New polls but same old pain for Abbott

New polls but same old pain for Abbott

Two opinion polls have emerged this morning, with results that suggest Prime Minister Tony Abbott and his Government have improved somewhat in the opinion of voters but not enough to take an election-winning lead from Labor.

While Newspoll found an increase in support for the Government, the Ipsos poll claims a decrease. Nevertheless, both polls have arrived at about the same overall result – albeit from different directions– measuring the Coalition’s primary vote at 39-41 per cent with 38-36 per cent for Labor. On these numbers, after preferences are allocated, Labor remains in the lead.

Both polls also found the gap closing between Abbott and the Opposition Leader Bill Shorten on approval ratings. However, Newspoll suggests Abbott has closed in on Shorten as preferred PM (at 40 per cent compared to Shorten’s 41 per cent) but Ipsos found the opposite with Shorten at 46 per cent and Abbott at 38.

Even with the Government’s preferred opinion poll, Newspoll, showing a more favourable result for the Coalition, Government MPs would understandably be frustrated with the incremental nature of the improvement. PM Abbott has thrown everything but the kitchen sink at voters, ditching a wagonload of unpopular policies while hitching himself to populist causes such as food labelling and curbs against foreign ownership.

Unfortunately for the Government, the wholesale abandonment of tough budget measures may have been counterproductive. According to the Ipsos poll, 58 per cent of respondents said they want the budget deficit addressed as a high priority, but only 41 per cent saw the Coalition as better economic managers. That’s not to say Labor was considered any better: only 32 per cent of respondents saw the party of the former Rudd and Gillard governments as superior in managing the economy.

Agitators within the Government could seize on the Ipsos results to rekindle leadership speculation. According to the poll, Treasurer Joe Hockey’s approval rating has dropped to 33 per cent, with 58 per cent disapproving of his performance. This is an almost complete reversal of the Treasurer’s standing in March last year, just weeks before he delivered one of the most unpopular budgets ever.

Now the advocates for change might promote a 2-for-1 offer, suggesting the only way to offload the deadweight Treasurer is to dispense with the Prime MinisterA similar line has been used in the past about the PM’s chief of staff Peta Credlin.

It’s likely too that the antipathy Government MPs hold for Credlin will resurface in light of news on the weekend that NSW Liberal state director Tony Nutt will not be joining the Prime Minister’s Office as first suggested.

Nutt’s addition to the PMO would have been good for Abbott. If the experienced fix-it man had replicated the role he played in former PM John Howard’s office, Nutt could have taken on the enforcer part of Credlin’s all-encompassing responsibilities and provided another way for backbenchers to communicate with the PM. This would have freed up Credlin to concentrate on political strategy and policy.

However, according to well-connected conservative columnist Niki Savva, Nutt was unable to obtain assurances of access – presumably to the PM – and responsibilities, which is code for Credlin being unwilling to accede to a power-sharing arrangement.

Nutt joins a growing line of experienced and respected political or policy talent that has either been rebuffed or shown the door by Credlin and Abbott since the Coalition regained Government. Well-credentialed departmental secretaries such as Andrew Metcalfe, Blair Comley and Martin Parkinson were given the axe early onHockey reportedly wanted to keep Dr Parkinson as head of Treasury but was over-ruled by the PM and his CoS. Next month’s budget will therefore be in part a measure of the new Treasury head, John Fraser, who is said to have been Abbott’s preferred candidate for the role, as well as a test for Treasurer Hockey.

In total, eight departmental heads have been sacked or resigned since the change of government.

Such personnel changes, and arguable losses of vital experience and knowledge, have not been restricted to the public service. A recent media profile on Credlin claimed she had directed that Tony O’Leary, Abbott’s director of communication while in opposition, be escorted from a private election night victory party as his services were no longer required. Like Nutt, O’Leary is another former long-time Howard staffer, and both men are highly respected by the vast majority of Government MPs.

Those MPs will no doubt be wondering to what extent the Government’s electoral standing could have been improved if those two “old hands” had been in the Prime Minister’s Office over the past year or so, directing political and media strategy. This is particularly the case given Credlin’s charm offensive following the failed leadership coup in February has had only limited success.

Since the Coalition’s election 18 months ago, valuable corporate memory has been either eschewed or discarded by Abbott and his most senior adviser to shore up their power base. Given that today’s opinion polls will be used to recast a negative light on the PM and the Treasurer, it would be fair to conclude that power base remains fractured and in danger of being shattered.

Next month’s federal budget is the next leadership test for PM Abbott, but there is no guarantee it will be his last. Particularly if he continues to be saddled with a Treasurer who’s seen to be incompetent and an adviser who’s seen to have too much power.

Addicted to polls

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?

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