So what’s behind the “collapse” of Labor’s support in opinion poll?

Part of it is historical context. Kevin Rudd’s government has been unusually popular, for an unusually long period of time. It is not, as Tom Jones might say, unusual for post-honeymoon governments to be level with or trail oppositions. But this collapse has been swift and has been focussed entirely on Rudd, whose appeal to voters has collapsed as spectacularly as Labor’s vote.

Nor has this been a poor government. It has been poor in several areas, yes, but its overriding achievement of preventing the GFC from causing a recession is significant. Anyone who thinks its stimulus packages were unnecessary or over-blown has either forgotten about, or doesn’t care, just how much damage the 1990s recession did to our social fabric and economy, and how much utter misery it inflicted on hundreds of thousands of people. Preventing a recurrence of that is a major achievement.

Rudd’s lack of communication skills have been blamed by pretty much everyone, including me, for at least part of the collapse, although it’s only a few weeks since we were lauding the return of the 2007-vintage Rudd at his health debate with Tony Abbott. In fact, on health, Rudd demonstrated a hitherto-unseen capacity to remain on-topic for extended periods. As always, he insisted on having a rolling series of announcements, as if he is unable to dissociate the idea of arguing a case for reform with having a press release with dollar signs on it. But he applied himself to the task of selling reform, and in fact, well after COAG and its agreement had come and gone, Rudd was still visiting hospitals to spruik the plan, often in regional areas.

That begs the question: where would we now be if he had applied himself similarly to the task of selling his emissions trading scheme, instead of relying on Penny Wong and treating it as a stick with which to beat the opposition?

But communication can’t explain the sudden collapse either. Not fully.

There’s no doubt the tone of media coverage of the government has changed dramatically, and not in its favour, since the start of the year, with a determined air of get-square for the high-handedness with which Rudd’s office treated and manipulated the media for two years.

There are also the permanent anti-Labor elements of the media. News Limited, primarily via The Australian, has been conducting a war on the government. Considerable resources have been deployed by that newspaper in an entirely confected campaign against the BER stimulus component, even after an ANAO report discredited the entire effort. News also employs several commentators whose entire job is to smear and attack Labor, unrestrained by any adherence to facts or reason, so that even when Labor adopts pro-business policies it is criticised. The Coalition faces no such permanent media opposition.

While declining newspaper readerships and the dominance of free-to-air news bulletins mean News’ attacks are not directly harmful, they influence other media coverage. In particular, the ABC now frequently marches in lockstep, repeating its polling spin verbatim, deploying resources to follow up attacks and giving a regular platform to anti-Labor commentators.

Nevertheless, media hostility is a fact of political life for Labor and it has won before in the face of it. It doesn’t satisfactorily explain the collapse of Rudd’s appeal either.

So let’s reconsider the nature of Rudd’s appeal.

Rudd is unusual compared to previous PMs. He is unique amongst post-war contemporaries in not having been in public life for an extended period before leading his party to victory — he had been an MP less than 10 years, and a public figure for much less than that. He is also hard-to-read for the public — you have to go back to Malcolm Fraser for a similarly distant prime ministerial personality, although unlike Fraser, Rudd shapes himself depending on his audience. But in contrast to his three immediate predecessors, who all had strong public images, Rudd came to the prime ministership without a well-defined public image beyond that of a policy wonk.

In his pursuit of the prime ministership, much of Rudd’s political persona, therefore, consisted of what people projected onto him, rather than what he projected.

There are a couple of competing interpretations of Rudd’s 2007 election win. Neither is correct, but neither is entirely wrong. And both come back to the basic issue that Rudd’s political personality depended on what people were able to project onto him.

One, essentially conservative, was that Rudd was Howard-lite, winning by pretending to be a more up-to-date version of Howard.

This is a press gallery/Canberra-insider interpretation. It misinterprets Rudd’s election strategy, which was to ensure voters did not think he was a risk in the way Mark Latham was seen as a risk, and then to carefully pick the issues on which he attacked Howard, leaving the rest as uncontested. The strategy was important in luring support from voters who needed reassurance that Rudd was not a risk.

It was called ‘me-tooism’ and it frustrated both the Coalition and their media supporters no end. After the election, conservatives used it to console themselves with the thought that they hadn’t really lost, because an essentially conservative prime minister had replaced Howard.

But it should not be mistaken for Rudd deliberately aping Howard.

The other interpretation (at least for my purposes) is a progressive one — that Rudd captured a national mood for change. In this interpretation, Rudd was anything but Howard-lite — he was more a pre-Obama change agent who answered a growing mood for a swing back to the Left amongst Australians, particularly young people. That Rudd was a personally conservative, centrist technocrat with no real labour movement roots was carefully glossed over.

Just as the Howard-lite interpretation comforted some conservatives, so this interpretation has served the cause of self-interested groups such as GetUp, however at odds with reality it was.

Labor assiduously and cannily promoted both ideas, allowing people to see what they wanted to see in Rudd — and building up potentially conflicting expectations. Essentially conservative voters wanted Rudd to be similar to his predecessor but without the manifest problems that Howard accumulated — his age, most particularly, and his cynicism, manifested both in his increasingly transparent attempts to buy elections, and his casuistry.

More progressive voters wanted Rudd to substantially abandon key elements of the Howard approach on climate change, indigenous affairs and asylum seekers.

Such a support base may be difficult to retain in the long-term — apart from anything else, the mere act of being prime minister means there is an ever-decreasing capacity for voters to project whatever they like onto you. However, it was enough to allow Rudd to secure the Lodge and craft his own political persona, offering his own story to Australians rather than relying on them to see what they wanted to.

Rudd’s problem is that he has not yet done that, and he has also managed to upset both progressive and conservative voters at the same time — leaving him exposed to a catastrophic collapse.

Read part two here (subscriber only)

Get more Crikey, for less

It’s more than a newsletter. It’s where readers expect more – fearless journalism from a truly independent perspective. We don’t pander to anyone’s party biases. We question everything, explore the uncomfortable and dig deeper.

Join us this week for 50% off a year of Crikey.

Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
50% off