Advantage but no honeymoon

Can Julia Gillard rescue Labor's fortunes in time for the next election, despite the fact she was one of four key decision-makers in everything the federal government has done since 2007?

Just posing this question exposes the fundamental weakness in her position.

It is the question that many electors are asking, but it assumes that this palace coup is just a brand-repositioning exercise.

Labor is damaged as a brand, and if voters think Gillard is just a front for keeping the heavies in beer money, then her brand will be damaged, too.

She can rescue Labor only if she convinces electors to ignore this question entirely, instead providing an answer to the question: "Who is Julia Gillard and what can she do for Australia"?

On Thursday we conducted a detailed online qualitative poll of 2099 opinion-leading Australians.

It is difficult to make quantitative predictions from such a sample, but so far, on day one, there has been no honeymoon for the new leader.

In fact, support for the Liberals as well as Labor has declined since we last polled in May.

The only ones to improve are the Greens, whose vote is at an all-time high.

Other statistics are more promising for Labor. Gillard has a significantly higher net approval rating than Rudd or Abbott.

That suggests the change was worth making, although she only marginally improves on Rudd's preferred prime minister lead.

These sample-wide statistics can be misleading. Rudd was ahead in the national polls when he was rolled.

What was fatal to his career were the wrinkles in the normal distribution of voting intentions in marginal electorates where elections are generally won.

Parties can win high levels of support in already safe seats while swinging voters are moving away in marginal ones.

There are two directions of defection from Labor at the moment: one of the middle-class to the Greens and the other of blue-collar conservatives to independents or the Liberals.

The blue-collar conservatives have determined elections for at least the past 14 years, and they will do so again this year.

Much of the movement to the Greens will come back to Labor through preferences, because these voters will never vote for the Coalition.

Many working-class conservatives have no such qualms.

The story for Gillard with swingers is quite different from the total sample.

Here both she and Abbott enjoy similar levels of support, with neither getting more than 50 per cent in any category.

For Gillard, 37 per cent approve and 39 per cent disapprove.

For Abbott it is 41 per cent and 40 per cent.

And 38 per cent want Gillard as prime minister, 40 per cent Abbott, and 22 per cent aren't sure.

One of the reasons for these results is that many swinging voters aren't sure who Gillard is. They prefer her to Rudd, but only because she isn't him.

One comments: "Rudd had absolutely no credibility left. His dumb-arse decision to try and introduce the RSPT [resource tax] was the last straw. I'm not saying I'm a big fan of Gillard, but anything would be better than Rudd."

Or they think she is a perfumed strategy to keep Labor's backroom boys in power.

For example: "Julia Gillard makes federal Labor the same as NSW Labor. A pretty face overseeing a rotten party."

Some are incensed that Labor has changed leaders without going to an election, and they question Gillard's loyalty to Rudd, particularly wondering how she can disown the decisions that brought down Rudd while being a key decision-maker herself.

Another example: "They are both responsible for where we are today. She cannot escape the odium of decisions made in the kitchen cabinet."

There is surprisingly little reference to her portfolio areas, given that education and industrial relations are spheres where the government has been very active.

When they are discussed, it is largely in negative terms, with references to the Building the Education Revolution infrastructure program, NAPLAN and the MySchool website as examples of incompetence and failure to be consultative.

Given all this negativity, does Gillard improve Labor's standing with this group at all?

In fact she does, because Abbott's position is quite brittle and is mostly leveraged off two attributes, both in areas where Gillard is also strong.

Abbott is admired for being honest and uncompromising. These characteristics served him well against Rudd, who was perceived as the opposite, but won't serve as well against Gillard, who is seen as a "straight talker, good communicator, spunky, clever, sticks to her guns".

Abbott has also been quite spare with his policy pronouncements, with a few exceptions such as paid parental leave, and is in danger of being recognised by voters only for his Christianity and being a "Life. Be in it" Lycra-clad role model.

On December 1, 2009, when Abbott became Liberal leader, he changed the terms of the national conversation. Rudd never learned the new language, was marginalised and then failed.

This happened because the momentum was with Abbott as the new leader.

As of Wednesday, the national conversation has changed again and momentum has shifted to Gillard.

She has quickly introduced compromise into her repertoire, playing a conciliatory card on the resource super-profits tax, and she will no doubt start to fill in the personal story and the policy vacuum.

Now Abbott is on the edges of debate, supporting a position the miners may well abandon, and risks sounding shrill rather than strong.

At the same time Gillard reminds voters of Work Choices, a divisive issue with blue-collar conservative swingers.

