimates — then you don’t really have much to offer ordinary Australians, many of whom have gone backwards in real terms in the last five years.
And that applies to the media every bit as much as politicians.