There is a glaring contradiction in the way we think about federal political leadership changes in Australia. On the one hand, we often dismiss gains made by a new leader in the first six months of their tenure as the inevitable effect of a honeymoon period. All fresh faces are inflated for a while. It was said about Mark Latham, and it is currently being said about Kevin Rudd.
On the other hand though, we consistently hear commentators and politicians talk about how important it is for existing leaders and their parties to give potential leadership successors enough time to establish themselves in the job. You can’t change leaders too close to an election.
These two facts don’t necessarily fit together. Surely, if all new leaders were entitled to a honeymoon period, then the best time to change leaders would be only a few months before an election. That way, you could send a new challenger to the polls right in the middle of their inevitable spike in popularity.
A quick study of recent history suggests there may be more truth to this than we realise. Maybe some of our most famous, failed, political leaders have just been athletes that peaked at the wrong time. Ruthlessly admonished for coming early.
In December 2003, Mark Latham was elected leader of the Australian Labor Party. At the time of Latham’s challenge, The Australian Newspoll survey of voter intentions showed that only 39 per cent of respondents were intending to vote for the ALP. In the equivalent poll from March 2004, support for the ALP had risen to 44 per cent, and by the end of that month had reached a staggering 46 per cent. This was after just over three months of Latham’s leadership, presumably right in the middle of his honeymoon period. At no point in the remainder of Latham’s tenure did the ALP ever reach the heights of March 2004.
John Howard took control of the Liberal Party in January 1995. In March of that year, The Australian Newspoll survey recorded support for the Coalition at 53 per cent, a rise of 8 per cent in three months! The Coalition never again rose this high for the remainder of the electoral term. Even in the last poll taken before Howard went on to win the 1996 election, they achieved only 47 per cent support, less than the original peak.
Paul Keating is an exception to this rule, in a way. He wrested the leadership from Bob Hawke in late December 1991, with ALP support, in The Australian Newspoll survey of voter intentions, languishing at 36 per cent. Sure enough, the ALP received its customary spike only three months later, achieving 43 per cent support by the end of March 1992.
However, the difference with Keating is that the ALP repeated that spike on a number of occasions before the next election, even going higher in late-1992. In the final survey before polling day in March 1993 though, ALP support sat at 44 per cent, just 1 per cent higher than it was three months after the leadership change.
Of course, many will argue that mid-term polls and surveys are an indication, rather than a true reflection of voting intentions. If the election were actually held that day, people would be far less likely to vote for a fresh contender when there was so much genuinely at stake. In a real election, they would be more likely to stick with the devil they knew.
Or would they?
In February 1983, Bob Hawke became leader of the ALP. Less than 30 days later, he beat Malcolm Fraser in an incredible landslide. It’s hard to see what else could have happened between early February 1983, when the ALP were so fearful of electoral defeat that they were willing to replace their leader, and March 5 - a few weeks later - when they won that election so convincingly.
Kevin Rudd became leader of the ALP in December 2006. History suggests ALP support will peak in The Australian Newspoll survey of March 2007 - three months after the new challenger’s ascent. The challenge for Rudd will be to maintain that momentum, or resurrect it just in time for this year’s election. Otherwise Labor insiders may be left wondering what may have happened if Kim Beazley had survived for just six months longer.