This article could also be called “How to explain nearly everything about big P politics in four simple charts“.

Australian politics, or rather the dynamics of the relationship between the public and the party in government, has been undergoing a significant transformation over the past 25-odd years. In many respects, that is to be expected — the speed of the news cycle has changed, the quantity of media has increased dramatically and as a result, political parties, particularly those in government, have adapted to their new environment by changing the tactical and strategic approaches to the way they engage with the public.

We now get governments spending 18 hours a day trying to bump, shift and prod the news cycle in ways that lead to politically beneficial results. We have much more presidential-style campaigns and nearly everything about government these days is first pushed through a sort of public relations meat grinder before it gets deemed fit for human consumption.

This change in the way that political parties relate to and engage with the public has significantly changed the way the public perceive the party in government — which in turn probably creates a bit of a feedback loop, further changing the way the Prime Minister goes about that part of his business dedicated to staying in government.

To show it’s all been working, we’ll take three Newspoll metrics; the primary vote of the government, the Prime Minister’s satisfaction rating and the PM’s preferred Prime Minister rating — and rather than use each Newspoll separately, we’ll take monthly averages of these ratings to knock out some volatility (so each month will be the average of two or three separate Newspolls).

To start, if we take a look at the Howard government from April 1996 (the month after it was elected) through to the Ryan by-election of May 2001 — what we find is that these three metrics all tracked each other very closely over the period, and at roughly the same level.

The dynamics of the government/public relationship was such that the Prime Minister neither lifted nor depressed the party vote very much. Satisfaction levels and preferred PM levels generally matched the primary vote level of the government over any given arbitrary period. This was — in terms of political behaviour — the first Howard government … Howard Mk I if you will.

It was ultimately unsustainable. Howard was on a hiding to nothing by the time of the Ryan by-election, where Labor grabbed Brisbane’s heartland Liberal Party seat when John Moore retired. In response to what then looked like an impending smashing at the 2001 election, Howard dramatically changed his behaviour — becoming a much more populist-style leader and becoming much more aggressive in the way he managed the media.

If we now move on to the Howard Mk 2 era, from June 2001 through to October 2007, we can see the dramatic difference this had on the dynamics of the government/public relationship.

Through this period, the Liberal Party effectively became the John Howard party. His populist style, perpetual campaigning structurally shifted his satisfaction rating and his preferred PM numbers above that of the primary vote his party enjoyed.

Some of the variation in the numbers here was undoubtedly due to the leadership of the Labor Party at the time, but that mostly played out with preferred PM numbers — even when Rudd took leadership of the ALP, Howard’s satisfaction rating remained structurally above the Liberal Party primary vote — something that we didn’t see in the Howard Mk 1 era.

Moving on to Rudd, we see the same structural shift maintained, but taken to more extreme levels.

Howard Mk 2 was a canny media manager, but Rudd has taken it to a new level. To really highlight the dramatic transformation, we can run the same chart over the entire period from 1996 through to today:


It’s pretty astonishing.

Visit Possum’s Pollytics blog for more analysis

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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