Kevin, fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me

Illustration: Lobbecke
Illustration: Lobbecke

I’m not a fan of Kevin Rudd. This antipathy has very little to do with politics and everything to do with good government.

My view was formed during Rudd’s previous tenure as Prime Minister when I was an industry lobbyist. I witnessed endless briefs being prepared by harried departmental officials who were required to be on-call 24/7 in order to be able to respond to the whims of a micro-manager Prime Minister who nevertheless seemed incapable of making decisions. Meanwhile, ministers shrugged in meetings saying they couldn’t make decisions without Kevin’s imprimatur, which was rarely forthcoming.

I was told by government staffers of an overflowing in-tray on the Prime Minister’s desk where the briefs languished as the PM chased down the latest news cycle or instructed ministers to tell their departments to prepare briefs on his latest thought bubble. I read about the senior government officials who were left gathering dust like the briefs, literally waiting hours outside the Prime Minister’s office for an audience with the man.

The wheels of government virtually ground to a halt during Rudd’s first term. Or perhaps the image of wheels spinning without traction or progress is more apt. My friends in Canberra political and departmental circles openly contemplated whether it would take the psychological breakdown of a staffer or departmental official to end the manic cycle of never-to-be-read briefs being prepared over weekends and late into the night.

Sure, the first Rudd Government had some notable achievements. Rudd ratified the Kyoto Protocol, apologised to the Stolen Generations and, along with Treasurer Wayne Swan (and Treasury Secretary Ken Henry) successfully steered Australia through the Global Financial Crisis.

But in many other respects, Rudd lived up to the epithet levelled at him at the time. He “hit the ground reviewing” rather than taking action on the issues that were presented to him. The star-studded and ultimately pointless talkfest, the Australia 2020 Summit, was followed by more substantial reviews including the Henry inquiry into the tax system, the Garnaut review on climate change, the Productivity Commission inquiry into disability care and the Gonski review of school education. While Rudd ham-fistedly implemented only one of the Henry Review recommendations – the mining tax – it was his successor Julia Gillard who progressed the recommendations of the others.

In isolation, having a workaholic micro-manager PM with an aversion to decision-making might not have been a serious problem for Labor. This dysfunction was mostly hidden from the general public, who really couldn’t give two hoots about the machinery of government or its machinations.

In retrospect though, the manic and ill-prepared way that stimulus funding was funnelled into the economy through the Home Insulation Program resulted in the mushrooming of an insulation installation industry that included operators who did not adequately protect their workers. We can only be thankful the more established construction industry was better equipped to deal with the OHS ramifications of the Building the Education Revolution program.

What did matter to voters was that Kevin did not deliver on the high expectations he deliberately created during the Kevin07 campaign. I’ve always had the view that Rudd ran as Howard-lite, the “other” safe pair of hands but with bonus features such as Kyoto and the scrapping of WorkChoices. Last night on Twitter, former PM Rudd’s media adviser Lachlan Harris effectively confirmed this:

In 07 Rudd’s core strategy was change PM but not Govt. In 13 it’s change Govt but not PM. Libs misread 07. So far doing same in 13.

— Lachlan Harris (@LachlanFHarris) July 8, 2013

Rudd may have won the election because of this strategy, but it was also his downfall. It was voters’ disappointment in Rudd that brought him down in 2010. As I wrote at the time:

I believe the Australian community became deeply angry at Rudd because they finally realised they were the victims of a confidence trick … Voters felt angry and wanted retribution because they felt like a mark struck with the growing realisation they were the subject of a long con.

Rudd deftly positioned himself prior to the 2007 election as Howard-lite. The significance of this strategy cannot be downplayed. Howard did not retain government for nearly 12 years because of his popularity. His electoral appeal was, ironically, grounded in trust. Whether voters liked him or not, whether they supported his policies or not, they trusted him to make the right decisions for the country. And Howard did not betray this trust until he let the power of Senate majority go to his head and he self-indulged his philosophical yearning for IR reform.

Rudd studiously capitalised on Howard’s strengths as well as his weaknesses. He framed himself as the “other” safe pair of hands, but with bonus features such as the ratification of Kyoto and the scrapping of WorkChoices.

Tragically for Rudd, and surprisingly for an experienced diplomat, he made the grave mistake of exaggerating the difference that Australia’s ratification of the Kyoto Protocol would materially make to global climate change. He should have known full well that ratification meant putting a price on carbon, that this could lead to painful structural change in the Australian economy, and that China and India would not countenance climate action until they had brought their people out of poverty.

