Why are the Greens so surprised?

While Labor is using its shiny new leadership process to distract members from election loss disappointment and take the heat out of ensuing acts of retribution, the Greens appear to be floundering in response to a poor election performance that was a surprise to no-one but themselves.

While Labor is using its shiny new leadership process to distract members from election loss disappointment and take the heat out of ensuing acts of retribution, the Greens appear to be floundering in response to a poor election performance that was a surprise to no-one but themselves.

It was becoming clear as far back as the end of 2011 that the Green vote had peaked at the 2010 election. The Greens’ hagiographies claim this result as the point when they emerged as the third force in Australian politics.

In truth the minor party was as much a lightning rod for those protesting against the invidious choice offered between Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott as it was seen a legitimate alternative to the major parties. The almost doubling of deliberate informal votes during that election compared with 2007 (from 1.48 to 2.70 per cent), and the ultimate minority government outcome confirm that many voters were looking for someone, anyone, other the Labor and the Coalition to vote for in 2010.

So in believing their own PR, perhaps it’s not so suprising the Greens didn’t foresee their poor result at this election.

An inflated sense of importance may have also contributed to the some of the Greens’ decisions that drove voters away, such as their refusal to pass Rudd’s Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme and Gillard’s ‘Malaysian Solution’ for asylum seekers.

Wanting to sit at the big table while maintaining policy purity was another. As the Democrats learned when they bartered with John Howard to ultimately pass the GST, the Greens also learned it’s hard to claim you’re keeping the bastards honest when you’re also doing deals with them. The Greens’ constant laying of claim to forcing Gillard’s hand on the carbon tax/price, but being unable to deliver a carbon penalty that would actually drive achange in behaviour is the most notable attempt by the minor party to justify their decision to join the bastards.

Christine Milne’s later announcement that she’d told the Gillard Government ‘you’re dropped’ did little to assuage the concerns of those supporters who thought the Greens had got too close to their shared-power partners.

Another factor likely to have contributed is that, like the two major parties, the Greens have to accommodate disparate supporter groups and juggle the risk of upsetting one group to satisfy another. Labor has the Left and the Right, the Liberals have moderates and conservatives, and the Greens have the far Left, progressives and environmentalists.

Yet to compound this challenge even further, Milne announced when she succeeded Bob Brown as leader that the party would be reaching out to rural voters as well. It would be fair to describe the reception given by long-term farmers to the Greens – the party opposed to live animal exports, conventional farming methods and land clearing – as mixed. The Greens vote went down in the vast majority of rural seats, although they increased in those which included alternative lifestyle communities, regions threatened by coal-seam gas projects and those seats from which Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott retired. A nine per cent increase in Green primary votes to 18 per cent in Fairfax was the standout exception.

Milne has rightly declared she’ll review the Greens’ 2013 election performance. Her vow before the election to return the party to one of protest and holding the government to account will be tested with only one Greens member in the new House of Representatives that has no chance of influencing the outcome in that chamber, and a short-lived balance of power before the new Senate commences on 1 July 2014.

The review will necessarily scrutinise whether it was worth funnelling limited resources into retaining Bandt’ssymbolically important but practically useless green leather seat. Just as importantly it should seek to understand how the Greens failed to deliver on the expectations of potential supporters. Ultimately, like Labor, the prospect for a strong future lies in the Greens determining what they stand for and who they represent.

This post originally appeared at SBS Comment & Analysis.

Anatomy of a campaign launch

Trust me. That was the basis of Opposition Leader Tony Abbott’s pitch to Australian voters at the Coalition’s election campaign launch on Sunday.

Trust me. That was the basis of Opposition Leader Tony Abbott’s pitch to Australian voters at the Coalition’s election campaign launch on Sunday.

The man who has run the longest and most negative campaign in modern Australian politics flicked the switch to positive with a polished and assured rendition of his claim to the top job in comparison with Kevin Rudd’s tarnished record.

With the strongest signal yet that most Australians vote on gut instinct at least as much as policy, the entire campaign launch focused on pushing the buttons of visceral voters, urging them to give Abbott the benefit of the doubt and put their trust in him on polling day.

The button-pushing started early with the relatively low-key entrance of Liberal eminence grise, former prime minister John Howard. Howard was seated prominently before the stage, providing the best camera angles for the mentor to be seen smiling approvingly upon his protégé, thereby conveying the not-so-subtle sub-text that Abbott’s election would bring a return of the Howard ‘golden’ years.

