With varying degrees of enthusiasm, the punditocracy has given the Rudd government the thumbs-up in its first-year retrospectives. Given Labor’s consistent double-digit poll leads and Kevin Rudd’s near-record approval ratings, it would be very bold of them to have done otherwise.
Yet, despite the conjunction of professional and popular opinion, it might not do to place bets on the outcome of the 2016 election quite yet. It is well understood that a government’s best days come at the beginning of its term in office, when its stocks of political capital remain unspent. However, the length and intensity of honeymoon periods is variable, and can often serve as a pointer to the government’s success over the longer term. The question thus arises of how well the Rudd government’s polling record compares with its recent predecessors at the equivalent point in the cycle.
To investigate, I have gathered first-year polling results going back to 1972 from two sources: Morgan Gallup in the case of the Whitlam, Fraser and Hawke governments, and Newspoll (which began in 1985) in the case of Howard and Rudd. Fraser’s term in office is deemed to have begun with his election win on December 13, 1975, rather than his swearing in on November 11. I will focus mainly on prime ministerial approval which, unlike voting intention, is uncomplicated by the popularity or otherwise of the opposition. The following table shows each leader’s rating at the last poll before their anniversary, their highest and lowest scores over the year, and their mean and standard deviation.
On this basis, Bob Hawke’s first year remains the gold standard as political honeymoons go, although Kevin Rudd at least appears to have given him a run for his money. Both are far ahead of the rest of the field, with the averages for John Howard, Gough Whitlam and Malcolm Fraser clumped closely together around the 50 per cent mark. Howard’s highest rating of 67 per cent was competitive with Hawke’s and Rudd’s, but this was a one-off scored in the immediate wake of the Port Arthur massacre.
His next best result was 60 per cent, and it came in the subsequent poll. Standard deviation indicates the volatility in the ratings over the course of the year: here the outstanding case is Malcolm Fraser, who presumably came to office with attitudes pre-hardened by the 1975 supply crisis. However, the figure for Howard drops to a comparable 3.1 if the Port Arthur aberration is removed. Perhaps it’s a Liberal thing.
Further light can be shed on these figures if we follow the leaders’ progress over the course of the year. The following chart tracks net approval rating (i.e. approval minus disapproval) by averaging the figures for each month.
Since we’re talking about net approval here, what showed up as stability for Fraser and Howard on standard deviation of approval translates into a steady decline, due to the tendency of “undecided” ratings to fall over time. In other words, their approval remained stable while their disapproval steadily increased. Whitlam on the other hand suffered at both ends of the scale, consistent with his tumultuous first year in office (not that things quietened down much afterwards).
As for Kevin Rudd, his uneven progress complicates the earlier picture of an all-conquering hero to rival Bob Hawke. As of two months ago, Rudd’s rating had descended from lofty early heights to mediocrity via a trend line that looked a lot more like Whitlam’s than Hawke’s. That of course came to a sudden end with the onset of the financial crisis. In contrast to the clear pictures presented by Hawke and Whitlam, there is an element of ambiguity about Rudd’s record: is the recent upswing a transient effect of the public rallying behind its leader in a time of crisis, or will the government’s decisive response prove to have been a durable circuit-breaker?
Of course, it might not do to read too much into “beauty contest” polling, as critics of leadership approval would have it. Despite Hawke’s stratospheric early ratings, his term in office was shorter than that of Howard, who made up with persistent good fortune what he lacked in charisma. However, voting intention figures for the various governments follow similar courses to their leaders’ approval ratings, with one intriguing exception.
The exception is the recent performance of the Rudd government, which although still holding a handsome lead has failed to follow its leader’s recent upswing. For an explanation as to why this should be, look no further than the ratings of his opposite number. In his brief tenure in the job, Malcolm Turnbull has recorded by far the highest approval ratings of any Opposition Leader during the periods under observation. His four Newspoll ratings have been between 50 and 53 per cent, which is matched only by a one-off rating of 50 per cent for Andrew Peacock in May 1983. Turnbull’s arrival came just in time for the financial crisis and the accompanying boost for Rudd, and there seems little doubt that it has prevented Labor’s support from returning to the peaks recorded earlier this year.
If any of Turnbull’s internal critics are morosely observing Labor’s stubborn lead and imagining they might benefit from another change of horses, they should probably think again.