Rudd could never deliver on climate change but he promised the Australian people that he could and would. This is only the most prominent of several examples. Like any confidence man, Rudd convincingly promised things that would realise voters’ dreams and others that would allay their fears. The fact that voters eventually saw the small man behind the curtain will always overshadow the fact that he actually did deliver on some of those promises.

By playing a confidence game with the Australian people, instead of being honest with them, Rudd squandered their trust, optimism and (somewhat begrudging) respect.

Perhaps this anger would not have been so intense if the electorate had felt they had been provided with a credible alternative at whose feet they could throw their protest vote. However, voter antipathy for Abbott shows they felt both conned and captured by Rudd’s sleight of hand.

Clearly the ALP apparatchiks who took action this week saw the truth of the matter. They saw the growing number of voters, once vividly depicted by Premier Wayne Goss during Keating’s reign, waiting on their verandas with baseball bats to deal with the Prime Minister who had let them down. So they took their bats to him first.

So Rudd fooled us once, and suffered the consequences. Will he fool us again? And even if he does, will we be able to do anything about it?

In addition to the above illuminating tweet, Lachlan Harris provided an insight into Rudd’s current campaign (although I don’t know whether this is inside information or just an informed observation). This tweet bookends the previous one: last time Rudd was offering voters a change of PM but not the government; this time he’s offering the “change of government they want” without changing the PM:

Rudd’s strategy is giving people the change of govt they want, without having to vote out Labor. Today’s move the heart of that strategy.

— Lachlan Harris (@LachlanFHarris) July 8, 2013

If Harris’ view is accurate, this is a fascinating strategy. And it fits with what Rudd has done since reascending to the big chair.

Rudd’s tackling head-on the things that voters don’t like about today’s ALP. He’s offering a “new improved” Labor Party post-federal election by initiating a review, ahem I mean a clean-out of corruption (and property developers) from the NSW Branch of the party.  He’s proposed to change the Party’s rules so that ALP members get a 50% say in who will be Prime Minister when Labor holds office. And the same proposed rule changes will effectively protect any first term Prime Minister from challenge, so as to provide certainty and none of the leadership musical chairs that has beset Labor during this term. (Yes, you are correct, Rudd is proposing a rule change that would have prevented him removing first term PM, Julia Gillard, from the position. The hypocrisy, it burns.)

In short, Rudd is tossing exhausted dog-paddling non-Coalition voters a life-vest: he’s giving disillusioned Labor voters a reason to stay true and undecided voters a reason to vote against Tony Abbott. If it wasn’t such an over-used term, I’d say Rudd’s approach so far is a game changer.

But …

What if the Rudd-leopard hasn’t changed his spots? What if, like Campbell Newman, he decides that an austerity drive is needed to repair the federal budget? What if his government’s standing with voters goes down the toilet? What if he resorts to pork-barrelling? Or just makes a succession of stupid decisions. What if he took us to war? We won’t know the answer to any of these questions until we elect him and then it will be too late.

Look around the country at the first-term Premiers and ask yourself – should they be immune from removal from office by their party room despite their policy failures or lack of political judgement?

Whatever your answer, the same should apply to Rudd. No party leader should have immunity from the consequences of their actions. Not in a democracy, anyway.

Rudd is taking us for fools

Illustration: Michael Mucci

How can anyone take a benign interpretation from Kevin Rudd’s interview on 730 last night?

If Rudd’s genuine intention was to extinguish the smoking embers of his supporters’ expectations, why insist on grandstanding for half the interview on matters relating to China and the US?

What on earth does the former Prime Minister and Foreign Minister’s views on Sino-American relations have to do with an earnest campaign to keep Tony Abbott out of office?

Not much, unless it is about reminding voters what a clever clogs One K. Rudd is and how his party is superior on foreign matters.

Or something, something.

And if Rudd’s genuine intention was to demonstrate his complete and utter disinterest in being recruited, dragooned, enlisted or otherwise begged back into the Prime Ministership, why did he not repeat the actual words of the commitment he made after the faux coup non-ballot in March?

Before entering the Caucus room for the non-leadership coup this year, Rudd said:

I have said that the only circumstances under which I would consider a return to leadership would be if there was an overwhelming majority of the parliamentary party requesting such a return, drafting me to return and the position was vacant…I am here to inform you that those circumstances do not exist.