Howard’s presence said: “You can trust Abbott because he was part of my successful government and I believe in him.”

The opening address by Queensland Liberal Premier Campbell Newman, was to dispel any bad juju left hanging over the federal campaign from his austerity drive after being elected in that state. At least one media commentator noted (a fact no doubt supplied by the Coalition’s campaign team) that Newman still commanded a healthy lead in the polls, and by implication was a positive and not a negative for Abbott’s election prospects.

Newman’s speech said: “I am not a reason for you to distrust Abbott.”

Deputy Liberal Leader Julie Bishop not only provided the light relief but also shouldered the responsibility for taking the personal attack to Kevin Rudd. In an amusing display which might have made the Chaser Boys regret helping Bishop find her inner comic during the 2010 election, the Liberals’ most senior woman chanted the word ‘remember’ while reciting the recycled Prime Minister’s flaws.

She also delivered two pivotal lines that must be playing well in the Liberals’ focus groups; so well in fact that Abbott repeated them in his own address. “If [Rudd’s] own party don’t believe in Kevin Rudd and they’ve sacked him once why should the Australian people ever trust him in the top job again?” queried Bishop, leading up to the clincher: “Kevin Rudd assumes that this election is all about him. Tony Abbott and our team know, believe, that it is all about you the Australian people and we stand ready to serve.”

Bishop’s speech said: “You can’t trust Rudd but you can trust Abbott.”

Nationals Leader Warren Truss took to the podium next, partly to ensure that rural and regional Australia did not feel left out, but also to transition the mood of the event from negativity about Rudd to positivity about Abbott. Truss had the privilege of announcing the first policy commitment of the launch, one that heralded a number of other infrastructure promises. This suggests the Coalition is taking a punt that more votes can be won from new and improved roads and bridges than will be lost from their budget version of the NBN.

Truss built on the presence of Howard in the room, noting he and 15 former colleagues from the Howard era stood ready to serve in an Abbott ministry. “Proven competence versus proven incompetence” was how he described the choice facing voters between the Coalition and Labor.

Invoking Howard’s “Who do you trust?” mantra from 2004, Truss’s speech said: “You can trust Abbott and we won’t let you down.”

Then Frances and Bridget, two of Abbott’s three daughters injected some homespun glamour into the launch, eschewing the autocue to read from notes about the man who had “helped us become the women we are today”. Conferring this role on Abbott’s daughters instead of his equally telegenic and articulate wife Margie suggests the younger women have been assessed by the campaign team to have broader appeal and may have a better chance of convincing younger men and women to vote for Abbott than Margie would have with women of her own age.

Frances and Bridget’s speeches said: “You can trust Tony Abbott as we have done all our lives.”

Finally, the Tony Abbott who took to the stage was the best we’ve seen of him yet: Abbott gave his supporters and potential supporters a glimpse of the prime minister he could be. Undoubtedly rehearsed to within an inch of his life, this Tony Abbott was a long way from the staccato Mr Negative we’ve seen since 2009.

In the tradition of opposition leaders before him, Abbott’s speech remained light on costing details despite demands from the media and his opponents to provide them. He gave purpose and momentum to his ‘positive plan’ by detailing what would be done on the first day, within the first 100 days and by the end of his first term.

Abbott made a few strategic commitments including more support for seniors, encouraging more young people into trades, and recognising Indigenous Australians in the Australian Constitution.

But most significantly, Abbott committed to restoring trust in government. This is audacious considering Abbott’s relentless negative campaigning is responsible for at least some of the community’s loss of confidence in the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd Government. Equally, Abbott’s pitch to restore ‘trust in people’ and vow never to seek to divide one person from another sits uncomfortably with some of the Coalition’s most divisive policies such as that on asylum seekers.

Trust may well be a risky characteristic upon which to build the remainder of the Coalition campaign. As Labor Opposition Leader Mark Latham learned in 2004, this ephemeral quality has many interpretations and can swiftly be transformed from a positive to a negative depending upon who is more skilled at framing the debate.

On recent past performances, the Coalition is more adept at such campaign tactics, although Labor is more than competitive when not distracted by internal ructions.

But in the end it will likely come down to the two main contenders. It will be he who wins the ‘trust wars’ who will prevail on polling day.

This post originally appeared as a weekly campaign column at ABC’s The Drum.

