Little love for Abbott, but voters have stopped listening to Rudd

It’s a good thing for Labor that elections are rarely fought on budgets because initial reactions from our online qualitative polling panel say key voters have switched off Labor.


We interviewed 805 respondents. Of these, 8.5 per cent had deserted Labor or were thinking of doing so.

This is enough to lose an election, something Newspoll and Nielsen suggest is on the cards.

Across the panel, and weighting for voting intention, reception of the budget was relatively even: 39 per cent approved, 33 per cent disapproved and 24 per cent were neutral. Asked whether it made them more confident in Labor's economic management, 36 per cent said yes and 37 per cent said no. And to the most important question of all, "Would it make you more or less likely to vote Labor?", 27 per cent answered more, 38 per cent less.

Ask those same questions of the changed and changing voters, and the result is remarkably different. Only 28 per cent approved of the budget. Only 20 per cent had more confidence in Labor because of it, and on the crucial change-of-vote question only 14 per cent were likelier to vote for Labor, while 42 per cent were less likely.

There are several factors driving these opinions, not all of them to do with the budget. Leadership is one issue. Kevin Rudd, so much a part of the Labor brand since 2007, weighs down the response. We asked respondents to choose between four potential Labor leaders in order of preference. Seventy-two per cent put Julia Gillard in first or second place, 56 per cent Lindsay Tanner, and only 50 per cent Rudd.

Among swingers the effect is more pronounced.

The only leadership contender to do worse than Rudd was Wayne Swan, the man with the job of selling the budget. An even bigger task as Joe Hockey, the opposition treasury spokesman, tops the poll as preferred leader of the opposition. Here, Tony Abbott is third on his own side, behind Malcolm Turnbull and Hockey.

The budget is seen as a reflection of the government's approach, which in turn is seen as a reflection of Rudd's. Even though Swan is responsible for the budget, respondents are three times as likely to mention Rudd's name when commenting on it.

The Prime Minister has become associated with overreach and incompetence. One respondent wrote: "The figures are rubbery and, like most of Rudd's promises and policies, cannot be relied on. I wouldn't let Rudd in charge of my kid's school tuckshop, let alone a prosperous country as Australia. Why did we change governments after 11 years of good sound government. Boy did I make a mistake for voting for this DUDD. I am even having fond memories of [Paul] Keating, at least the guy knew what he was doing and had real convictions. Give up, Kevin, and go home and cook for the little wife as she makes the dough for you."

Voters, on balance, simply don't believe the underlying assumptions of the budget, they don't believe the forecasts and they don't believe, even if those things were correct, that the government believes in its promises or could successfully honour them anyway.

Of course this is not uniform, and approval of the budget closely aligns with political allegiance, but at this stage supporters of the opposition have the upper hand.

Another issue is that the selling of the budget has been too clever. It's traditional for exaggerations of tough measures to be leaked before budget day, while the popular measures are left for the night. Treasurers hope that relieved voters will support the budget because it is not as bad as feared.

The release of the government's response to the Henry inquiry beforehand takes this to another level and essentially means that the budget has been serialised with much of the good and bad news in blockbuster episode one. At the same time, the pressure on Labor to make this a "no-frills" budget means there were few giveaways in episode two and the audience is losing its interest.

Opposition to the tax on miners has been building since its announcement, to the stage where it is one of the chief complaints against the budget, with many more opposed to it than supporting it, although it features on both sides of the debate.

From comments, Keating initiatives such as dividend imputation and government privatisations have transformed Australia into a share-owning democracy where the value of our portfolio is held almost as dear as the value of our house.

Criticism of the mining tax is nuanced and doesn't just focus on the cost to the industry of taxing it and the flow-on to the rest of the economy but questions the wisdom of building long-term promises on what may be a short-term boom.

Supporters of the budget tend to focus on general impressions such as its modest aims, expenditure on health and projection of a rapid return to surplus. But they don't remember too many of the specific promises.

When asked to name what they like about the budget, apart from the mining tax, the most prominent measures cite are the simplification of tax returns and lifting of tax on savings accounts.

These are not banners to rally support in an election campaign.

The changes to the superannuation levy, personal taxes, company taxes, infrastructure investment and small business costs have all receded into the background.

When asked what they don't like about the budget, respondents cite the mining tax and lack of expenditure on areas such as greenhouse gas abatement, mental health, environment and education. They also see the budget as unrealistic.

How does this affect the government's fortunes? After all, John Howard was unpopular for significant periods in his first term. My reading is that it's different for this government. It has reached the stage where voters aren't listening any more. When that happens, what can you say that will turn things around? Not much.

The government's future, therefore, lies in the hands of its opponents. Labor has to see if it can help Abbott lose the election.

This article was first published in The Weekend Australian on May 15-16, 2010

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