After the meeting he strengthened this commitment (through a spokesman):

Furthermore, Mr Rudd wishes to make 100 per cent clear to all members of the parliamentary Labor Party, including his own supporters, that there are no circumstances under which he will return to the Labor Party leadership in the future.

They’re clear and unambiguous. So why the weasel words now?

LEIGH SALES: And a final question: I just want to make sure that nothing has changed in your mind. Is there any scenario in which you would take the leadership of the Labor Party?

KEVIN RUDD: Leigh, my position on that hasn’t changed since February of last year. The caucus had an opportunity to vote then and they voted two-to-one in favour of the Prime Minister and against me. I’ve accepted that position. My job is to go and argue the case for Labor and that’s what I’ll be doing around the country between now and voting day. It’s a good case and we should not be hauling up the white flag.

LEIGH SALES: So the answer is there’s no scenario … ?

KEVIN RUDD: As I said before, my position hasn’t changed since February of last year. You know what I said then. I’m not gonna enter into word games with you. The caucus voted. I accept their response.

LEIGH SALES: If you don’t say a blank no, people of course interpret it as you leaving wiggle room.

KEVIN RUDD: Well, you know exactly what I’ve said in the past to these questions time and time and time again and you’ll play word games all the way through. Last time I said in February of 2012 that I would not be challenging the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister won that caucus ballot by two-to-one. It was a convincing and strong win. I’ve accepted the result.

(My emphasis)

Rudd’s dissembling recalls the ridiculous time he refused to enunciate the word ‘billion’ when describing Australia’s budget deficit.
 
Rudd is taking us for fools. He’s hoping that by not restating those actual words, they will fade over time and will be replaced with a vague recollection that he said he wouldn’t challenge – thereby leaving the door open for him to be installed.

 Rudd’s latest attempt to ‘clarify’ gapes wider than a barn door. He is quoted as saying:

I have said very plainly that I am not a candidate for the leadership. And I have said equally plainly that I do not see any circumstances under which I would return to the leadership.

I can see the KRuddster drafting his acceptance speech now….. “I did not see any circumstances under which I would return, nor was I a candidate, and yet my Labor colleagues have persuaded me to listen to the people of Australia. And so I reluctantly agree to being installed by the caucus as Prime Minister. This is not about me, it’s about keeping Tony Abbott from the Lodge…..”

I can’t help but agree with Mark Latham, who’s said Rudd is deliberately sabotaging the PM. While I used to track Rudd’s interventions, and those of his supporters, to see if they tried to influence Newspoll results I don’t bother any more because any foray by Camp Rudd into the media will impact on one pollster or another’s results.

Someone should give Kevin Rudd a piece of paper with the words his spokesman conveyed on his behalf after the Caucus meeting in March and ask him to repeat them now.

Only then will I believe he is supporting Julia Gillard.

As Rudd said last night “A leopard never changes his spots.”

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…

#Kevenge2: It’s not on until it’s on

That’s the problem with leadership challenges: they’re not on until they’re on. The twice-spurned-but-hopes-to-be-vindicated-Prime Minister-in-waiting, Kevin Rudd, won’t declare his hand until he has the numbers.

And right now it appears that he does not have them.

That’s the reason for the flurries of speculation we’re seeing in the media. Rudd supporters are using every known technique to dragoon disillusioned and despairing Labor MPs into knifing another unpopular Prime Minister, in the interests of having at least a fighting chance at the upcoming federal election.

For weeks MPs have been hinting that the showdown would take place this fortnight, being as it is the last parliamentary session before the Federal Budget. Some even went as far as to name the date, although at least two different dates were nominated. This lead to the political equivalent of dry humping last week when the spill did not eventuate, a turn of events that was frustrating and unedifying for pretty much all involved.

But the main game was always due to take place this week. If it does. And then again, it might not.

All will depend on whether a sense of momentum can be created, setting off a wave of inevitability that would sweep the required number of caucus votes away from the listing ship Gillard to the dodgy lifeboat called Kevin.

A number of today’s events can be seen clearly as the Rudd camp working hard to create this momentum:

  • The day kicked off with an opinion piece by overt Rudd supporter and political editor of the Sydney Morning Herald, Peter Hartcher, claiming “the Gillard Government is suffering a gathering crisis in its leader” and that two Cabinet Ministers had deserted Gillard.
  • Meanwhile, on ABC’s The Drum, Rudd’s unofficial campaign manager Bruce Hawker, criticised the “government’s” handling of the media reform issue.
  • Hawker’s theme was then taken up by Rudd numbers man, Joel Fitzgibbon, during Labor’s caucus meeting and duly leaked to the media afterwards.

