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Present pollies fail the voter connectivity test

By Graham Young - posted Monday, 17 October 2011


While "Kevin 07" returned to office as "Kevin 11" may look superficially attractive to some Labor operators, viewed from the public's perspective it would be a stroke of desperation.

Kevin Rudd would be not so much resurrected as recycled; no longer in mint condition, he has lost the shiny allure of newness that made him untouchable against John Howard. The only reason he might beat Tony Abbott is that Abbott is not well liked either, although much better liked than Julia Gillard.

Interpreting the results of our latest On Line Opinion virtual focus group, if Rudd replaced Gillard his best chance of maintaining Labor's hold on power would be to call an immediate election, potentially giving himself a fresh start and curing the defect of perceived illegitimacy that dogs the government.

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If he waited to call an election, the public would dwell on his defects and Abbott would most likely see him off again, or Malcolm Turnbull might replace Abbott and do the job easily.

Not that a change of leader wouldn't help Labor, but the leader they should turn to is Stephen Smith.

We asked our online sample of 1108 respondents to rank their preferred Labor leaders from six sitting MPs. On first preferences Gillard, Rudd and Smith were all in a tight cluster, sharing 75 per cent of the vote and all within a couple of points of 25 per cent.

When we eliminated Bill Shorten, Greg Combet and Simon Crean, in order, Smith streaked ahead, followed by Gillard, with Rudd a touch behind. It seems Rudd and Gillard are opposite poles because it wouldn't have mattered which went out first, most of their voters preferred Smith, who ended up with 59 per cent of the preferential vote against Gillard.

We did the same exercise on the Coalition side, but Turnbull was ahead from the beginning with an initial 53 per cent of the vote that crept up to 58 per cent after distributing the 11 per cent that accrued to Julie Bishop, Andrew Robb, Barnaby Joyce and Joe Hockey, in that order.

But these figures don't tell the whole story. In politics, as in sport, it is more important who the home crowd barracks for. In which case both Gillard and Abbott should be safe from sacking, with Gillard enjoying 66 per cent first preference support among Labor voters and Abbott 74 per cent support from Liberals. This is reasonable news from the Liberals' perspective but bad news for Labor. We tested Rudd and Gillard against Abbott and Turnbull. The result was Rudd was preferred to Abbott by 50 per cent to 47 per cent -- a statistical dead heat -- but trounced by Turnbull, 37 per cent to 52 per cent. Gillard was preferred to no one, down 41 per cent to 48 per cent against Abbott and 27 per cent to 62 per cent against Turnbull.

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We also put the leadership struggles into perspective by asking people to rank post-World War II prime ministers. The Lilliputian nature of today's political landscape was evident. Rudd and Gillard scored badly, with a vote statistically indistinguishable from 0 per cent, something they shared with Harold Holt, William McMahon, John Gorton and Malcolm Fraser.

Best prime minister was John Howard, the one Rudd beat, on 29 per cent of the vote, followed by Bob Hawke, Paul Keating, Robert Menzies and Gough Whitlam, all in the mid-teens.

Our respondents are looking for leaders who have ability. Computerised semantic analysis of responses using Leximancer showed ability had 100 per cent connectivity. This was followed by concern for people (83 per cent), vision (57 per cent) and nationalism (37 per cent). Low on the list, and interesting in light of criticism of Gillard as "Ju-liar" and of her government as all talk and no action, were decisiveness (21 per cent) and honesty (17 per cent). It seems being perceived as lacking honesty is less fatal than lacking ability. Another prime minister might have been able to break the carbon tax commitment without much damage.

When asked what they disliked about our present leadership the theme seemed to be that it was too much about performance and acting, and not enough about substance and reality. They thought leaders were too "political" (100 per cent connectivity) or not concerned with people (75 per cent) and that the media was both scripting and obscuring what was happening (71 per cent).

While Labor has been targeting Abbott for being negative, it doesn't appear to resonate, with only 10 per cent connectivity. People are more concerned that our leaders are deficient (61 per cent) in policies and abilities.

It's not pretty reading for the public. Those they want as leaders probably won't get there, and those they have square off against each other on the basis of who is least disliked, while even the recent past provides examples of leaders of stature.

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This article was first published in The Weekend Australian on October 15, 2011.



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About the Author

Graham Young is chief editor and the publisher of On Line Opinion. He is executive director of the Australian Institute for Progress, an Australian think tank based in Brisbane, and the publisher of On Line Opinion.

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