Addicted to polls

Are media organisations providing voters with a valuable service by propagating these surveys? Do opinion poll stories help to make us informed voters or enhance our democracy in any way? Well no; not any more than the arbitrary scorecards handed out at the end of each campaign day or week announcing who ‘won’ the past 24 hours or seven-day period.

The DrumHere’s my latest weekly campaign column for ABC’s The Drum.

Forget cigarettes. Forget alcohol. Forget the secret stashes of mini Toblerones or Kit Kats that dwell in desk drawers all over the country.

Australia is in the grip of an unhealthy obsession that has nothing to do with these temptations. Our nation is addicted to something far more insidious, brain-numbing and soul-destroying: we’re addicted to opinion polls.

In the 15 days since the federal election was called voters have, by my reckoning, been willingly subjected to 22 opinion polls. More than half were national polls, while the rest focused on individual marginal seats. And yet there are still three weeks of the campaign to go.

The reason for this survey cornucopia is that opinion polls sell. The prospect of knowing who’s winning seduces us into buying newspapers, giving up hard-earned cash to peer behind paywalls, clicking links on online news sites, and tuning in to television and radio programs.

These are challenging times for media organisations. They’re grappling with the tendency of consumers to shop around online for news and often bypass traditional news providers altogether. These organisations have noted that publishing exclusive opinion polls and news stories based upon them is a proven way of winning those consumers back, even if it is for a brief period.

And so news organisations galore have decided they must have their own opinion polls. As a result, at least once a week if not every couple of days we’re subjected to the latest survey from one of eight polling houses emblazoned on newspapers, online news sites and television news stories.

Are media organisations providing voters with a valuable service by propagating these surveys? Do opinion poll stories help to make us informed voters or enhance our democracy in any way? Well no; not any more than the arbitrary scorecards handed out at the end of each campaign day or week announcing who ‘won’ the past 24 hours or seven-day period.

The horse-race approach to reporting is nothing more than the political equivalent of empty calories: it might satisfy a short-term need (to feel knowledgeable about the campaign) but ultimately it leaves us unsatisfied (because it tells us nothing about which party will best deliver on our policy needs).

More often than not, stories on opinion polls aren’t even actually news. No opinion poll is perfectly accurate and all have a buffer within which their numbers should be viewed. If any single poll moves only within that buffer, or margin of error, then it’s not considered to have actually moved. Newspoll for example has a 3 per cent margin of error, meaning that any increase or decrease of less than 3 per cent in one Newspoll is not really a change at all. So if the ALP primary vote increases by 2 per cent – it’s not news. If the Coalition primary vote decreases by 2 per cent – it’s not news either. And yet we see and hear such ‘news’ stories almost every day.

If voters really wanted to be informed voters they’d eschew all opinion poll stories that report movements within the margin of error and only pay attention to those that report opinion poll trends. The direction in which a party’s votes are trending over more than just two or three polls is where the real news stories are to be found.

But why do voters even care who’s won any particular day or week during the election campaign? Are we so superficial and fickle that we can be swayed by an opinion poll? Well yes, according to someacademics: the bandwagon effect can lead to voters choosing the side that looks most likely to win, while the underdog effect can produce the opposite result. Undoubtedly both of the major parties have incorporated this into their campaign tactics.

Scores more polls will be dangled before voters eyes over the campaign’s remaining weeks, but the choice between hollow superficiality and satisfying substance is entirely within our hands.

Will we continue to indulge our obsession by wasting time and thought over next-to-meaningless blips in the polls? Or will we direct our efforts to determining which party will form the government most capable of serving our country’s best interests?

And the winner is … in the eye of the beholder

The DrumIn my post for The Drum this week I’ve looked at the Leaders’ Debate.

In the broader scheme of things, last night’s Leaders’ Debate will unlikely have much impact on the final outcome of this federal election.

For many disengaged voters, not yet fully aware the election campaign is now upon us, the televised event may have inconveniently delayed their local news program or more likely passed them by altogether as they tuned into their usual Sunday night fare.

Nevertheless, the event sets the tone for the week ahead.

The team with the candidate thought by the political media and pundits to have ‘won’ the debate will head into the second week of the campaign re-invigorated by the endorphins that only a winner can experience.

With public opinion polls suggesting a slight downward trend in support for Labor since the reinstalment of Kevin Rudd as Prime Minister, it would appear Team Rudd needs the boost more than Team Abbott.

This was evident from the demeanour of both men at their respective podiums during the debate.

