Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The negative opposition fallacy

I was involved in a Twitter conversation last evening that was started with this Tweet by @sarahscustard:
“This campaign bugs me. Do you really have to campaign on negativity and cheap statements? :( #wapol “
I’m very sure it was a genuine question and not a strategic attack from an anti-Labor campaigner. Regardless, it led to a good, robust conversation that attracted input from the ALP State Secretary, two Members of the Upper House and a couple of others including social commentator and aspiring politician, @troutish and myself (@_darren_brown_).

It was worthy and while I won’t go on about the reluctance of this Government to use social media more proactively, the discussion did confirm two things for me:

  1. There’s a bunch of people out there who are interested in our political system but at risk of becoming disillusioned because no one takes the time to offer a counter argument to the cynical views developed by reading newspaper headlines and watching 7 second grabs on TV, and
  2. Social media, like Twitter, provides a massive opportunity for someone to offer that alternative view and hopefully engage more people in our political system.
I’ve always been an advocate for greater engagement and involvement , but until today hadn’t seen that it’s probably something I could be doing more to facilitate, for the betterment of all – and hopefully to prove that I have yet another skill worthy of payment! :-)

So let’s address the question raised earlier today.

Why are Oppositions so negative?

Firstly if the title isn’t obvious enough, they aren’t in control of the State’s policy agenda. That is, their job is to offer an alternative to the government, or to oppose. That doesn’t mean Oppositions blindly oppose everything just because they’re not holding the reigns. In fairness, there is actually a lot that happens in Parliament where all Parties say their piece, then agree to compromise a bit for the sake of practicality and productivity – during the committee stages of new Bills is a good example of where that happens a lot.

And because of that, it’s sometimes very hard for the media to report the happenings of Parliament in a way that will even be heard, let alone interesting to the majority. As an example, when I worked in the office of a Leader of the Opposition, I was constantly frustrated when news outlets would report the outcome of our Parliamentary tactics as, “The State Opposition failed to suspend standing orders today” when it should have been, “The Government used its majority to deny the Opposition’s motion to suspend standing orders today” - but again, most of the voting public would rather watch Bear Grylls sucking the gizzards out of a live snake than follow through on a headline that simply confirms an expected outcome, so in retrospect who can blame a journo for trying to “sex-up” a daily summary of Parliament a little?

So that leads to most of the voting public only ever hearing about the disagreements in Parliament, and only when they are passionate and animated enough to compete with Mr Grylls drinking his own urine – Bear, not Brendon that is. And from that, it’s really no wonder many believe that all Parliamentarians carry on like pork-chops every day and the Opposition (regardless of political colour) never offers anything positive to the debate, just criticism.

But it’s more than just perception. It’s a huge gamble for any Opposition Party to release any specific policy too far out from an election, particularly if it’s innovative or if it involves significant expenditure. And when I say too far out from an election, I mean pretty much anytime before the caretaker convention kicks in.

While this is frustrating for the public, it is really quite easy to understand.

In comparison to the Government, Opposition Parties really do have very limited resources. The Leader has 10 or so staff and that’s it. Everyone else is multi-tasking – and working only with publicly available data. The Government on the other hand, has access to privileged information and thousands of departmental staff available to analyse policy ideas both in isolation but importantly also how any change in direction would impact across the rest of the government, with the benefit of knowing what else is on the agenda.

This means an almost impossible no-win situation for any Opposition with big ideas. If they release an innovative policy before the caretaker period, the Government will employ its significant resources to study the opposition document and either adopt it and implement it if it’s a good idea or pick it to pieces and use its large microphone to explain every single risk or flaw, thus rendering the policy more of a liability than an asset to the opposition come election time.

And there’s one more legitimate reason for Opposition Parties to keep their big policies under wraps until close to the election – money. There’s a few variables that determine how much both the Opposition and Government can spend in election commitments.

Firstly, there’s the amount of money the State can squeeze from the Federal Government in terms of GST reimbursement. The Premier and former Treasurer made a lot of this lately and WA’s share is planned to fall significantly however, in terms of making election promises, at least this figure is known well in advance i.e. it’s something everyone can budget for.

The next big income source is one that neither the Government nor Opposition can accurately predict, although the Government has information that should always give them a better idea – Royalties. Given that the State’s income is increasingly bolstered by the sale of commodities, fluctuations in international demand and the value of the Australian dollar means no-one really knows precisely how much cash the State will get until the ships have unloaded their ore at their destination. Having said that, Governments will sometimes use very conservative assumptions as to the value of the Dollar and likely levels of export so they aren’t caught short – and that means they often have a larger than predicted surplus to play with every May.

The last one is the killer for Oppositions. The fact is, Governments ALWAYS try to underestimate the level of surplus in pre-election budgets so they can announce a surprise windfall (and associated new spending and projects) just in time with the election. Lots of games get played with the budget papers to hide or underestimate money in pre-election budgets and the one being debated in Parliament right now is no different.

The problem for the Opposition is they have to base their election promises on what is visible in the budget papers – if you believe you only have one dollar, it’s irresponsible to promise to spend two. However, the Government knows where the extra money is buried and exactly when it’s coming, so expect a new school, tax cut or some other sweet promise from the incumbent Government that the Opposition will never be able to match, simply because they didn’t know there was enough money to do it.

So really, Opposition is a pretty crappy game until a month or two before an election when the Government shows its hand and you get to see what they’ve been hiding. Until then, it’s almost always unwise for Opposition Parties to release detailed policy commitments because it’s simply too dangerous.

Having said that, it should be noted that New Labor, under Mark McGowan appear to have made the conscious decision to start rolling out election promises early. Given what we’ve discussed above, that’s remarkably courageous or just plain stupid, but I guess only time will tell.

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