Mister fast money schmicko no longer quite so schmicko

In a political sense, it is increasingly looking like the global financial crisis has been just what the doctor ordered for British Labour and in particular Prime Minister Gordon Brown. As The Guardian reports today, a Mori poll has Labour trailing the Tories by only three points now, an amazing seventeen point improvement on what polls were suggesting a few months back before the worst of the crisis hit. For someone like myself, who lived through an extended period whereby it seemed that David Cameron and the Tories were interminably ahead of the Prime Minister by ten points or more, it’s really all quite astonishing.

So why the shift? There is surely a multitude of reasons, but I am going to offer some observations about the comparative public images of Gordon Brown and David Cameron. Brown comes across in the media as a dour, boring, wonkish man. I dare say that a majority of Britons descend into a microsleep the very moment that he appears in front of them on the television, the very second that his voice starts droning across the airwaves in earshot. While the going was good economically, twelve months or so ago, it is probably fair to say that Brown was not really in tune with the entrepreneurial energy of the times. The British people wanted boldness; they wanted action. They were not adverse to a little risk taking by their government. This is of course where the poll success of David Cameron comes in; a young business type actually willing to embrace new age concerns like global warming. He represented a fresh change and a clean break from the past. Sure, he was probably a little wet behind the ears compared to his rival, but he promised to deliver the energy that the Prime Minister seemed to lack.

Now, the tables have turned. We have entered troubling economic times, when suddenly ordinary people are interested in what dour, boring wonks have to say. They are concerned for their future. They are worried about their employment prospects. They are no longer in the mood to take financial risks, or to take a punt on an unknown quantity like David Cameron. They want surety and certainty, and someone who has a lot of experience behind them and the intellectualism required to fortify the nation against the chaos of the global financial situation.

It would be an interesting exercise to plot the poll ratings of Gordon Brown against the FTSE over the last twelve months. And it will be interesting to see if Gordon Brown manages to surge to a lead in the polls over the next six months, on the back of his superior credentials with respect to the financial crisis that seems to currently have observers the world over in a bit of a tizz.

Talking the financial crisis up and down

There can be no denying that Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and Treasurer Wayne Swan, in particular, have brought a concerted air of solemnity to their communications regarding the global financial crisis. It has become almost cliched for our leaders and media commentators to assert that these are “tough times that we are living in”, or to compare the recent machinations in our financial markets to Black Monday, the oil shocks of the 1970’s, or even the mother of them all, the Great Depression. The national mood is a heady brew of overstated pessimism and introspection, and few have the confidence to predict exactly how events will unfold in the future.

The importance of confidence for consumers and the world’s remarkably flaky financial markets can’t really be overestimated at this stage. This creates a bit of a conundrum for government; on the one hand, the situation should probably be talked up, in order to send positive signals out there to those willing to listen. On the other hand, the government needs to keep its mood in touch with that of the Australian people. The last thing the Rudd Government wants to do is engage in rank triumphalism over Australia’s position in relation to the financial crisis when a lot of people out there are hurting as a result of it.

It would seem that the Liberal Party is happy to send positive signals with respect to the financial crisis, and to wear on its sleeve any criticisms arising from it being out of touch (some would suggest this is its natural disposition). Shadow Treasurer Julie Bishop appeared on Channel Nine this morning suggesting that Rudd needs to be more positive in relation to the crisis, offering this hyperbolic vignette to support her case:

Ms Bishop said shopkeepers in an Adelaide shopping centre had sent her a clear message.

“A number of shopkeepers … said to me that every time the Prime Minister goes on the nightly news and says ‘it’s going to be tough and ugly and hard’, they know that sales will be flat the next day.”

Former Prime Minister John Howard sent the Rudd Government a similar message on Fox News yesterday, urging the government to steer clear of comparisons of today’s crisis with the Great Depression. He is not without a point, but clearly the line upon which the government needs to walk here is fraught. Federal Labor is getting hit by the Opposition and some punters for talking the crisis up. If it talks the crisis down while the problems related with the crisis remain, it will also get hit by Opposition and the punters.

Rudd and Swan, knowing that this truly is a global financial crisis and that for the most part it is beyond Australia’s control, are erring to the negative side at the moment. Although we could perhaps do without some of the “Great Depression” hyperbole, I am not sure this is necessarily a bad thing given the reality of the situation that Australia faces. When the United States sneezes, we need to do what we can and hope for the best, because we simply don’t have the economic equivalent of an influenza vaccine on hand.