Last Sunday marked the first anniversary of the election of the Abbott government, and with it came the inevitable flurry of report cards from assorted species of pundit, both friendly and hostile. Some were kinder than others, but a collective verdict of “must try harder” came through loud and clear.
As even the strongest supporters of the government’s policy record are required to acknowledge, polling indicates that no government has ended its first year in a more precarious electoral position certainly since Gough Whitlam, and perhaps even since Jim Scullin brought Labor to power just in time for the Great Depression to strike in 1929. For some idea of how historically unusual Tony Abbott’s position is, the charts below plot his government’s progress alongside the first-year performance of Kevin Rudd in 2007-08 and John Howard in 1996-97, as recorded by trend measures of the two-party preferred vote and prime ministerial net approval (i.e. approval minus disapproval).
Even from the very start, it was evident that Abbott had arrived in office with public goodwill in unusually short supply. Polls conducted in the wake of electoral victories are usually as good as it gets for a government, owing to a sense that a new incumbent should be given a fair go, and that the opposition in any case will be in no state to resume the reins as it licks the wounds of its defeat. However, the very first polls conducted in late September found that the Coalition’s lead had actually narrowed slightly, and at no point since has the poll trend matched its 53.5% two-party vote from the election. Tony Abbott’s personal ratings at least rose after the election victory to the highest levels they have yet known, but this was true only by his own rather dismal standard.
During this period, Labor was executing a public relations coup through the civilised and innovative manner in which it was choosing its new leader, presenting a very different image from the one the party had laboured under during the Rudd-Gillard wars. Meanwhile, the government deliberately kept the lowest of profiles as part of Abbott’s declared strategy to “take politics off the front page”, a line last heard from Malcolm Fraser in 1975.
This stood it in stark contrast to the Rudd government, which came to office determined to project a renewed sense of vitality by signing the Kyoto protocol, apologising to the stolen generations and conducting the long-forgotten 2020 Summit. None of this, of course, was to do Rudd any good in the long run, but at the time his personal ratings reached heights not seen since 1983 when a newly elected Bob Hawke set to work holding a national economic summit and signing the Prices and Income Accord.
John Howard’s personal ratings never quite reached such heights, but the net approval chart shows him briefly knocking on Rudd’s door during his third month on the job. The catalyst for this was the Port Arthur massacre, which unfolded eight weeks after the election, and Howard’s robust policy response in the weeks that followed.
Common to Abbott, Rudd and Howard was a decline in net approval of around 20% between their early peaks and the midpoint of the year, but from that point on the similarity breaks down, with Rudd enjoying a second wind towards the end of the year, Abbott taking a further dive, and Howard’s position remaining more or less stable.
The mid-year decline in Rudd’s personal rating coincided with accumulating difficulties for his government, including rising petrol prices and concerted industry resistance to the “alcopops” tax. The effect was obscured on voting intention by trouble in the Coalition camp, which culminated in Malcolm Turnbull’s coup against Brendan Nelson in September. However, the government suffered a reality check in June when it faced its first byelection in the regional Victorian seat of Gippsland, and suffered a surprisingly forceful swing of 6%.
The turnaround arrived with the onset of the global financial crisis in September, in what ultimately proved to be another lesson in the ephemeral nature of opinion poll dominance. However, it’s interesting to note that this was not accompanied by a further lift in Labor’s lead on voting intention, perhaps reflecting a positive early response to Malcolm Turnbull.
Meanwhile, the Abbott government’s first landslip after the Gonski debacle in November left it trailing on two-party preferred, a position Howard wouldn’t reach until well into his second year, and Rudd until his third. Then came the second body blow after the May budget, since when not a single published poll has shown the Coalition in the lead.
The situation has moderated a little since, with Abbott’s personal ratings especially recording a sharp uptick after the MH17 disaster, albeit from a pitifully low base. Voting intention has also been trending in the government’s favour as the budget backlash has cooled off, with the issue agenda shifting to the more favourable terrain of national security.
Nonetheless, the uncomfortable fact for Abbott is that his record to date has disproved the notion that governments can count on opinion poll dominance during their first year in office. Now he must worry if a rather more important axiom is set to fall by the wayside — the one that says Australian voters don’t evict governments after a single term.