The 10 issues that will decide the election

It is 2013. The Australian electorate is punch-drunk from two years of the most bruising electoral term in recent memory. Both major parties have professed a desire for less personality politics and more policy debates. The people say they want that too.

So let's ring the bell. At some yet-to-be-determined point this year, an unpopular government must convince voters it deserves a third term. And an opposition, led by a man nobody seems to like very much, must make its case for change.

Most voters don't think in terms of a shopping list of clearly defined policy areas. But all the major ones – the economy, health, education, cost of living and a sense of confidence about the future – are firmly rooted in people's everyday lives.

Electricity bills. The cost of health services. Access to childcare. Whether or not you expect to have a job next year. When you can afford to retire. What life might look like when you do.

These policy areas stretch like canvases across the frames each party will build for themselves over the next eight or so months: who has credibility in delivering reform? Who will provide the services I need without interfering too much in my life? With so much global economic instability, how much change can I handle? Which party has the best vision for the future?

Each of these issues bleeds back to the central voterly conundrum of the 2013 electoral year: who can I trust?

An unloved Prime Minister who has reneged on two promises – the carbon tax and the surplus pledge – or an untested and unpopular Opposition Leader who appears stuck in a negative groove?

Here we nominate the 10 issues we think will dominate the election year.

1 Economic management

The stand-first issue in any election, economic management encompasses the grand themes of trust and competency, as well as the small, lived experience of voters' everyday. Most voters don't read the budget papers but they can count the number of zeroes on their electricity bill and they know if their mortgage is unmanageable.

The Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, and her Treasurer, Wayne Swan, will sell an economic management story of low unemployment, low interest rates, low inflation and continued gross domestic product growth despite disastrous global conditions.

But polls show the Coalition is still considered the superior party when it comes to economic management. The Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott, and his team will focus strongly on the government's surplus backdown, to demonstrate what they argue is Labor's untrustworthiness and incompetence as economic managers.

A Liberal strategist, Mark Textor, says the issues of the economy and trust are intertwined in voters' minds. "Who is more likely to put up taxes after the next election? The party that thinks it has gotten away with a broken tax promise, or the party that likes low taxes?" he asks.

2 And how are you planning to pay for that? The funding of promises

With a continued budget deficit looking likely at the end of this financial year, we can expect a suitably austere election campaign, with large-scale spending promises either delayed or offset by savings measures.

The two big-ticket items to which the government has committed – implementation of the Gonski education reforms and the introduction of the National Disability Insurance Scheme – are yet to be funded, but we can expect some detail on this in the budget.

The Coalition will emphasise the fact that this government has failed to ever deliver a budget surplus and urge voters to view any spending promises through that lens.

But the Coalition is itself on shaky ground here. In August 2011, Fairfax Media reported on leaked shadow cabinet minutes estimating the Coalition needed to find $70 billion in savings to pay for its commitments. The promise to scrap the carbon price scheme alone would cost a whopping $27 billion.

When Swan refers to the shadow treasurer Joe Hockey's "$70 billion black hole" – and expect him to do that a whole lot this year – he is referring to these leaked costings.

"Discussion of proposed government spending initiatives brings to the forefront of people's minds how they are going to be paid for, an issue which plays into the government's hands now," says Justin Di Lollo, the managing director at Labor strategists Hawker Britton. "Labor wants to have an election campaign with the media and the public baying, 'How are you going to pay for this?'. "

3 Education

Education, along with health, are the two big-ticket, service-delivery, social policy jewels in the Labor policy chest, according to Di Lollo. "This is one of the fundamentals of federal politics in Australia," he says. "Health and education are natural Labor territory, and defence and border security are natural Liberal territory."

In 2010 the government commissioned the Gonski review into education and last year it delivered its initial response to the review. This gives Gillard the advantage of initiative. The review found the present system is broken and inequitable, which allows Labor to argue on its natural ground as the party of social access and equity.

But there will be natural voter scepticism around funding for the reforms. The review recommends increased funding of $5 billion a year (based on 2009 figures, which amounts to $6.5 billion in today's terms) and no agreement has been reached with the states.

Textor says the Gonski review might be a talking point among Canberra's press gallery, but it adds up to just that – talk.

"It's seen by many as a bunch of recommendations and things they say they're going to do . . . Have any changes resulted?" Meanwhile, he says, the Coalition can campaign on its "practical approach" to education and "proven ability to negotiate with the states".

4 Health

Health, together with education, is consistently named in polls as the issue of most concern to voters. Simon Banks, a director at Hawker Britton, believes that in healthcare, particularly when it comes to reforms such as the National Disability Insurance Scheme, Labor has a natural advantage because it is the party of big(ger) government.

"The NDIS and Gonski are a reminder that government can make a positive difference in people's lives. The Coalition tends to argue that you want government off people's back," he says.

Textor has a different take.

"You assume [health] is a Labor strength but that's more an expectation that hasn't been met. Most ask, 'Where have been the real improvements in the health system in the last five years?'."

5 Asylum seekers/ border protection

According to the Liberal Party's internal polling, border protection is still a strong concern for voters. Lower-income voters and new migrant communities tend to be the most worried about it.

During the 2010 election, "Stop the Boats" was point No. 4 of the Coalition's stunningly simple campaign message. Come the 2013 campaign, expect to hear the updated version, "stronger policies for stronger borders", until your ears bleed.

In November, Abbott announced that if elected to government, the Coalition would not proceed with the government's plan to increase Australia's humanitarian intake from 13,750 refugees a year to 20,000. Interestingly, the measure was linked to budget discipline – it would save about $1.3 billion over the forward estimates, Abbott said.

