Bad vibes may determine who becomes our next PM

Despite our protests to the contrary, on 14 September Australians will vote for whichever federal parliamentary leader they find less distasteful.

Yes there’s a lot of white noise about values and policies, but when it comes down to essentials the vast majority of voters’ choice will be based on gut-feeling, not careful analysis.

It’s quite confronting to vest one’s principal democratic right in a visceral response to just two individuals. Yet, most voters will give only fleeting attention to parliamentary teams and policy paraphernalia. That’s the nature of contemporary Australian politics: it’s the presidential campaign you have when you don’t actually have a President.

So what will guide voters’ choice of leader this federal election? What emotional signals will influence them at the ballot box? I’m not referring to the loud, but small, subsets of voters on social media and talkback radio, I mean the much quieter majority, who are generally disengaged, at least until the election campaign proper (and often not even then).

Let’s start with the positives. There’s a certain calm strength in the Prime Minister, to which some people do respond positively. While much was made of her misogyny speech being a rallying cry for all women who are subjected to sexist behaviour, it had a much broader resonance. The speech struck a note, not just with feminists, but with all the people who had been waiting for a sign that Julia Gillard was capable of standing up and fighting for a genuinely heartfelt principle. Yes, there was the inconvenient (and, to some, inherently hypocritical) matter of sole-parent payments being reduced on the same day, but the speech signposted the point at which Gillard finally became the leader she claimed to be at the time of the Rudd coup.

Related to the perception of Julia Gillard’s strength, is the notion of respect. While some commentators have drawn parallels between Prime Ministers Gillard and Howard on their response to asylum seekers, I’d suggest Julia Gillard has taken yet another page from John Howard’s book. I’ve written elsewhere that, like Howard, Gillard does not command the voter adoration bestowed upon Hawke and Keating and is faced with the challenge of earning the community’s respect to ensure her political survival. I’d argue that a kernel of respect grew in voters’ hearts the day of the misogyny speech. Vague but politically favourable decisions on education, dental care and disability support have subsequently reinforced Gillard’s perceived strength, ironically enhanced, as it has been, by conservative state governments’ threatened obstruction.

The other visceral quality that benefits Gillard is that, in the flesh, she is a warm and eminently likeable person. The PM’s team has leveraged this advantage by exposing the Real Julia ™ to clusters of opinion leaders, be they “mummy bloggers”, leading female commentators and writers, or voters on platforms such as Google+ and live blogs. The ALP tacticians hope these chosen few will convey the likeability of the PM to their readers, families and friends, who will in turn tell others. (Of course there’s always a risk in depending upon independent third parties to generate such ripples of goodwill.)

Tony Abbott’s flouro-vest photo opportunities have a similar purpose, allowing workers and small business owners to meet and determine their own instinctive response to the alternative Prime Minister. As blogger Preston Towers wrote last week in a post about western Sydney, Abbott’s blokey demeanour is received well in those circles.

The man whose image …is part Vladimir Putin, part Bollywood star and part tradie. Indeed, some people might well believe that Abbott used to be a tradie in a former life, he wears headwear and safety vests so much. Tradies play well amongst many in Western Sydney, because they are the lifeblood of the region… The strategy of having him doing things, being physical, being an Alpha Male, does have resonance amongst those in the West who do similar things, or look up to people who do those things.

So it’s fair to assume that a number of the voters who encounter Abbott in this guise would pass on favourable feedback to their friends and families – determined not by the Coalition’s policies but whether Abbott struck them as a good bloke.

The Opposition Leader’s close association with the former Howard Government is his other advantage in attracting the visceral voter. Whether it is merited or not, many citizens have a retrospectively rose-coloured view of the Howard years. As Peter Brent recently pointed out, even though Howard’s Golden Age coincided with the pre-GFC days of economic prosperity “people don’t look back to the pre-GFC world, to them it’s the Howard one. Most people reckon Howard and Peter Costello knew how to run the economy and the current government doesn’t.”

So, in the absence of considered policy comparisons, and with little more than a fond memory of the Howard years, more voters trust Abbott to run the economy than Gillard. And a plurality are confident that his government will improve it. It seems Abbott’s blue-collar appeal, combined with hand-me-down economic credentials, account for a fair chunk of his electoral appeal.

On the other side of the ledger, however, people have the similar negative reactions to both Gillard and Abbott: they feel a sense of unease.

Voters were unsettled when the feisty and popular Deputy Prime Minister calmly dispatched her leader, proclaiming his government lost its way, while conveniently disregarding her own role in its meandering. They’ve been disconcerted since then by the parade of prime ministerial personas, including the sing-song Stepford PM and the first incarnation of the Real Julia ™ during the 2010 election campaign. And their anxiety has been compounded by the Prime Minister rescinding her carbon tax promise, sharing power with the Greens and being associated with an assortment of allegedly shady characters (something, something, AWU, something, Craig Thomson, something, something, Slipper).

However, looking to the blue corner, voters find no reprieve from their sense of foreboding. They’re apprehensive about the extent to which Abbott’s conservative Catholicism influences his decisions. They’re troubled by his simian swagger and the archaic prism through which he views women and gender issues more broadly. And they’re worried that Abbott’s emulation of Howard will extend to the reintroduction of WorkChoices (which means they can take our jerbs, doesn’t it?)

Come polling day, some people will vote for the party they’ve supported their whole adult lives. Others will base their choice on the handful of policy offerings they’ve taken the trouble to understand. And a very small number will compare the policies of all parties before coming to a considered voting decision.

But the vast majority will vote on instinct, choosing the party leader they feel most strongly about. At this point in the protracted (non) election campaign voters are similarly torn between the two leaders, with their positive response far outweighed by their negativeone.

This may change as the election date draws closer. But it is more likely that, come 15 September, our newly-elected Prime Minister will face the first day of their term knowing that although they were “popularly” elected, they were, in fact, judged by Australian voters to be the less distasteful of the two leaders on offer.

This post first appeared in The King’s Tribune.