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Abbott on notice

By Graham Young - posted Monday, 20 January 2014

Speaking through the latest polls electors have put Tony Abbott on notice: "Smarten-up your act son, or you're out of the house in two year's time."

That's the message from our qualitative polling (a sample of 1,324 with developed opinions about politics). Their support is back to levels last seen in September 2010. That gives Abbott an equivocal lead. The latest Newspoll and Nielsen are even worse for him, predicting a respectable win for Labor.

What's gone wrong? Abbott won the last election in a landslide. The opposition ought to be demoralised and introspective, and, after a bit more than a 100 days in power, the government should be consolidating its agenda and its honeymoon.


The first problem is the nature of the win. Abbott is one of the most polarising and least-liked political leaders in Australian history (the abuse from focus group participants is often vile). But at the last election he faced-off against Kevin Rudd, who was even more disliked and polarising.

On election day our respondents gave Abbott a net 2% approval (46 to 44). They gave Kevin Rudd a net minus 44% (21 to 66).

Take Kevin Rudd out of the picture, and normal transmission is resumed. Abbott is now running on a net minus 12% (41 to 53), while Bill Shorten, also in negative territory, is doing better at minus 2% (34 to 36).

Now he's PM, Abbott's taken Rudd's popularity slot, while Shorten is playing a muted rendition of the old Abbott.

Modern politics is more a personality game than ever. Successful pop-up political parties like Pauline Hanson's One Nation, and the Palmer United Party tend to be eponymously branded, and it works.

Some of the same dynamic applies to mainstream political parties. Voters presume the nature of parties changes when the leadership does. Labor isn't Labor anymore, it's Shorten Labor, whatever that might be.


Look closely at Shorten's figures and you see they almost cut evenly three ways – a third approve of him, a third disapprove, and a third are neutral. This isn't a strong position and indicates he has made a weak impression. It could also change radically as the middle third will decide one way or the other before the next election.

The second problem is the electorate's expectation of performance. The GFC pinched our national psyche, making us nervous, and impatient.

Many Australians are undergoing relative suffering and they want someone to fix it, now. While their own position is not necessarily precarious they want it to be better, and as the baby boomer cohort comes in sight of potential retirement, timelines are tightening.

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An edited version of this article was published in The Australian on January 18, 2014.

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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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