The government will find it difficult to run on its record on border protection – after failing to get the Malaysia Solution through Parliament last year (refused help by an intransigent opposition), it returned to offshore processing on Nauru and Papua New Guinea, but overflow meant that onshore processing was necessary, too.

The resultant perception was one of chaos and expense, which the opposition will seek to exploit, playing into general voter unease about the supposed instability of minority government.

In an election year, there is not much the government can do other than steer the political conversation onto other ground and to continue to trumpet the small victories it has, such as the return of some Sri Lankan asylum seekers.

"Labor won't want to discuss it at all," Di Lollo says. "Just talking about it will make people want to vote Liberal."

6 Carbon pricing/cost of living

Anyone who hasn't been in a coma for the past three years will have noticed Abbott has manacled his political fortunes to the carbon tax and his promise to repeal it.

Internal Coalition polling shows it is still very much alive as a cost-of-living issue for voters (according to a source within the Opposition Leader's office) but newspaper polling and anecdotal reports from Labor MPs spoken to for this article indicate voters' concerns on the issue have relaxed.

The government will probably play it as a non-issue, Di Lollo says. The tax is in, the globe didn't veer from its axis, end of story.

But that doesn't mean voters have forgiven Gillard her carbon tax "lie", and it doesn't mean they are convinced of the value of the carbon pricing reform on its own merits.

Labor may downplay carbon pricing in any list of its achievements but will still use its introduction as short-hand for a future-focused agenda.

Abbott is also vulnerable on the issue. His doomsaying on the carbon tax's economic effect looks silly now. If he is forced to explain in any detail how he plans to roll back the tax, he may get into trouble.

"I'm not sure how any deep explanations of how rescinding the tax will work . . . during the year of the 10-second grab," Di Lollo says.

7 Infrastructure

Roads, Textor says, are an important election issue because they have a "direct and meaningful" impact on people's lives. "People don't think in terms of policy portfolios but in terms of services and physical freedoms," he says.

"Yes, Australia is doing well, but if it takes you 40 minutes to deliver one kid to school, what's the point?"

Banks says Labor will campaign on the national broadband network, which is supported by a majority of voters, including a majority of Coalition voters, he says. It is also popular among regional communities.

Labor is trying to position itself as the party of the future, in contrast to Abbott, who they will frame as a throwback and a technophobe. They will use the whiz-bangery of the national broadband network to sell a future-forward message.

Late last year Abbott announced an extra $2.08 billion in Pacific Highway funding under a Coalition government (redirected from the Epping to Parramatta rail line).

Expect to see a lot more cash-promises from both parties sprinkled on road projects in population-dense areas such as western Sydney and south-eastern Queensland – two hot-spots which also happen to harbour plenty of deliciously marginal seats.

The issues of electricity infrastructure and electricity prices will also loom large.

8 Gender

Abbott's confrontational and hyper-physical style turns off many women; Labor knows it and will seek to exploit it. Abbott's best defence against these attacks is a passive one (not generally his style).

He will let the women on his frontbench (in particular his deputy, Julie Bishop) vouch for him politically, and the women of his family will vouch for him personally.

Policy-wise, childcare funding, paid parental leave and other "women's issues" will be forefront, and both leaders will be lavishing women's websites and so-called "mummy bloggers" with attention.

Di Lollo believes gender will be used by both sides in an "esoteric" way, as a pointer to larger issues of character, social inclusion and stability. It may also be used as a way of framing the leaders: Gillard's steady feminine calm versus Abbott's robust masculine strength.

9 Queensland cuts

When Campbell Newman won the Queensland state election in March, it was one of the worst Labor defeats in Australian history. The Labor opposition was reduced to a shadow cabinet so small (seven MPs) they could literally caucus around a kitchen table.

In the middle of last year, support among Queenslanders for the Gillard government lolled at 22 per cent and there was talk of a federal wipeout.

And then Mr Newman's spending cuts began to bite. In the space of a few months, he slashed state-based climate change schemes and cut 14,000 full-time public service positions, among other things.

Federal Labor saw opportunity in the ashes. Soon it began to link the Newman government's cuts to the federal Coalition, with the Prime Minister claiming that "Campbell Newman's budget razor is Tony Abbott's curtain-raiser". It seems to be working – Labor's primary vote in Queensland has recovered to more than 30 per cent.

Expect to hear this theme reiterated before the election.

The ALP is eyeing about eight seats in Queensland and will direct a lot of resources there.

10 Industrial relations

Industrial relations is a tricky election issue for both parties, because while it is not a top-agenda item for either side, it has the capacity to embarrass each in different ways. The government will use every opportunity to sow fear about a "return to Work Choices" under Abbott.

In an interview with Fairfax Media last week, Swan said Abbott was not being honest about his plans for industrial relations, and it is a common theme of Labor-on-Coalition attacks in question time. Di Lollo says that Abbott is a "wily enough old cat" to realise that the more he denies he has no return-to-Work Choices plans, the worse he sounds.

But the Opposition Leader is under increasing pressure from within some sections of his party and from business to say something, anything, on the Coalition's 2013 industrial relations policy.

The chief executive of the Australian Industry Group, Innes Willox, believes that "at some point during this year, the Coalition will have to bring forward a clear policy for workplace relations". "It can't be avoided, and I don't think it will be avoided."

But Labor is vulnerable on this issue, too. If they ramp up the IR-related attacks on the Coalition, the Coalition can counter-attack with two pithy words: union corruption.

It is a conversation Labor will be reluctant to have, following the Australian Workers Union and Health Services Union scandals of last year.

with Lara Pearce

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