One of the more astonishing things about the federal election result is how the ALP managed to destroy such an enormous amount of public goodwill over such a relatively small time frame. To really highlight the drama of it all, it’s worth looking at a couple of charts. Firstly, let’s take every two party preferred poll result between January 2008 and the 2010 election, and let’s also add a distribution curve of those results to the left hand axis. Secondly, we’ll look at the polling trend over the period with its uncertainty band (the all pollster, pooled sample trend plus the estimated margin of error band around the trend line). Click to expand:

alp1 alp2

What we see is a term clearly split into two distinct episodes – the period up to mid-September 2009, and the final week of September through to the election. The former represented a political juggernaut, the latter was something between a complete fiasco and utter disaster.

Something worth looking at is the way the satisfaction dynamics of the leadership of the two parties played out over the first term. What we usually see with these things is that there’s a relationship between a party’s vote and it’s leader’s satisfaction ratings – but where the relationship is much, much stronger for the party in government than for the party in opposition. Labor’s first term was no exception – it was particularly orthodox in this respect. We can see that by running a simple scatter plot and regression line of the two party preferred vote for each side of politics against their leader’s respective satisfaction rating scores from Newspoll. Click to expand:


The Labor chart is much tighter and the regression line much steeper than the Coalition’s, showing us that the dynamics between the perception of the PM and the public support for their party is much more intimate that that of the Opposition.

So it’s worth charting the PM satisfaction with our ALP two party trend estimates. The two party preferred is on the left hand axis, the PM satisfaction on the right. Click to expand


What was interesting with this dynamic is how the vote estimates often turned a polling cycle or two before we witnessed any comparable change in the satisfaction ratings of the PM. Yet there were two noticeable occasions where that didn’t hold, and there was a shared commonality between these two events. The first was when the Godwin Grech saga occurred, where the PM satisfaction rating started increasing a polling cycle or two before the vote estimates  started increasing. The other was in the election campaign, where Gillard’s satisfaction rating started falling a few days before the vote decline was picked up by all the pollsters.

Looking back over the period, the two occurrences where we witnessed changes in PM satisfaction leading the change in the vote estimates was when the leadership of the nation was called into question by the voters – the Grech saga with its allegations of corruption and the campaign with its allegations of PM incompetency .

On both of these occasions but no other, the vote followed the direction of the initial change in reaction to the satisfaction perceptions of the PM.

The moral of the story here is that a party’s fortunes and that of its leader are intimately linked – especially for government. That’s sort of stating the obvious. But when the leadership of the country is called into question by the voters (as opposed to being called into question by the Opposition, which is simply a daily occurrence) , it’s up to the leader of the country to, well, lead the solution to the political problem.

When the Grech affair happened, Rudd effectively stood up and said to the public  “This is about my leadership – this is bullshit” and he went for the jugular. The results spoke for themself. He destroyed Malcolm Turnbull and was unassailable until he couldn’t get his governance shit together.

In the campaign, Gillard stood up and said “This is about my leadership, and I have nothing really to say about it” and we see the results of that in an election outcome that gave us a weak government, leading a hung parliament, with no demonstrated ability to control the agenda.

And it will remain that way until Gillard stands up and leads – because this is still all about her.  Her satisfaction ratings are split right down the middle, 20% of the country is undecided about her, 17% of the country can’t decide whether Gillard or Abbott would make a better Prime Minister. The Coalition throws simplistic political grenades, driving national politics into the sludge of lowest common denominator populism with complete immunity.

And there Gillard stands doing nothing – with the Labor Party left wondering how it all went so wrong.

Until she stands up and says “This is about my leadership – this is bullshit” and goes for the jugular – as Rudd, Howard, Keating and Hawke all did before her, this will be a government that regardless of what it achieves in any policy sense, will be running flat out to get exactly, politically, nowhere.

In other news, the new Pollytrend measures are underway – currently sitting on a two party preferred of 51/49 to the Coalition. We’ll have to wait for a few more before we start to chart them – a single dot isn’t exactly the most exciting thing in the world to look at.

They’ll be a little different this term – with only one trend line rather than two, representing all the phone polls plus Essential Report, which proved itself to be as accurate as the broader phone polling industry during the last election.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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