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Real man versus metro man

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.

In October, when Turnbull was Liberal leader, Rudd was seen as having a better team and being more concerned with people.

This was contrasted with the Liberals who were disunited and an extension of business, although business was also a plus for the Liberals as it underscored their economic credentials.

There was also an issue of honesty with neither having the advantage. Rudd has problems with spin and substance, while Turnbull was viewed as being too business oriented.

With Abbott economics and business have almost disappeared from responses for who is preferred PM. Climate change is at the centre of debate, and for the first time in my lifetime religion has become an issue.

In Rudd and Abbott we have the two most overtly religious party leaders Australia has seen, but it colours public perceptions of them in different ways.

While only one-third of respondents are uncomfortable with Rudd holding religious views, almost half are uncomfortable with Abbott holding them.

Why the difference? One clue is given by the fact that honesty was an issue between Turnbull and Rudd, but the honours were finely balanced.

In this new contest honesty is very strongly associated with Abbott. Rudd seems more the populist and Abbott seems authentic. So it appears that voters see Rudd as formally, but not fundamentally, committed to religion, and essentially a secularist. But they think Abbott is a man of religious conviction who will act on his beliefs.

They are also making a judgment on what beliefs both men hold. "Extreme" is a word that is applied to Abbott's Catholicism, which is associated with "abortion" and "stem cell".

So it is also partly a women's rights agenda, and when one looks at Abbott's approval from women one finds that it is much worse than his approval from men, particularly with women under 45.

Two other concepts define Abbott. One is "country", which gathers together all the threads of nationalism. Some of his critics even label Abbott a Hansonite. That label won't trouble the values voters who are likely to find the volunteer lifeguard and firefighter an icon of Aussie virtues.

The other concept is "people", which references concern for others. Normally it is associated with the ALP, which is seen as the party of empathy, but it seems Abbott is seen as more caring than Rudd.

So Abbott potentially regains the Liberals' cultural ascendancy with the Howard battlers, but doesn't rate as an economic manager. He loses young female voters, and replays the Liberal theme of actions v words, but in a way that some voters find threatening. How will this run in the next election?

If Abbott runs a head-to-head personality battle with Rudd of conviction politician v populist, real man v metro man, old Australia v new Australia, doer v talker, then risk is on the Liberal side and they probably lose badly. If the next election is about climate change or the economy, then I think Rudd wins well.

But if it is about whether Rudd is living up to expectations, or has got a bit too pompous, narcissistic and self-satisfied, then the straight-shooting gadfly may do surprisingly well. Particularly if voters don't think he will win.

First published in The Australian January 2, 2010.

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0 #21 CommentIgnaz 2010-01-29 06:00
Leaders of the major parties take note: there is no room in a functioning democracy for religious fundamentalism in any form (and this comes from a practising Catholic who finds more than a few of Abbott's - and by extension the Vatican's - attitudes morally repugnant). Furthermore, Rudd's TV soundbytes outside of Church on Sundays and his continued tolerance of such reprehensible groups as the Exclusive Brethren do precious little to represent the unbiased legitimacy and secular fairness that is a prerequisite of a modern 21st century Australian statesman.
0 #22 CommentFrances 2010-01-29 06:11

Hello again, I'm sorry I didn't put my name on my last comment regarding how Tony Abbott stands up for women...

But anyway, my one last comment regarding your comment Andrew regarding stem cell - I'm sure your referring to Tony Abbott's stance on embryo stem cell research? Research that has had no success. The pharmaceutical companies want it legal so they can say that their drugs have been tested - not on animals but, humans & thereby put their medicines on the market sooner.

Adult stem cell & umbilical cord stem cell has had all the success thus far & have proven that embryo stem cell research is not required & is considered in many places as a thing of the past.

Then let me address you on this... at what cost are you willing to place on the cure? To gather the embryo's women have to undertake an extreme procedure involving hormones & a procedure that can cause cancer, strokes, future infertility, kidney disease etc... so women should be willing to donate not only their bodies but their children on the altar of science hey?
Wonderful! And I thought humanity & science was supposed to be progressing! How many women & children need to be sacrificed? 
Again, thank you Tony Abbott for standing up for women - and if this all happens due to Tony being an RC - well done the RC Church too!!! 
Stop using or thinking of women and their fertility as commodities !!!


PS Andrew I am sympathetic to you regarding your illness, my dad has it too but please research into these alternatives & the problems they can, in turn, cause others.

0 #23 CommentGarry 2010-01-30 18:34
Posted by:Fran at January 28, 2010 07:35 PM..finding it frustrating to work out why WorkChoices is continually mentioned??
Maybe Fran it might have something to do with the unlimited power that Howard bestowed on the employer and what miniscule rights the employee was left with after his totally un-Australian war on the Australian worker and his /her family.
I myself because of my working capacity was almost immune from his attack...but members of my family were stunned into realisation of the war when they had hours, wages, and conditions slashed from them with NO recourse whatsoever..blo ody NONE Fran..THAT IS the reason WorkChoices is still being mentioned and not allowed to fade into the political past. WorkChoices had ONLY one objective and that was to degrade and drive the workforce into a race to the bottom of the wages ladder in order to appease Howard's Multi-National and obscenely rich business friends in their quest for the greedy profit taking that bought about the Global Financial Crisis in the first place. GREED..Fran..th at is what WorkChoices was and if Abbott has his way..it WILL raise it's ugly bloody head again..you can be sure of that.
0 #24 CommentGarry 2010-01-30 18:48
My apologies Fran, I only just noticed that my reply should've been directed to Andrew.
0 #25 Commentklaas woldring 2010-01-30 23:03
The problem with the two-party system is that there are essentially two choices only. Neither party is totally convincing to most voters so that we end up mostly with the party that can capture enough of the middle ground to swing the election its way. While one might say that there is at least some difference now between the parties on climate change policies there isn't much at all in other areas. The leadership assessment and perceived personalities of the leaders do play a role but overall we'll end up with the party that, on balance, is least unacceptable to the majority of voters. 
My question is: Is this two-party system good enough for Australia's future? I would say: absolutely not. It prevents bold, necessary policies from being introduced; the generation of parliamentary majorities on different issues is basically impossible in this system apart from conscience vote issues. What is the cause of this? The single-member district electoral system - combined with compulsory voting! The remedy, first of all, is the introduction of proportional represention - open party list system, used in a large number of democracies. With PR compulsory voting becomes less of an issue but its replacement by voluntary voting, also widespread in the world, would still be a further step in the right direction. Would these changes be introduced by the major parties? Highly unlikely but the party that would adopt such policy changes is likely to benefit the most. The electoral reform inquiry has the proposal before it. Now watch what they will come up with.