Labor is deploying the politics of envy against the Coalition’s appeal to aspiration

Prime minister Malcolm Turnbull and opposition leader Bill Shorten after question time in the house of representatives in parliament house Canberra, 21 May 2018.

There’s a reason why the cohort of voters colloquially known as “Howard’s battlers” have a semi-mythical status in contemporary Australian politics. This group of working and lower-middle class Australians had traditionally voted Labor, but for much of Howard’s reign they kept the plain-talking and mostly uninspiring PM in office. This group was also instrumental in Howard’s end when it flocked back to Kevin Rudd and Labor in 2007.

Howard had little of the charisma or gravitas of his previous prime ministers, but he was a canny political operator who knew how to connect with the majority of voters who made up working class and middle Australia. It would be an oversimplification to say his appeal was grounded in those voters aspiring to do better in life, but that desire nevertheless played a significant part in the former PM’s success.

That’s why, a decade later, a very different Liberal prime minister is trying to tap into a similar group of voters to revive his political fortunes. It’s also why his opponent is trying to use the very same group to bring the PM down.

Even before Labor’s deputy leader Tanya Plibersek mentioned in an interview last week that the term “aspiration” was a mystery to her, Malcolm Turnbull and his ministers had been accusing Labor of denying workers the motivational benefits of personal income tax cuts and trumpeting that only the Coalition understood the aspirations of such everyday Australians.

“Stick with me if you want to get ahead”, the PM was essentially promising voters.

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