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Real man v metro man

By Graham Young - posted Tuesday, 5 January 2010

Tony Abbott's election seems to have produced a step change in the political conversation and the early evidence says this is a problem for the government, although not necessarily a benefit for the opposition. This is demonstrated by a large drop in approval for the Prime Minister among a sample of 1,989 voters surveyed by my organisation but little net move in that of the Opposition Leader.

This is deceptive. When you look more closely at the Liberal figure there has been a large shift here too, but in composition rather than size with stronger approval figures from conservative Coalition voters and a drop in approval from the centre.

There were two secrets to John Howard's political success. One was that he had the ascendancy over Labor on the question of who would be the better economic manager. The other was that he defined politics in terms of culture, winning the votes of people in the outer metropolitan areas often against their class interest.


These are voters I call values voters because this is a term they frequently use when answering political questions. As often as not they are Christian (culturally if not practising) and in trades, sales and clerical occupations, often with close ancestral roots to the country. They are proudly Australian and believe in doing the right thing, even against their own perceived interest.

The last election was a change election. Howard had been in power for long enough that it was time for a change; and the issue of climate change demonstrated that he was a man of the past and not of the future.

But to be sure of a change Kevin Rudd needed to show Labor wasn't an economic risk, which he did by promising to copy Howard's economic policies.

He also had to win the trust of values voters, hence the constant references to his rural Christian upbringing. This was made easier for him because WorkChoices had made these voters distrust Howard.

With Malcolm Turnbull as leader the dynamic changed. The Liberals had economic cred, but zip cultural cred. Turnbull started with promising approval figures but these soon collapsed. On the right, out where values are important, he was viewed with suspicion.

In the centre, where he belonged, voters liked him; they just liked Rudd even more and as soon as Turnbull attacked Rudd his approval there started to drop.


Turnbull's conditional support of Rudd's emissions trading scheme, which as a tax threatening ways of life, challenged both economics and culture, didn't appeal to values voters or to the Liberals' branch membership.

Rudd was heading towards a comprehensive election win over a demoralised splintering opposition. That might still be the case, but first the government needs to work out how to enter the new conversation Abbott has started.

When we asked respondents who they preferred as prime minister the map is radically redrawn from two months ago.

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First published in The Australian January 2, 2010.

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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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