Meanwhile, the political media is acting like a diabetic kid locked in a lolly shop: they know they shouldn’t, but……

They know they are being drafted as active participants in this saga, and rather than miss out on a story or – heaven forbid – a scoop, they comply with differing degrees of willingness. As we can see from Laurie Oakes’ non-breaking story this evening, not even mighty Walkley Award winners are immune to the lure of a potential leadership spill.

And so, the rest of this week will play out. There will be a challenge if Rudd can get the numbers. But there will not if  he cannot.

If the numbers fall Rudd’s way, it will be academic whether he challenges, is drafted or whether Gillard stands down. But then again, it may not…

Post script: The momentum builds.

If not love then, at least, respect

Here’s my latest piece for the King’s Tribune…

There’s an old fashioned quality that might be creeping back into Australian federal politics. I say old fashioned because you don’t hear it mentioned much these days. But I think it may well be the deciding factor in next year’s federal election.

I’m referring to respect. You know, that thing we used to hold for teachers, policemen, our parents and politicians. It was a sometimes begrudging acknowledgement that authority figures had our best interests at heart, even if we didn’t much like the way they went about protecting us.

I used to hear a lot about respect when John Howard was Prime Minister. While voters didn’t particularly like him, he was elected four times because they trusted him to do the right thing for the country, and for quite some time he delivered on that trust.

While it’s a truism to say that respect can only be earned, it can also be a fragile thing that is easily shattered. I’d suggest the community’s respect for Howard was his electoral strength and the loss of that respect, brought on by WorkChoices and his government’s treatment of asylum seekers, was the weakness that brought Howard down.

The Prime Ministers immediately before John Howard were more in the charismatic mold. Bob Hawke was the jovial larrikin while Paul Keating was the intellectual aesthete. In their own ways, both leaders had a George Clooney-like magnetism that made their respective supporters want to be like them. Their stock in trade was adoration, not respect. No such fan club existed for the tracksuit-wearing Howard.

Kevin Rudd brought even less charisma than Howard to the Prime Minister’s role. In fact he cast himself as Howard-lite, with bonus features such as the ratification of Kyoto and the scrapping of WorkChoices. Ultimately, the creation of this expectation was Rudd’s downfall.

Initially, even despite his lack of animal magnetism, Rudd proved to be one of the most popular Australian Prime Ministers ever. However the public’s exuberance faltered when Rudd proved not to be like Howard at all, but an über bureaucrat who reserved all political and policy decisions to himself while setting up ever more labyrinthine committees and token consultation processes. Any respect the community might have had for Rudd arising from the apology to the Stolen Generations was quickly eroded by his seeming incapacity to deliver on anything much else.

Love or respect. Hearts or minds. That seems to be what it boils down to. Having failed to win the public’s respect with Kevin Rudd, Labor power-brokers then lurched in the other direction.

Click here to read more…

Is Camp Rudd trying to influence Newspoll?

I thought it would be interesting to examine recent political events to see whether there’s evidence that Camp Rudd has been attempting to influence Newspoll results.

I’ve chronologically listed key events and the Newspoll results in the table below. The events include articles and opinion pieces that appear to be prompted/informed by Rudd supporters.

It appears that in many cases, Rudd supporters stir the pot either in the week leading up to Newspoll running their fortnightly survey, or when the researchers are in the field.

If this is a deliberate ploy, it’s debatable whether the tactic is delivering the desired outcome.

Exposing Rudd camp’s attempt to rewrite history

Australians have witnessed considerable rewriting of the political rulebook over the past decade.

Mark Latham ran an unconventionally hokey campaign in 2004 that almost got him elected. He focussed on populist issues such as MPs’ superannuation and reading to children, when the rulebook says that oppositions should stick to the big policy issues like the economy and health.

That same election, John Howard unashamedly and un-ironically used “trust” to beat Latham. The rulebook says he should have avoided this political battleground when the community clearly had their own trust issues with the then-PM.