So she matches Abbott on forthrightness and determination, and adds an element of consultation, while pushing him into an area where he is seen as being too aggressive, all the time colouring in her portrait, so voters get a more rounded view of who she is and what she can do for them.

With only four months at most to the next election, the odds would have to favour the Gillard experiment to succeed.

The Liberals thought they were going to fall over the line, but now they've found another few laps to run, and Labor has fresh legs in the race.

This article was first published in The Australian on Saturday June 26, 2010

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0 #1 Julia Gillard is likely to improve LaborLex 2010-06-27 16:27
Julia Gillard is likely to improve Labor's chances by unifying the Parliamentary party, recognizing that there are some things that the electorate is really demanding (climate control, refugee action and an end to the fight with the mining industry).
The fact that she speaks in language that most people can understand will also help.
It would have been more difficult for her if she was facing Malcolm Turnbull or Joe Hockey.
0 #2 The people, who talk about ‘faceless mJohn Ward 2010-06-29 00:28
The people, who talk about ‘faceless men’ from the NSW right controlling Gillard, should consider this.
After 1945 Nazis poured into this country, protected and used by ASIO to control and monitor the growing migrant groups, with the tacit support of the Menzies and successive Liberal governments.

Lyenko Urbanchich was the most powerful, of the central and eastern European Nazi collaborators and war criminals that infiltrated the Liberal Party from the 1950s.
The peak of Urbanchich's success was the formation of the Liberal Ethnic Council.

As council president, he automatically had a seat on the state executive of the Liberal Party. David Clarke today leads the "Uglies" faction established by Urbanchich 40 years ago. The Uglies, control up to 30 per cent of the NSW Liberal Party State Council votes and are the power base of Tony Abbot, Bronwyn Bishop and of John Howard and others.

Urbanchich remained unrepentant about his pro-Nazi past. He would, however, have died happy in the knowledge that his long campaign to control the NSW Liberal Party and insinuate his extremist views into its policy agenda has succeeded beyond his wildest dreams.
0 #3 Hey John - you have completely freaked mHIllary Morris 2010-06-29 09:54
Hey John - you have completely freaked me out. Nothing changes does it? People love Power and they love politics more!
0 #4 All the polls show a rapid swing betweenPhilip Machanick 2010-06-29 11:33
All the polls show a rapid swing between ALP and Greens; the other changes in primary vote are within margin of error of polling.

Unless Gillard gets real on climate change and can offer something better than a magic pudding solution on sustainable population (no big Australia but we won't slow down immigration), it's hard to see how the voters who swung to Greens and back again will stay with ALP.

Maybe more people are getting clued to how they can use their preferences intelligently. The sort of swings we've been seeing will not change the composition of the lower house significantly, but if many members know they can only win by garnering 2nd prefs from Greens voters, it will pull parliament towards a more progressive agenda.
0 #5 On the topic of preferential voting, I aBill Ross 2010-06-29 12:05
On the topic of preferential voting, I always push this whenever I can. I think genuine democracy can only improve if we can get more minor parties and independents into parliament, and force the major parties into negotiation.

The number of people I come across who genuinely believe that a vote for a minor party is wasted, continues to amaze me. Our preferential voting system means you CAN vote twice! One women gave me the example of Al Gore being defeated because of Ralph Nader, and I tried to gently explain how the Australian system is different.

The second point that is not given sufficient publicity is that public funding for political parties depends on the number of first preferences that they receive. So a vote for a minor party is not only not wasted, it is giving them money.
0 #6 This opinion sample (of which I am one) Dion Giles 2010-06-29 18:04
This opinion sample (of which I am one) seems to have moved very much less in Labor's direction than the samples taken by the professional pollsters with great resources available for building large and representative samples to survey. Labor bounced in the space of a few hours from what looked like certain defeat (even by Abbott) to a commanding lead.

However I would like to refer to John Ward's picture of Menzies and NSW Liberals polluting the country after the war with Nazi settlers. It should be added that Arthur Calwell as immediate postwar Immigration Minister was also credited (or should we say debited) with welcoming Nazi collaborators into Australia. Politicians not committed to democracy and human rights often allowed the "Red Scare" to blind them to what the war had been about. They haven't changed.
0 #7 Dion, the relatively small move in our pGraham Young 2010-06-29 19:33
Dion, the relatively small move in our poll sample could well be an artifact of it being almost 3 months since we last polled. Much of the deterioration in the Labor vote happened in the last month or so, since the abandonment of the ETS. Check out the graph on this article to get a better view

Morgan has just reported today as well, and it shows the Libs winning. I suspect public opinion could be all over the place. The early Nielsen was done on the wrong days and is currently an outlier.

Check out my posts on these other polls, and what I write later on Morgan.