A couple of weeks ago, the good folk at Essential did their routine approval rating questions, when they ask punters to rate the performance of the Prime Minister and the Opposition Leader and ask which they’d prefer as PM. You know the drill.

Julia Gillard’s performance was approved by 34% of voters; 54% of voters disapproved of her performance. She had worse numbers in September, her nadir with voters. In the interval, her approval had risen a little, but fallen back again. It’s unlikely to have improved in the wake of the Reshuffle from Hell.

Tony Abbott had his worst ever rating: 32% of people approved of his performance. 53% disapproved.

Gillard leads Abbott as preferred Prime Minister narrowly, 39% to 35%. Meanwhile, 26%, the highest ever, say they don’t know whom they prefer.

The near-alignment of those figures is telling. Voters simply can’t abide either of these people.

The reason, one suspects, is that voters think that they are, for different reasons, a couple of flakes.

You’ll recall back in April Gillard gave that strange speech at Luna Park to the Sydney Institute (yes, I still struggle to believe I typed that) centred on the holiness of manual labour and the Prime Minister’s hard-driving ethos of rising early and getting to work, purely for the joy of it. Perhaps because of the derision it earned from latte-sipping inner-urban élitists, this sub-Thatcherite elevation of suburban self-flagellation to the level of national aspiration thereafter vanished from the prime ministerial vocabulary. This, unfortunately, deprived us of further examples of what Gillard Labor’s jaundiced eye might alight on and contrast, inevitably unfavourably, with the sanctity of being a tradie.

Indeed, all efforts by Gillard to discuss any kind of personal narrative disappeared thereafter. Instead, it seemed, she preferred to live out her narrative of self-punishment, working hard to carry her government into dark caverns of unpopularity seldom explored by other prime ministers as part of her “year of decision and delivery”. This politics of masochism was primarily a consequence of her commitment to a carbon pricing package, something she’d ruled out with a certain ferocity before the last election but to which she was forced to return by the Greens.

The whole business played so badly for her because it complemented two existing stereotypes about Gillard, that she was ruthless and prepared to do anything to secure power, and that she didn’t believe, particularly, in anything much at all.

While she’s no longer accosted by shopping mall shrews determined to harangue her, and the “witch” and “Bob Brown’s bitch” posters have now been carefully stored in lavender-scented drawers, she has never recovered her standing with the public.

The problem with Tony Abbott is not so much that he believes in nothing, but that he appears to believe in everything. If consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, Abbott has a brain the size of a planet, vast enough to store every possible position on any issue. The enthusiast for a carbon tax who swears a blood oath he’ll repeal the carbon pricing package. The ferocious opponent of taxes whose first substantial policy was a new tax. The small-government politician who thinks the planet is cooling (the sort of thing that requires a South Park-style “Tony Abbott actually believes this” on-screen caveat) who wants big government interventionism to stop global warming. The anti-protectionist who pleads “national security” as a reason to protect heavy manufacturing. The advocate of offshore protection who refuses to pass legislation to give effect to exactly that. The constant critic of government spending who currently has a “$60 to $70 billion” bar tab. The list goes ever on.

The career-long criticism of Abbott has been for his sternly medieval views, in which men — usually old white men in long frocks with religious bling — control women’s bodies. In fact, Abbott as leader has displayed a charmingly post-modern rejection of objective truth, preferring instead the more mentally-demanding world of subjective reality.

Unswayed by such philosophical broadmindedness, voters find him even less appealing than the prime minister they can’t stand.

After the 2010 federal election, characterized by high rates of informal voting and support for third parties and a common consensus that it was the worst election campaign in living memory, the general disregard for the current generation of politicians appears for the moment to be an enduring feature of our political system.

In that regard, Australian politicians have it easier than their counterparts around the globe. In most parts of the world, politicians elected and unelected alike are in bad odour, such that some talk of a general crisis of legitimacy. Dictatorships across the Middle East have been toppled, with uncertain results. European leaders, including in the UK, have deftly steered their economies into recession, and not just any bog-standard economic slowdown, but the real thing, a 1930s-style multi-year effort that will trash a generation and before it’s finished, most likely, account for several political systems. The US failure, at least, has the virtue of being more systemic, with the operation of a political system primarily designed to advance the interests of the super-wealthy and corporations thrust more clearly into the spotlight than ever, summarized in that cut-through phrase of the #occupy movement, the 1%.

Conversely, despite the malice toward Gillard and Abbott, Australians have been mostly well-served by their political leaders for much of the last three decades, with successive governments putting in place the framework for a sustained high employment/low inflation economy well-placed to benefit from the historic surge in Asian demand. If anything, it’s the perception that Gillard and Abbott can’t hold a candle to their predecessors — indeed, not even to their immediate predecessors, if polls are to be believed — that may underpin their deep unpopularity.