New rules were written in 2007 when Kevin Rudd barnstormed the election with his “me too” campaign, promising to be Howard-lite with added features like the ratification of Kyoto and the scrapping of WorkChoices. Never before had a politician offered to be “the same, but better” than his opponent. It was however the perfect pitch for Howard-weary voters looking for another safe pair of hands to run the economy.

And now, Tony Abbott is defying all known rules on negative campaigning by running the longest anti-campaign any of us have ever witnessed. The success of that strategy is yet to be borne out.

Perhaps the most “bent but not broken” rule in the political playbook to date, is that which says history is written by the victor. I mention this because of the concerted effort being made by the Rudd camp to re-play the Howard trust card, and claim that Julia Gillard lost the trust of the Australian community by wresting the Prime Ministership from Kevin Rudd in 2010.

This narrative might suit the combatants’ purposes, but it’s not backed by the facts.

Support for the Labor Government increased after Julia Gillard became leader, from 52% before the change in Prime Ministership, to 53% after the change and 55% two weeks after that. Similarly, support for PM Rudd as preferred Prime Minister was 46% prior to the change, and then for PM Gillard was 53%, increasing to 57% two weeks later.

So, up to three weeks after the “coup”, the Australian people were swinging back to the Labor Government and Julia Gillard as PM. Surely if there was outrage or resentment about the way in which Kevin Rudd was dispatched, it would have emerged in the opinion polls. But no, it did not.

The polls did dive three weeks after the change in leadership, but not because of any perceived poor treatment of Rudd. The polls dived because the Australian community realised they’d be sold a pup. Not once, but twice.

I’ve written before that people lost faith in Rudd because his promise to be Howard-lite proved to be empty. Rudd created the expectation but did not deliver. While he promised to be a man of action, he proved to be a man of indecision, committees and reviews.  Rudd proved to be nothing like Howard, showing none of the former PM’s ability to provide a narrative to give meaning to the government’s efforts. Nor could he speak like Howard to the community, in a language they understood.

So, in June 2010 the Australian community were well on the way to understanding that they’d been conned by Kevin Rudd. That’s why there was no uproar when he was deposed. Instead there was a cautious optimism that maybe the Labor Party had made a necessary course correction.

The shattering of that optimism is the reason why Julia Gillard no longer has the faith of the Australian people.

Julia Gillard became Prime Minister promising to resolve three issues: Australia’s response to climate change; the battle with the mining industry over the Resource Super Profit Tax; and a more humane approach to sea-borne asylum seekers.

On 2 July PM Gillard announced a resolution to the mining resource tax that was reported by the media as being a backdown. Then on 6 July 2010 the PM made a strong speech to the Lowy Institute committing to solve the issues relating to boat-borne asylum seekers. Even though her asylum-seeker solution was scuttled shortly after, the public remained optimistic and the PM registered her highest approval rating (57% on 16-18 July 2010).

But on 23 July 2010 PM Gillard announced that her government would create a citizens’ assembly of ”real Australians” to investigate the science of climate change and consequences of emissions trading, under a plan to build a national consensus for a carbon price. This proposal was widely derided as setting climate policy by public opinion instead of science, and a further repudiation of the emissions trading scheme shelved by Kevin Rudd as Prime Minister.

This was the point at which the penny dropped. Voters realised that they’d not only been gypped by Rudd, but also by Gillard, and so the opinion polls began to fall.

At the time of the citizens’ assembly announcement, PM Gillard’s rating as preferred Prime Minister fell from 57% to 50% (23-25 July) and the Government’s standing from 55% to 52%. A week later, the parties stood at 50% each.

The rest, as they say, is history. On this occasion, the facts are borne out by the numbers and can’t be bent to show anything other than the truth. Attempts to recast them for political purposes should be exposed for what they are – blatantly misleading and condescending to all of us.

(All opinion poll data is sourced from Newspoll).

This piece also appeared at ABC’s The Drum

Have the Greens peaked already?

So here we are, teetering over the cusp of 2012. This is the year that apparently will make or break the major party leaders, Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott. It’s the year that kicks off the long countdown to the next federal election, which is due anytime from 3 August 2013 to 30 November 2013.

We’re told it’s the year we’ll see whether Gillard can rebuild her battered leadership credentials, whether Rudd has enough mongrel to bring his own party down, and whether Abbott can recast himself as an alternative Prime Minister worthy of our respect.

