How can you like someone, but not enough to date them? Today’s polling raises a similar paradox about the PM and the voting public. Peter Brent writes:

Today’s Newspoll had Labor ahead 56 to 44. It also showed most Australians, 62%, support the government’s intervention in NT Aboriginal communities.

A Galaxy poll last week had a similar number, 58%, believing it was an election-year stunt.

Newspoll’s Martin O’Shannessy prefers his question to Galaxy’s, but in fact both were legitimate, and together they tell us that most Australians see it as a stunt, but also as a good idea.

That is, we can chew gum and fart at the same time.

It is also part of an apparent contradiction in today’s political landscape: a PM with respectable approval ratings trailing badly in voting intentions.
It’s all because the way “the mob” views politics has changed.

In the late 1980s and early 90s, Australians talked and thought economics. Beginning with his 1986 “banana republic” warning, Treasurer Paul Keating educated the commentariat, who force-fed the masses. Helped also by the “Hey True Blue” ads, the intractable current account deficit problem became embedded in our psyche. J-curves and twin deficits became accepted suburban pub-talk.

But from March 1996 we got comfortable and relaxed about all that, and now the only economic discourse is house prices and interest rates. Similarly, journalists’ political discourse has become increasingly facile: it’s all about tactics and “wedges”.

These messages sink in, and Australians have replaced economic literacy with political literacy. In particular, and especially since November 2001, everyone agrees that John Howard is a political genius.

This feeds into his high approval/satisfaction ratings. What does “the job John Howard does as Prime Minister” entail? It’s running the country, yes, but it is also the political side — winning elections, turning political tides and flaying oppositions. He is in part marked on that performance.

But the problem with being considered the most brilliant politician ever to walk the earth is that people easily see a political motive in your actions. Hence the cynicism about the NT adventure.

Coalition strategists are doubtless aware of this, and it shows, for example, in Howard’s demeanour during the current terrorist scare. Gone is the scenery-chewing that used to accompany matters of national security. He and Philip Ruddock have both been measured and low key.

For the last year at least, Labor has been boring us all with the mantra “John Howard is a clever politician”. It’s paying off — as both the Newspoll and Galaxy show.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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