It’s now a well-established feature of contemporary politics that the prime minister and leader of the opposition are equally disliked by voters, that however unpopular, indeed actively loathed, Julia Gillard may be by them, Tony Abbott fares little better in their esteem.

It’s unusual to have the nation’s leader and alternative leader so disliked. It’s even more unusual that in both cases there are clear, popular alternatives sitting on the shelf. Last week’s Nielsen poll was only the latest showing of the extent to which Kevin Rudd and Malcolm Turnbull are voters’ preferred leaders. According to that poll, nearly twice as many voters prefer Rudd to Gillard. Turnbull’s lead over  Abbott isn’t as large when Joe Hockey is included, but has a Rudd-sized lead over Abbott head-to-head.

The results are consistent with those of Essential when it last asked similar questions in April. Like Nielsen, Essential found that for Rudd and Turnbull, their own party’s voters didn’t like them anywhere near as much as the other party’s voters. In both cases, that parallels the views of their parliamentary colleagues.

The only really significant change over the past 12 months has been that Turnbull has broken clear of not merely Abbott but Hockey, who once equalled or surpassed Turnbull as a leadership alternative, in both polls.

Hockey of course is a high-profile member of the Abbott team, joined at the hip to his leader and, presumably, tainted by association with a hideously unpopular opposition leader. Turnbull, as communications shadow, pops regularly to snipe at the NBN (that whole “wrecking” thing isn’t working out so well) and opine on media matters, but otherwise seems more in his party than of it. Rather like Rudd, even when he was foreign minister; even more so now that he sits on the backbench, wandering in to question time and sitting down the back with his mate Anthony Byrne.

It’s hard to avoid the parallels between Rudd and Turnbull, so many of them are there. Both leaders cut down by their parties, punished with the public humiliation of ouster. Both highly intelligent, both arrogant men with much to be arrogant about, Turnbull of the glittering legal and business careers, Rudd the Labor leader who took his party into government, reversing John Howard’s “two-term victory” over Mark Latham. Both with a strange knack for communicating with voters — Turnbull because he appears to believe the rest of us have working brains and talks to us as if we do, Rudd with a folksiness so transparently fake it actually works in spite of itself.

And both with management styles hand-crafted from every “do not” list of executive tips ever written, geniuses at alienating colleagues, not just in the normal way of politics, a profession where you don’t just have to work with people you loathe and heartily disagree with and do it in public, but alienating in a more fundamental way, one that makes people swear they’ll never sit in the same room as them ever again.

The other parallel of course is that both have already had a go as leaders, albeit with different results; Rudd’s polling was still strong when he was knifed by Gillard; Turnbull was badly wounded when  Abbott found it suddenly convenient to reverse his position on the CPRS.

For both men, public narratives of their executions have taken firm hold, and both centre on climate change. Turnbull stuck to his principles and was brought down by his party for it; Rudd failed to stick to his principles and was brought down as a consequence. Both ended up in the same place — purged of whatever sins voters attributed to them first time around by their humiliation, far more popular than the leaders who assassinated them (let us not forget, as voters appear to have done, that Rudd and Turnbull secured their leadership at the expense of their own predecessors).

Neither narrative is correct, but in politics as much as in love we only see in other people what we want to see, until living cheek-by-jowl with them kills our illusions.

In this context, Rudd and Turnbull are less important as alternative leaders than as walking representations of our disillusionment with contemporary politics, of our lack of trust in political leaders and major parties, of a search for authenticity in a profession where pretty much every image is confected. The humiliation and purgative experience of public ouster is one real experience we can fix onto for both figures, and the (likely vain) hope that either will have learnt through their ordeal what was missing from their leadership.

The Age of Entitlement, Hockey christened it, albeit his gaze was fixed abroad when he did so. But the sense of entitlement may only be a part of a broader alienation from politics and its practitioners, and the economy, the frustration about a strong economy that doesn’t deliver anything except “structural adjustment”, the economic reforms that have benefited companies and their executives, the sense that whatever we have gained over the past 30 years isn’t what we really wanted, that there might be a leader who understands that and wants to do something about it. The last one who tried was Rudd, and his failure to meet high expectations was one of the key reasons for his swift fall in popularity.

The trick might be to avoid raising expectations. If the current polls continue, Abbott will become prime minister with a large majority and abysmal popularity. There’ll be no high expectations about an Abbott prime ministership. In which case, he’d only have to be a moderate, competent, sensible leader to pleasantly surprise voters.

All politicians know that you shouldn’t promise what you can’t deliver. And what voters want at the moment, to the extent they can articulate it, is something no one can deliver, not even Rudd or Turnbull.

Peter Fray

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