We were presented with some fascinating entrails in 2011 from which to divine what might occur in 2012. We had two current major party leaders with substantial net dissatisfaction ratings and the opposition commanding an excruciating opinion poll lead over the government. There were two failed party leaders throwing bungers at their colleagues from the sidelines and a realignment of parliamentary deckchairs that variously affected morale, depending upon how much more or less voting power the change bestowed upon certain parties and individuals.

But an equally fascinating, and rarely discussed political artefact from the year 2011 concerns not the major parties, but the party which seeks to differentiate itself from them. Despite notching up a number of policy successes in the parliament due to having the balance of power (either partly or entirely), the Greens have singularly been unable to convert this success into voter support. It begs the question whether the Greens have already peaked, and whether the 2013 election will return to being a contest only between the major parties.

The numbers are quite clear. At the last federal election 16 months ago, the Greens polled 11.8%. Since then, across all the credible published opinion polls, their support has been around 10–12%. While this number may go up or down a few points from week to week, the change is always within the margin of error and the trend over time shows that support for the Greens has not budged since election day.

The Greens have not won any additional supporters, despite delivering on their icon issues. They secured a carbon price to battle climate change and $10 billion for the renewable energy industry, helped to ensure that refugees who arrive illegally by boat can remain in Australia while having their asylum claims assessed and raised awareness and acceptance of gay marriage amongst members of parliament from other parties.

All of these achievements would appeal to progressive Labor and swinging voters, and should have been enough to entice them to tell pollsters that they will vote Green at the next election. But this has not been the case. Perhaps that’s because most progressives already vote Green and the voters over which the major parties are battling are more interested in “kitchen table” issues such as jobs, interest rates, health and education.

This is borne out by the numbers. Voters disgruntled with the Labor Party have not gravitated to the Greens, but the Coalition. Think about that: on election day Labor polled 38% of the primary vote, the Coalition 43.6% and the Greens 11.8%. Eight months later, on 8 July, 11% had left Labor (27%), 5% of those went to the Coalition (49%) but none went to the Greens (12%). This was Labor’s lowest primary vote ever, even below that recorded when Keating was PM. Since then, voters have begun to return to Labor (34%) from the Coalition (47%) but still the Green vote remains unchanged.

This suggests the Green vote is already maximised and there’s very little the party can do to attract new voters. In addition, it’s likely that the major parties will do preference deals at the next election that edge out Green candidates in favour of each other. Mutual animosity, it seems, is outweighed by mutual resentment when it comes to the Greens having the final say in parliament.

There’s no doubt that 2012 is going to be a year to watch Australian federal politics. There’s the possibility of a surplus budget in May, compensation for the carbon price will be delivered to many Australians as a lump sum in June and the carbon price regime will commence on 1 July.

The question then will be whether we’re more parsimonious with Julia’s carbon compensation than we were with Kevin’s $900? Only time will tell. Additional compensation will come into effect in June 2013, just in time for the REAL federal election campaign.

Perhaps by then, we’ll have come to accept the carbon price as we did the GST.

Rudd may again be Prime Minister and we may have a new opposition leader. Who knows, almost anything is possible in politics, except for the Greens expanding on their primary vote.

 This piece originally appeared at the  Kings’ Tribune

Leadership is True North for our political compasses

What is this malaise that’s gripping Australian voters? According to the latest opinion poll we’re deeply unhappy with Julia Gillard (disapprove 50%, approve 37%) yet we still prefer her to Tony Abbott as Prime Minister (Gillard 42%, Abbott 33%). Even more confusingly, despite our concerns about Abbott, it seems we would elect a Coalition government tomorrow if given the chance.

What is it that makes us unable to embrace the combination of party and leader currently on offer? Perhaps it’s that we don’t carry the same tribal allegiance to political parties that our parents did. Today, many people have no such allegiance and therefore cast their vote on a case-by-case basis depending upon contemporary values and how they are to be realised through election commitments.

It’s for this reason that political leadership is often the vote clincher. An effective leader is the embodiment of the values that a voter holds most dear. Values such as honesty, integrity, compassion, altruism and the capacity to make hard decisions for the greater good – these are the values that modern Australians want to be exemplified by the people for whom they vote.

Is this a big ask? Yes indeed. And what are the implications when a politician does not meet the mark? Well, look no further than the mixed fortunes of Julia Gillard, Tony Abbott and their respective parties for the answer.

Australian voters are all over the place when it comes to political support because they want leadership and simply can’t find it. Leadership is the True North that we all need for our political compasses.

