One of the firm rules of Australian politics is that
Labor leaders do best at their first attempts. Evatt, Calwell and
Whitlam all came close to winning the first election they fought, and
none of them ever got as big a swing again (Whitlam won at his second
attempt, but with a much smaller swing than in 1969). Hawke won his
first election and went backwards from there, as did Keating.

Kim Beazley has repeated the pattern: a big swing in
1998, then losing ground in 2001. Those who hoped he might defy
precedent by a third-time comeback have been disappointed so far, and
will be especially concerned by this week’s Newspoll.

Yesterday’s headline figures were bad enough, but
today’s release of more qualitative data may be even more disturbing.
Over the last year, perception of Howard as “decisive and strong” has
stayed constant, but Beazley has dropped 20 points (69% to 49%). For
“in touch with the voters” he’s down 15 (Howard is down 6). Even on
“trustworthy” Howard has narrowed the gap, now trailing by only 6
points (was 11).

Beazley’s strength has always been his warm fuzzy
appeal, but it seems to be wearing off: his best scores are “cares for
people” (76%) and “likeable” (69%), but even there he is noticeably
down from a year ago.

Diehard Beazley supporters will say that this is all
just hot air: all that matters is voting intention, and on that Labor
is still competitive. (They may also note that the “who is more capable
of handling …” questions, which should bear a stronger connection to
actual votes, are much better for Beazley than the raw perceptions.) If
people would just stop griping and unite behind the leader, they will
say, government is still within reach: or, as Michelle Grattan puts it this morning, “this just shows what disunity does and the show can be saved by all-round good behaviour.”

But that isn’t how modern politics works. It’s not
peculiar to Labor, either; the various state Liberal leaders could
equally say that if the malcontents would just shut up things wouldn’t
be so bad. But poll ratings drive discontent, and if things don’t
improve soon then Beazley’s days are numbered.

Peter Fray

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