The Coalition's running out of hot election issues

As the carbon tax, IR and 'debt and deficit' arguments lose potency for the Coalition, Malcolm Turnbull's broadband battle will become increasingly important.

The second opinion poll bounce in a fortnight will put a bit more wind in Julia Gillard's sails – Newspoll today reports Labor's primary vote has risen again from 32 to 35 per cent.

If one accepts Tony Abbott's view that this is the "worst government in Australia's history", something's going horrible wrong for the Coalition. Keep in mind that in 2010 Gillard was able to form minority government with just 38 per cent of the primary vote, thanks mostly to Greens preferences.

For the sake of consistency, though, let me repeat a couple of facts from the 2010 election.

First, the polling company that got closest to picking the actual primary vote at the last election was Essential Media (Eyes turn to Lone Wolf Wilkie, September 2010), and in the past few weeks its data shows Labor's primary vote tracking downward, not up. It puts Labor's primary vote at 32 per cent.

Second, most polls overestimated the Greens election-day vote in 2010. Newspoll currently has the Greens on 11 per cent, but Essential puts it at 10 per cent. That's a sizable difference – Newspoll saying 35/11 and Essential saying 32/10.

But to return to my original point, Coalition strategists will be growing increasingly uncomfortable at the erosion of Tony Abbott's landslide lead over Labor.

The single issue that has underpinned Abbott's success – the carbon tax – may not work much longer. Labor's relentless focus on his 'scare campaign' seems to be taking effect, and though many members of the community are hurting (particularly small business), the vast bulk of voters/consumers are seeing little impact from the tax.

And so, reluctantly, the Coalition will have to wheel other guns into place. Only problem is, nobody knows for sure which policy area can take over some of the work previously done by the carbon tax attacks.

Not industrial relations. Labor has run hard this week on why it is not the Fair Work Act holding back multi-factor productivity across the economy.

It's about time Labor pushed this argument to the fore (The good news Labor won't share, February 16). As I wrote nearly a year ago, once the woeful productivity figures in the resources sector are stripped out of the national accounts (see the chart here), productivity growth has trended at around 2 per cent per annum since the mid-1990s.

In her speech to the Australian Industry Group in Canberra last night, Gillard added utilities and agriculture to mining as sectors where a productivity drag had occurred, but it's the same argument – if Australia wants to improve multi-factor productivity, obsessing over IR is the wrong strategy. Access to capital, technology, skilled workers and best-practice management can do more.

So if Tony Abbott was averse to making IR a big election issue before, he will be even more determined now to grit his teeth and say – as he did in 2010 – that Labor's policy is not too far off the mark. That will infuriate many in the business community, but will prevent a WorkChoices-style electoral backlash.

Where else, then, can Abbott focus his extraordinary campaigning skills?

There's the 'debt and deficit' argument. The federal government has borrowed way too much in this term – a peak net debt figure of 7.5 per cent of GDP has been gradually massaged up to around 10 per cent. Against a backdrop of heavily indebted state governments facing credit downgrades from the ratings agencies, this looks reckless.

Even so, the 'debt and deficit' issues has now become only a 'debt' issue, with Wayne Swan hell-bent on delivering the surplus he promised on budget day. Moreover, an Abbott government would have just as much difficulty delivering surpluses – not only would it forego mining tax and carbon tax revenue, but as former Treasury Secretary Ken Henry keeps pointing out, both state and federal tax bases are failing to keep up with the demand for public services. A small downturn in China would ravage our government finances across board.

So the carbon tax issue is losing potency, IR is a no-go zone, and the 'debt and deficit' argument is only half the argument it was 18 months ago.

Perhaps that's why Alan Kohler's article yesterday, imploring shadow communications minister Malcolm Turnbull to leave the NBN alone after the next election, touched such a raw nerve yesterday (The Coalition's NBN policy is madness, August 20).

Turnbull's strongly worded reply to this suggestion (Alan Kohler's NBN fantasy, August 20) was a sure sign that the NBN will become a hot election issue – one Tony Abbott can throw all his campaigning muscle behind.

While the policy is still pretty popular, and Communication Minister Stephen Conroy has done a reasonable job of hosing down criticism of an NBN Co 'cost blowout', it is one big-ticket item that increasingly Australian taxpayers can't afford.

Turnbull and his advisers are still honing their sales pitch to the electorate – including some colossal figures for how much the NBN really costs taxpayers – but that pitch will surely revisit questions as to why a publicly owned enterprise is preferable to the private sector for delivering broadband (particularly following the successful, if expensive, structural separation of Telstra).

Britain's Telegraph newspaper today reports, for instance, that BT and Virgin Media are moving ahead in leaps and bounds connecting British consumers to high-speed internet via a range of technologies.

I sincerely hope we won't have to rehash old arguments about the technologies and 'upload/download' speeds going into the next election – it's never been about such simple metrics (Time to untangle the NBN, December 2010).

But in a changed economic and fiscal environment, there is a new argument for Turnbull to run hard with – that the true cost of the NBN, set against the true state of public debt in Australia, just cannot be justified any more.

I'm sure we'll see that set of numbers in plenty of time for the next election.

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