Dollars and cents trump all poll issues

By Greg Ansley

Asylum seekers dominate headlines but pocket concerns will decide winner

The cost of power, the weekly food bill, the price of petrol, paying for childcare and the kids' education, keeping a roof over your head ... these are the numbers that really count.

In the suburbs of Australia, and especially in the big cities where the September 7 election will be won or lost, the economy tops all other concerns. And while Australia's leaders battle over the billions, it is the dollars and cents in household budgets that really matter.

This is a war of perception as much as reality. Increasingly worried voters will vote for the leader who most inspires their trust.

Polling shows Opposition leader Tony Abbott is seen as the better economic manager. It is an advantage Abbott is hammering home in campaign advertising, listing huge sums borrowed by Labor during its six years in power, the evaporation of the budget surplus and Government's spending debacles in the economic stimuli employed to save Australia from the global financial crisis.

Rudd is the Opposition's bogeyman, targeted squarely as the architect of the nation's decline. When he won back the leadership from Julia Gillard, a mass exodus from the Cabinet handed Abbott the line, "If his own colleagues don't trust him, why should you?"

There are abundant big numbers around to send more shivers down the spines of nervous voters.

While their scale and complexity are beyond the imagining of most Australians, Abbott is effectively using them to paint a landscape of economic ruin.

He even turned the Reserve Bank's lowering of the official interest rate to a 53-year low of 2.5 per cent to advantage, saying it showed the economy was in crisis. Rudd argued it was good for business and people with mortgages.

Labor's recent economic statements gave new ammunition - lower growth, rising unemployment, a budget deficit predicted to balloon from A$18 billion to A$30 billion, and falling tax revenue.

Mining, which underpinned the economy for years, has been hit by lower commodity prices and the end of the Chinese investment boom.

Exploration spending is plum-meting, mines are closing, projects have been cancelled, and jobs are being lost by the thousands.

Agriculture, construction, housing, manufacturing, services and retailing are struggling. Mass sackings and layoffs have headlined gloom, led by Ford's decision to quit Australia and fears for Holden's future.

Record numbers of companies are folding.

Alarming stories of households barely treading water reinforce widely held perceptions that the nation is rapidly going downhill.

Both sides of politics realise that the cost of living has become central to election victory.

The BT finance group's most recent Australian financial health index found that while half of its respondents were happy with their present standard of living, a third lived paycheque to paycheque and one in five could not raise A$1000 if they urgently needed it.

Having a home is a problem for many. Housing affordability is now more important to many voters than just about anything else.

Adelaide University research reported in Sydney's Daily Telegraph said almost 40 per cent of renters in Sydney's western suburbs were under stress. Throughout NSW that figure rose to 200,000, and a further 90,000 households were suffering mortgage stress.

Community and welfare organisations say many families go without meals. Appeals for help are overwhelming resources and forcing staff to turn increasing numbers away.

This is all fodder for Abbott, who accuses Labor of savaging the economy and losing control of the budget.

Faced with the Opposition's barrage and a string of gloomsaying headlines, Rudd is having problems in making his message heard.

There is much good in it. While costs such as childcare, electricity and gas have risen in the past year, petrol prices fell and food prices have increased only slightly. The consumer price index climbed 2.4 per cent, but wages rose by more than 3 per cent.

And Labor did pull Australia through the global financial crisis, maintaining 22 years of growth and keeping the nation's AAA credit rating. Interest rates have dived, personal income tax has been cut three times, and small business has been given tax relief.

Even in cutting rates, Reserve Bank Governor Glenn Stevens was happy with global and domestic trends despite present slower growth.

And while it would be political suicide for Rudd to repeat it, the latest AMP-National Centre for Social and Economic Modelling income and wealth report concludes that even with recent pain Australians have not had it so good for almost 30 years.

The report said household income was outpacing the cost of living over the longer term, and disposable incomes had increased 20 per cent over the past 27 years. The average family was better off by A$224 a week in real terms.

The big question now is: who will Australians believe?

- NZ Herald

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