Gillard, at least, can point to a record of some achievement over the course of the year, but voters seem to intuit the innately half-baked nature of many of the things she has secured: a carbon pricing package heavily dependent on direct action (masterfully negotiated by the Greens in their successful first major outing as the balance of power party); a mining tax bastardised into a form acceptable to tax-averse multinational mining companies, a deeply compromised, micro-version of what was once the biggest health reform package since Medicare. We were promised decision and delivery; the end result was a year of compromise and concession.

An outcome on asylum seekers, of course, remained undelivered, courtesy of the High Court and, then, the Opposition, which appears content to keep playing politics with the issue no matter, it seems, how many people end up drowning.

All of this means the heavy lifting of restructuring the Australian economy has been left to the Chinese government and capital markets, courtesy of the resources boom and a surging currency, which have accelerated the multi-decade decline of heavy manufacturing. That sector lost over 5% of its workforce in the twelve months to November, the fastest ever decline barring two quarters in the depths of 1991. The high dollar also punished those sections of retail that had benefited the longest from Australians’ distance from world markets and their ability to slap huge mark-ups on imported products. But unlike the last round of major reform, in the early 1990s, the economy is growing strongly and able to absorb workers displaced from declining industries: mining is a fractional employer but other services sectors (like health) are growing fast and construction remains buoyant courtesy of the resources boom, rather than the usual source of construction industry momentum, housing.

Economic change continues apace, whether we vote for it or not, whether our political leaders embrace it or not. Their preferred option currently is a sort of sympathetic shrug, as if to say “it’s not our fault, we can’t stop this happening.”

To this mix, however, Wayne Swan has brought something crucial: fiscal discipline. Ignore the smoke-and-mirrors trick with the 2012-13 “surplus” — it’s a deficit, but enough of it will be spent before June 30 that, if revenue holds up, it’ll notionally be in the black. The real discipline is in the government holding rising spending down over successive years (with the painful exception of this financial year). As a result, the RBA has more room to move on interest rates and global markets, international institutions and ratings agencies are recognising Australia as a AAA-rated safe haven.

One of the characteristics of Swan’s fiscal management, and one which must endlessly p-ss him off, has been that the virtues of his budgets have rarely been apparent on Budget Night, when we tend to lavish them with lukewarm praise or criticism — invariably that he has failed to go far enough. While we still await a real bloodbath that puts middle class welfare and ridiculous tax concessions to the sword, Swan and Treasury’s calls have usually been right when observed with the benefit of several months hindsight. So yet might his pea-and-thimble trick of bringing spending into this year to shore up his surplus next year, if the Eurozone crisis inflicts even more damage on the global economy than it is expected to.

In any event, the government’s economic management remains its strong suit. It oversees a strong, high-employment, low-inflation economy when nearly all of the developed world is struggling. But denialism is rampant, from the Opposition (unsurprisingly), from business and from the Murdoch press. The counter-narrative is of a blundering, wasteful government on a debt binge and beholden to unions. In 2011, political debate seemed to break free of any requirement for logic or evidence, from the anti-carbon tax campaigners averring climate change was all a giant conspiracy (the logical outcome of any persistent skepticism about climate change), to the Opposition’s insistence that debt was out of control even as bond yields hit record lows and Fitch’s upgraded Australia’s rating to AAA, to business stubbornly insisting Australia’s “productivity crisis” must be fixed by some WorkChoices-style labor deregulation.

When even that carbuncle on the national interest, Mitch Hooke, laments that public policy is now conducted via “a public contest through the popular media” rather than rational discussion, we know we should be worried about the overall quality of our public debate.

I suggested this time last year that Labor’s hollowness had been exposed during the course of 2010. During this year, the party fared better than its leader in that regard, displaying signs of life on asylum seekers, live exports, uranium and the economy. But its fundamental problem remains, and it is one it shares with the Liberal Party: the major parties have lost their mass membership and, with that, an organically-formed set of values. Instead, they rely on their leadership groups to drive policy (with the occasional eruption, like on same-s-x marriage).

This trend will only be exacerbated by the accelerating establishment of online communities that not so much challenge as entirely ignore the traditional party political ways of doing things. As the Labor conference vote on party reform demonstrated, 2011 differed little from 2010, or any preceding year, in this regard, as far as new thinking in the old parties went. At some point, a new entity will emerge online and start filling the gap created by the analog political incumbents. That’s been the pattern in other industries and there’s no reason to think it won’t happen in politics, too.

Peter Fray

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