Rudd gave the impression of being on edge: constantly referring to notes, cramming as much information as he could into every answer, and constantly using Kabuki hand gestures that distracted the viewer as much as illustrated his answers. Rudd clearly knew his stuff but showed little sign of rehearsal (which is a common weakness in those who over-prepare).

Abbott, on the other hand, delivered his opening remarks with the casual confidence of a well-rehearsed public speaker. By looking down the barrel of the camera, he chose to engage the ‘viewers at home’ rather than the audience. The cadence of his voice was deliberately lower and slower, most likely to emphasise Rudd’s higher tone and speedy monologues.

Why mention these elements? Surely what the men said is of more import?

Well not exactly: audiences respond as much, if not more, to how something is said than the actual content.

Incumbency gave the Prime Minister an edge when responding to the questions of economic competence and policy – it’s much easier to point to an existing government’s achievements than foreshadow the benefits of a hypothetical one.

However, Rudd’s constant listing of those achievements (as he had done on ABC’s 7.30 just a few nights before) was the aural equivalent of trying to take a drink from a spouting fire hydrant.

In contrast, Abbott stuck to his tried and true method of repeating the simple but memorable policy mantras his team had no doubt carefully honed through numerous focus groups.

As an opposition leader not yet prepared to unveil the bulk of his party’s policies and their costings, this was all he was ever going to do and so the contrast of policy detail and lack thereof was particularly stark.

Both men told their fair share of porkies (for example, Rudd again raised the now discredited $70 billionCoalition budget black hole, while Abbott claimed the GST cannot change without the consent of all the State and Territory Governments*) and completely evaded a number of direct questions from the moderator and/or the panel (for example, on raising Australia’s emission cut target from 5 per cent if other countries take action).

Both men ended the debate as they started, their closing comments echoing the tones they’d struck with their election opening gambits just one week ago.

Rudd signalled challenging economic times ahead and that his return was needed to guide the nation through the New Great Economic Transition. Abbott repeated there was nothing wrong with Australia that couldn’t be fixed by a change of government.

Rudd seemed to have gained no confidence from the hour’s exchange, while Abbott’s final delivery was more stilted and sing-song than his opening, perhaps from being unnecessarily rattled by the question on marriage equality.

In the end there can be no winner, as audiences will seek and take different things from any such exchange. Those looking for reassurance for more of a stable Labor Government will have seen it, whereas those looking for a new approach from a competent alternative will have found that too.

And so the outcome of the Leaders’ Debate, like most things in the politics, will entirely be held in the eye of the beholder.

 

Managing the protest vote

tweedledee-tweedledum-3Any Australian election campaign follows a fixed pattern. Daily photo opportunities masquerading as policy announcements are interspersed with debate stoushes and then the debates themselves. Somewhere in the final two or three weeks the campaign launch is held. And also around that time, the expectations game begins.

The rules of the expectations game are simple: make the voters think the election outcome is finely balanced and that every single vote counts. This is a time-honoured way of managing the protest vote. It’s preferable for any political party to be perceived as the underdog at that point in the campaign, running slightly behind, than to have an unassailable lead.

Election outcomes that are seen as a sure thing can lead voters into thinking they can afford to lodge a protest vote against the inevitable outcome, safe in the knowledge they won’t be responsible for altering its certainty. When enough voters think they can harmlessly protest in this way, they can inadvertently tip the election pendulum and produce unexpected election outcomes.

 

The most recent examples of this phenomenon happened at the State level in the 1990s. Victorian Premier Jeff Kennett entered the 1999 state election campaign with a seemingly unassailable lead but lost to fresh-faced newbie Opposition Leader Steve Bracks because he hadn’t bothered to manage the protest vote. Victorians who voted against The Jeff mostly likely just wanted to give him a boot up the arse, not throw him from office altogether. And yet that’s what they ended up doing.

A similar fate almost befell another Liberal Premier in 1991. New South Welshmen and women came close to tossing out Nick Greiner that year when he called a snap election to capitalise on a strong lead in the polls and was predicted to be easily re-elected. Greiner ended up with a minority government instead.

While one could argue that the fate of two former Liberal Premiers has little import for the current Leader of the Federal Liberal Party, it’s clear Labor has commenced the expectations game early and is attempting to manage the protest vote against Abbott. It’s mostly a ‘saving the furniture’ strategy but with a bit of wishful thinking thrown in for one of those ‘unexpected’ election results.

