Anna Bligh’s post-crisis popularity is a well documented example of the Rally round the flag effect and likely to shape Queensland politics in 2011 as well as the result of the next election. While Anna Bligh bounced as preferred premier from 35 per cent to 58 per cent, her party moved only 5 per cent on 2PP to 45 per cent, mostly thanks to the Greens primary vote dropping from 16 to 12 per cent.
The unwritten rule is that every 3 per cent of leader approval adds a percent to the party vote. In this summer’s crises, the ratio is closer to five to one. That means for every four people shifting to support Bligh as a leader, only one was added to Labor’s primary vote. Worse, nearly five new Bligh supporters were needed for every one added to the 2PP vote after preferences.
Rallying around the flag is maximised by leaders who dominate the media. George W. Bush went from 51 per cent to 90 per cent after 9/11. Coming of a higher base, Roosevelt and Kennedy climbed 12 points after Pearl Harbour and the Cuban missile crisis respectively.
In Australia, these large jumps, high levels and sustained gains are witnessed rarely. Bligh’s jump is the largest since the 18 per cent post-election bounce for Peter Dowding in 1988 and John Howard’s 17 per cent bounce after Port Arthur massacre. The closest recent equivalent was Victorian Premier John Brumby’s 5 per cent jump as his preferred Premier and 3 per cent 2PP jump in the wake of the 2009 bushfires. In this context, Bligh’s achievement is impressive. It’s explained partly by her low starting point, partly by a compassionate and mistake-free performance but mostly by assuming absolute centrality in Government communication, even if it meant sidelining other public officials. It helped Bligh that she overshadowed Gillard and avoided engaging Campbell Newman in any partisan attacks. Brumby on the other hand forfeited much of this opportunity to Christine Nixon who was later discredited.
The keys to extending the rally effect is to keep reconstruction as the lead story, establish a central role in that process and avoid a descent into partisan party politics. Assuming control of reconstruction ensures that Bligh’s fate is entirely in her own hands, rather than a colleague’s. She learnt from the backlash of appointing David Hammill to head the Premier’s Appeal Fund and from Gillard’s success appointing Liberal John Fahey to head the reconstruction effort. There are two risks in her Bligh-first approach. First, her focus on a $5billion reconstruction may lead to less attention on ailing $50 billion state economy. Second, efforts to maintain a cult following may fail to translate into higher party stocks.
The temptation during a personal poll bounce is to stick to the strengths. But in reality, like all rallies, the effect subsides over nine to twelve months. Anna Bligh’s number one priority should be translating her personal vote into longer term support for the ALP brand. This is best achieved by incorporating unscarred non-partisan colleagues like Cameron Dick, Geoff Wilson or Neil Roberts in the reconstruction process. Her decision to shuffle senior ministers through top jobs is unlikely to achieve as much. If she can not manage the current bubble of expectation, the fall could be just as dramatic as the rise.
Anna Bligh will know from the Brumby experience that governments with crisis-related bounces can lose elections soon after. On the upside, Queensland’s stimulus package will be the $4.6 billion in flood levy paid by interstate Australians to fund local construction. Bligh must own every cent of this interstate transfer at a time when federal Labor will want a slice as well. Lets hope the outcomes from reconstruction isn’t overwhelmed by the politics of an election year.
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