Triangulation and terror


Yesterday’s Jakarta bombing will cast a long shadow over the rest of this election campaign. Today’s newspapers carry blanket coverage with headlines like: ‘Attack on Australia’. The campaign is in suspension until Sunday’s debate. and national security will be much more to the fore in voters’ minds over the next few weeks.

At the least, this will rob Latham of some of the momentum that Labor would have been hoping for following this week’s tax and family package launch. The greater problem for Latham is that a national security election will highlight his inexperience in international relations and as a national leader.

Before Thursday’s events in Jakarta, Latham seemed to be making a better fist of the second week, after polls confirmed that Howard’s interest rates scare had delivered significant electoral dividends for the government in the first week.

Marginal polling suggested that the government is in a strong position (particularly in the key states of Queensland and South Australia). Overall, the published polls have the parties on 50% each after preferences; bad news for the ALP which needs about 52% to pick up enough seats to form government.

The second week, however, was much better for Latham and the ALP. True they made some mistakes. They should have billed it as a family package, rather than tax reform. The package is also a bit lame because it basically reshuffles the deck rather than directing substantial new funds to ‘ease the squeeze’.

The abolition of the co-contribution seems at odds with Latham’s general rhetoric about encouraging the virtues of work and saving, and the annual vs weekly tables is really just an old-fashioned deception. Both these flaws may come back to bite them in the weeks ahead.

One of the more interesting aspects of Latham’s package is income splitting, hitherto a conservative policy option with basically no support on the left of politics. Latham’s initiative is a modified form of income splitting that ensures that a married couple gets the benefit of two tax free components whether both work or not. But income splitting it is, nevertheless.

Catherine Hakim, an academic at the London School of Economics, and the Howard government’s preferred analyst of what women want, is a strong supporter. Workplace Relations Minister Kevin Andrews highlighted Hakim’s advocacy of income splitting in a speech he gave on work and family in November 2003.

Another supporter is Sophie Panopoulos, monarchist and member for Indi. On the Menzies Research Centre website last September, she wrote: ‘income splitting has been criticised as being too expensive, unfair and favouring the rich, yet such criticisms are unfounded and certainly fail to take into account the many positive aspects that would flow to families and the community.’

People like Harkim, Andrews and Panopoulos see income splitting as a policy that helps women stay at home. That’s the essential point. It’s not a position Labor has championed since Calwell was the leader.

Latham’s sudden embrace of income-splitting seems to be a classic piece of what former Clinton adviser Dick Morris calls triangulation. This tactic involves pinching an opponent;s policy and making it sound like one of your own by attaching your own values to it. The point of triangulation is to win some of their voters without losing your own.

So income-splitting, once a dubious piece of middle class welfare for ‘traditional families’, is now a central part of the ALP’s ‘ease the squeeze’ and ‘rungs of opportunity’ vision for Australia. Only Eva Cox, a founding member of the Women’s Electoral Lobby, seems to have expressed any concern publicly about this odd directional change.

The second week was much better for Latham. The release of substantial policies (health, tax & family) has given him something positive and concrete to talk about. That alone should give Labor at least a short-term boost in the polls.

But week three will be about national security. Latham has to hold on and hope to move the agenda at least partly back to domestic issues in week four.

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.