Why do we love to hate someone when vigorous disagreement should be enough? In competitive arenas such as sport why do we get so much joy from seeing the object of our hatred not only lose, but also be smashed into oblivion?

Perhaps even more curiously, why is it that we love to hate but we don’t love the haters?

I’m not sure why, but I suspect Tony Abbott should be thinking very carefully about this curly question.

One could argue that it’s harmless to hate in sport; some might even say it enhances our enjoyment. As the saying goes, nothing builds team spirit more than a common foe (such as Collingwood, for example).

That may be true, but the increasingly gladiatorial nature of Australian politics has led us to bring our sporting hatred into the political arena.

Thirty years ago, political allegiances were reasonably straightforward: 40% voted for Labor, 40% for the Coalition, and elections were fought over the 20% swinging voters who remained undecided. Labor’s strength came from its blue collar foundations, the Liberals from their white-collar and small business supporters, and the Nationals from the bush.

In those days, people tended to vote the same way their parents did; much the same as they would follow the same footy team.

Today, it’s an entirely different story. We are less, but strangely more, tribal. No longer do we naturally gravitate to the party our parents supported. Mainly this is because we cast our votes more on values than political philosophy.

But we do love to hate politicians and we do it in a visceral, tribal way, just like we do with our footy adversaries.

I can’t pinpoint the time I realised that hatred of politicians had become a sporting event for Australians. Perhaps it was Treasurer Keating and the “recession we had to have” that started it all. Maybe it was PM Keating’s revoked L-A-W tax cuts, or his “get a job” election campaign jibe that caused voters to wait patiently for him on their porches with baseball bats.

Then there were the Howard haters, who made vilification of the then Prime Minister a national pastime. Their rejection of Howard’s positions on climate change, asylum seekers and IR was blisteringly intense then and still lingers, with references to the rodent still echoing today in the public discourse.

And now, we have not one but two new villains to heckle and abhor. Both Prime Minister Gillard and her opponent Tony Abbott are perfect lightning rods for our prejudices, resentments and hatred.

Gillard knifed her predecessor, robbing voters of the chance to punish him, and now courts the Greens to get her government’s initiatives through parliament.

Abbott also knifed his predecessor, shattering the hopes of progressive Liberals and giving succour to the extreme right edge of the party.

So I guess there’s no surprise that we love to hate either one or both of them.

But the irony, and the warning for Tony Abbott, is that we may love to hate our sporting and political opponents, but we seem much less inclined to embrace the haters themselves. While a little jovial sledging on the field is acceptable, we give short shrift to those who indulge in racism or other forms of bigotry.

Admittedly, we did have a soft spot for Paul Keating, arguably the best hater that Australia’s black-Irish population has ever produced. The ferocious beauty of his recently “re-released” note to NSW Labor MP (now opposition leader) John Robertson exemplifies the man’s ability to render abuse more finely crafted than the curlicues of any antique clock.

Having said that, it must also be remembered that Keating’s highest ever approval rating was 40%, the second lowest on record for a modern-era Australian Prime Minister. Keating also holds the record for the lowest Prime Ministerial approval rating at 27%.

Putting Keating to the side for a moment, I’d argue that we dislike, even abhor, politicians who are haters. We certainly don’t make them Prime Minister; with Mark Latham being the perfect example.

Latham was reported as having told The Bulletin in 2002, “I’m a hater … Part of the tribalness of politics is to really dislike the other side with intensity. And the more I see of them the more I hate them. I hate their negativity. I hate their narrowness.”

Another proficient hater, tabloid columnist Miranda Devine described Latham this way when he was Opposition Leader in 2003-04: “The more we see of Mark Latham the more it seems that underneath some admirable qualities seethes the heart of a hater, consumed with a clotted class envy that will be his downfall.”

Latham’s hatred and self-proclaimed appointment as class-warrior were key factors in his federal election loss. Women voters in particular deserted him in droves. Many of us were unnerved when Latham attacked private schools and other elements of the “privileged classes”. We needed little more encouragement than his bully-handshake with Howard to walk away altogether.

The 2004 federal election tally speaks for itself: the Howard/Liberal first preference vote of 40.5% was 3.4 percentage points higher than the previous election. This was the party’s highest first preference vote since the landslide of 1975 (41.8%), and only the fourth time since its creation that the party had secured 40 per cent of the national total.

Latham/Labor’s first preference vote of 37.6% per cent was its lowest vote since the elections of 1931 and 1934.

An even more fascinating parallel is that, despite an overall trend in the other direction, at both Keating’s 1993 election and Latham’s 2004 election, women were more likely than men to vote for the coalition (44%-37% in 1993 and 47%-42% in 2004).

It’s little wonder that Kevin Rudd did his very best during the 2006 federal election to avoid the mistakes made by Latham.

Rudd deftly positioned himself as Howard-lite, framing himself as the “other” safe pair of hands, but with bonus features such as the ratification of Kyoto and the scrapping of WorkChoices. While Rudd may have been a hater behind the scenes (he certainly seems to have been a tantrum-thrower), his diplomatic training or political instinct ensured that it was kept securely behind closed doors.

As a result, Rudd equalled the highest ever approval rating achieved by an Australian PM, namely Bob Hawke, at 75%. It’s worth noting that Hawke wasn’t much of a public hater either.

And now we have Tony Abbott, who should be taking note of both Latham and Rudd’s experience as Opposition Leaders.

It’s no mystery that, while the Federal Opposition is polling better than the Government at present, Abbott still trails behind Julia Gillard as the preferred PM and in the approval stakes.

Many of us have our doubts about Abbott, just as we did about Latham. This doubt has the potential to harden into distrust and dislike if Abbott is seen to have crossed the line from gentlemanly sledging to encouraging, if not publicly using, hate-based language.

Obviously Abbott is capitalising on the fact that voters love to hate. But does he realise that we are simultaneously repulsed by politicians and others who are haters?

Perhaps not, and if that is the case then someone should draw this idiosyncrasy to his attention. This small detail may yet prove to be Abbott’s undoing.

This article originally appeared at The King’s Tribune.

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