Firstly, a significant expectations gap started to develop between the standard of living and consumption patterns a household expected to be able to purchase, and what their income actually provided for them to purchase in practice. This occurred primarily among working households and in many respects, it was simply the flip side of the coin of aspirational politics. While the politics of aspiration is about encouraging people to dream of a better future, to inspire them to work hard and make those dreams of a better lifestyle a lived reality — those dreams are ultimately constrained and anchored to one’s income. Even though real wage growth and real household income growth over the period was among the highest on record, the magnitude of the aspiration for many — the size of the expectations — grew even stronger.
The pursuit of consumption and investment expectations significantly over and above household income really became obvious in the national accounts data over the period from 2003 through to 2007. During this time, Australia experienced a negative household savings ratio, with households collectively spending more than they earned and using debt (or eating into existing savings) to make up for the difference — an ultimately unsustainable proposition.
The significant growth in this expectations gap that started appearing in 2006 not only created resentment — the resentment of unrealised and unrealisable expectations — but also a sense of entitlement, in that unrealised and unaffordable expectations started to be seen by many households as “somebody else’s fault”.
We started to see households increasingly blame the banks when those households weren’t allowed to take out mortgages of the size required to buy their preferred dream home. We started seeing households increasingly blame the government for not making their aspirational lifestyle choices more affordable. We started seeing many households increasingly blame everyone and everything other than themselves for lifestyle choices beyond their capacity to sustainably provide for. The resentment started becoming as pronounced as it was flexible in its direction.
The second thread that started to emerge out of the qualitative polling in 2006 was a growing aversity to complexity . The more complex that an issue was in practice, the less time people wanted to spend trying to understand it. From the big political issues of the time like climate change and industrial relations (i.e Workchoices), through to broader social and economic issues like housing affordability and cost of living changes — not only were complex explanations increasingly rejected in favour of simple ones, but the attention span for listening to complex arguments significantly contracted. The willingness of the public to accommodate complexity in their views of the wider world started to significantly reduce.
So Workchoices became losing penalty rates, climate change became signing the Kyoto Protocol, housing affordability became a first home owners grant, cost of living issues became a tax cut or a family benefits increase — not because these were necessarily the correct things (in the cases of the first home owners grant and tax cuts/family benefit increases, they were part of the very cause of the problem wanting to be remedied), but because they were the simple things.
Yet not only were they simple, they affirmed pre-existing beliefs. The complexity response and confirmation bias (the tendency of people to favour information that confirms their biases and beliefs, rather than information which contradicts them) increasingly became partners in crime.
So Workchoices was about losing penalty rates because bosses couldn’t be trusted, Climate Change was about the Kyoto Protocol because everyone else had signed the document, housing affordability was about a first home owners grant because having a bigger deposit is good, cost of living was about tax cuts and family benefit increases because more money would solve the problem.
The cult of simple explanations started to blossom — and it wasn’t just confined to issues of the political.
The third thread that emerged in 2006 was a sharp growth in perceptions of uncertainty. People started becoming less certain about their world, less certain about their future, less certain about most of the things that made up their life. The proportion of people that started believing that their personal circumstances were beyond their direct control started increasing significantly, and the magnitude of that perceived uncertainty and the broadness of issues to which it was perceived to apply, started increasing as well.
As a direct consequence of this perceived increase in broad yet relatively generic uncertainty, two other issues started to emerge in the qualitative field work — the reactivity of the population started increasing on the one hand, and the desire for more control and stability started increasing on the other, both in terms of the proportion of the public that adopted these beliefs, and the depth of the belief involved.
More people became predisposed to react to events surrounding perceived uncertainty, favouring the side or the position that promised more stability and control. A good example is again Workchoices, where people believed it would dramatically increase the uncertainty of their employment, income and livelihoods. As a result, they reacted very strongly against Workchoices and reacted equally strongly for Kevin Rudd - who was promising stability for employment, pay and working conditions and promising more control over an issue that was seen as creating the very uncertainty the public was increasingly hostile to.
The growth in perceptions of uncertainty started driving a larger, more reactive public desire for the troika of certainty, stability and control.
Whilst these threads of disgruntlement started to emerge as influential factors of public behaviour and opinion more than was usually the case in 2006, over the subsequent years they have continued to grow, becoming increasingly powerful, increasingly dominant underlying drivers of our public perceptions and behaviour.
When the 2010 election produced a hung parliament — particularly one where two generally conservative rural independents backed the non-conservative prime ministerial option to form a government — this was uncertainty writ large. The complexity didn’t matter. The public was more predisposed to react against it than it was predisposed to act in support of it, simply because people saw it as yet more uncertainty. Not just a little bit of uncertainty — the biggest chunk of uncertainty the public had experienced in decades.
Thus it was that the more Abbott complained about the minority government and the more Abbott called for a new election — the easiest and most obvious thing for him to do regardless — the more public traction Abbott inevitably gained with these calls. Abbott was seen to be siding with stability, certainty and control — even though he was actually creating most of the uncertainty that was being sheeted home to the minority government. People blamed the government — confirmation bias — because the public had the predisposition to blame the minority government simply because of the uncertain nature of its very existence. With high levels of reactivity being manifest in the public — it was pretty clear to see just which hill this snowball was going to roll down.
Similarly, Abbott was never going to be struggling to find coverage for his attacks now that the media primarily exists to enhance conflict and sensationalise events to generate viewers. With the nosiest sections of News Ltd already firmly in Abbott’s corner and willing to wage war on the new government (let alone News Ltd’s production line of stories blaming the government for issues surrounding the sensitive expectations gap), Abbott could simply feed into the media cycle a constant stream of the very thing he was discovering worked — complaint. The more sensational and hostile the complaint, the greater the level of conflict it would appear as, hence the more coverage it would receive and the more support it would ultimately generate.
Wash, rinse, repeat.
The script writes itself. In fact, the script wrote itself 18 months ago.
Welcome to The Great Unhinging.