Gillard supporter and potential future Labor leader Bill Shorten said on Friday:

‘There is no doubt in my mind that if the polls are correct Tony Abbott would win in a landslide. So the question then is, what does an Abbott government look like if the polls are correct and stay this way?’

Admittedly, Shorten later backed away from this statement, worried that it was being depicted as a sign of no confidence in Gillard, but it was clearly part of a strategy to mobilise a protest vote against Abbott.

While not going as far as Shorten, his Gillard-supporter Cabinet colleagues followed the same strategy earlier in the week. Communications Minister Stephen Conroy said Abbott would cancel construction of the NBN to new premises should he win the September federal election. Industry and Climate Change Minister Greg Combet said Abbott would not scrap the carbon tax.

Their subliminal message is that although Abbott’s election is inevitable, it’s not too late to voice your protest and rein in his post-election power.

Greens leader Christine Milne is employing a similar strategy, conceding an Abbott victory even before votes are lodged in the hope of gaining enough protest votes for the Greens to keep the balance of power in the Senate.

Granted, these attempts at marshalling the protest vote may be an entirely misguided strategy. Perhaps Kennett and Greiner are not the relevant case studies; see contemporary State Liberal Leaders such as O’Farrell (2011), Newman (2012) and Barnett (2013), who all converted huge poll leads into landslide election results.

Each of these leaders tapped into voter disenchantment with a tired and discredited Labor Party. Each leader offered a clear alternative. And each promised stable and competent government. Voters responded by flocking to them in droves: O’Farrell’s Liberals achieved a 14.16% swing, Newman got an 8.05% boost, and Barnett stormed home with an 8.71% increase. Abbott appears to be in for an equally impressive tide, currently tracking at around 6%.

The similarity doesn’t end there. Each of the successful State Liberal triumvirate led their opponents as the preferred Premier leading into the election, but not all had a higher net satisfaction rating (with Barnett, the only incumbent Premier of this group, trailing his Labor opponent).

The other distinguishing feature of these three elections is how the Green vote diminished over time. The 2011 NSW election (seven months after the Greens saw their highest national vote ever at the 2010 federal election) saw the minor party’s vote increase by around two percent. But by the Queensland election in 2012 the Green vote was coming off the boil, with a one percent swing against them. This had deteriorated to a three percent swing against them at the WA election in 2013.

This downward trend in support for the Greens suggests a growing level of disenchantment with them that will be reflected in this year’s federal election result. Having reached a peak of 11.8% in the House of Representatives and 13.1% in the Senate at the 2010 election by providing a lightning rod for the protest vote, the Greens are now registering 9% for the HoR and 11% for the Senate in the most recent published polls.

Labor voters who turned to the Greens in protest in 2010 are now turning away again. The lightning rod has turned to lead. Fifty percent of voters now believe minority government has been bad for Australia and only 25% support the independents and Greens having the balance of power in the Senate. This means the protest vote will be looking for a new home at this election. The smart money will be on the party that manages them the best.

Former Labor State Secretary and Minister, Graham Richardson, will go down in history as Australian politics’ greatest protest vote-wrangler. The second preference strategy he devised to save Labor’s bacon in 1990 cleverly acknowledged voters’ anger with the Hawke Government by saying ‘we don’t deserve your first preference vote, but please give us your second’. This strategy, paired with preference swaps and a strong marginal seats campaign, delivered Labor victory with more seats than the Coalition but less votes.

The protest vote is a fickle beast, beholden to no-one and difficult to manage. This year it will be more unpredictable than ever, even taking the Coalition’s strong lead into account. For Labor, effective management of the protest vote could turn a rout into a respectable loss. For the Greens, it could mean salvation from irrelevancy and impending oblivion.

And for Tony Abbott, good management of any protest will secure him a place in the history books as the only Liberal Leader to take his party to victory despite one of the highest disapproval ratings ever.

As well as a thumping mandate to do pretty much whatever he pleases.

This post first appeared at The King’s Tribune.

Patsys, players and the future of Australia’s political media

Here’s my latest post for the AusVotes 2013 federal election blog…

The most significant thing that emerged from the mea culpas and post mortems that littered the coup-that-wasn’t battlefield was the notion that journalists are willing to be made patsys.

What other explanation can there be for the role the media played in the Rudd camp’s most recent premature leadership tourney?

Seasoned journalists proved yet again their willingness to publicly be made to look fools in return for being able to participate in private leadership maneuverings.

Click here to read more…

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.