In response to a recent poll, only 34% of voters agreed that federal Labor had a good team of leaders, while 40% made the same assessment of the Liberals. The Greens garnered even less support with only 29% considering them to have a good leadership team.

Perhaps even more damning was the percentage of voters who believed that a party would promise to do anything in order to win votes. An astonishing 72% believed this description applied to Labor, with 65% for the Liberals and 52% for the Greens.

Successful leaders embody the values that their supporters hold dear. To do that, they need to understand their followers. Considering that a majority of voters think the parties have poor leadership and would say anything to get a vote, it comes as no surprise that they’re also considered to be out of touch with ordinary people. Voters decry the three parties as similarly disconnected, with 61% saying that Labor is out of touch, 54% for the Liberals and 60% for the Greens.

These findings show that contemporary political leadership has been scrutinised by everyday Australians and has been found wanting.

In management theory there are many types of leadership. Some effective leaders work within their constituencies and empower others to be the source of motivation and direction. This type of leader seeks neither a profile nor recognition because that would detract from the group dynamic.

The more commonly known leadership type is that which inspires and achieves action by motivating constituents who admire and emulate the leader. This type of leader does not shy from stepping out in front, capturing the limelight and being placed on a pedestal.

If left unchecked, this follow-me leader will have to continually ramp up their followers’ expectations in order to maintain high levels of motivation. Leaders that encourage hero-worship like this inevitably create unrealistic expectations and are brought back to ground by their disillusioned fans.

Perhaps this is the problem right now in Australian politics. We’re not holding out for a hero (with apologies to Bonnie Tyler), we just want someone whose words and deeds are worth admiring and emulating. We don’t necessarily want a popular Prime Minister, just a strong leader who will do the right thing for the country and thereby for all of us.

For many years that politician was John Howard. While he was never a popular politician, Howard had the ability to secure the votes of people who didn’t like him or didn’t usually vote Liberal. These people didn’t necessarily agree with Howard but they responded to his leadership and trusted him to make the right decisions for the country. Admittedly Fraser also won elections while unpopular, but Howard did so after making some very unpopular decisions.

It’s a matter of record that Howard threw that trust away. He squandered the electoral asset that he’d carefully built over years in high office with acts of indulgence and hubris. People lost faith in Howard as they watched him put personal political philosophies ahead of the public interest. He stopped being the leader that people respected and so he lost their support.

Rudd relinquished his claim to strong leadership in a much shorter space of time, by failing to deliver on the expectations he created in the 2007 federal election. Rudd deftly positioned himself prior to that election 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 did apologise to the Stolen Generation, he did not deliver on any other major promise. The Labor MPs and operatives who eventually deposed Rudd did so, among other reasons, because they knew voters had lost faith in him and were waiting to demonstrate this at the ballot box.

Gillard similarly built up and then shattered voters’ expectations. She became Prime Minister promising to resolve three issues: Australia’s response to climate change; the battle with the mining industry over the Resource Super Profit Tax; and a more humane approach to sea-borne asylum-seekers. Instead she announced a clumsy citizens’ assembly on climate change; capitulated on a promise not to introduce a carbon price; gave ground to the mining industry and replicated some of the most reviled elements of the Howard Government’s detention scheme.

It’s hard to think of an action the current PM has taken that any Australian would be inspired to emulate: her 50% disapproval rate is confirmation of that.

And finally, there is Tony Abbott. Despite Julia Gillard having shattered their high hopes, only 33% of voters prefer Abbott to her. Abbott is not a viable alternative to Gillard because, despite his machismo, he’s just not seen as a leader. Abbott displays none of the humanity and common decency that distinguished both Howard and Rudd during their time as Opposition Leader. He does not attempt to enable others as leaders, nor does he attempt to inspire: his demeanour is menacing and his rhetoric is consistently negative. No wonder his disapproval rating is 48%.

So here we are, disillusioned, disoriented and perhaps even disenfranchised by the lack of political leadership in Australia.

Ironically, politicians are disillusioned with voters too. Sadly, they seem unable to identify the cause of our malaise. It’s simple, we need a leader – someone with integrity and courage, with humanity and compassion, who knows us and will do the right things by the country.

Perhaps it’s too late for Gillard and Abbott, or perhaps they can look within and find the leader that they need to be and that we need them to be. Without such a leader we will all struggle on, as if without a compass, through the Australian political wilderness.

This piece originally appeared at The King’s Tribune