The latest Newspoll numbers must have caused much wailing and gnashing of teeth in Kevin Rudd’s bunker today. His personal approval rating is the lowest since he became leader, which must be hugely frustrating to a man who probably tracks his relationship with his own wife by polling her.
No doubt the teenagers who constitute his personal staff will have had their Mountain Dew and Skittles rations docked in a fit of Prime Ministerial pique, for despite all his time in China, Kevin Rudd is not exactly a master of Zen calm. And I expect that even now, their Blackberries are beeping with an order that until the election, even the two hours’ sleep they get each night is cancelled. Because for a government that’s done so much to try and be popular, the sudden lack of lustre must seem like a major crisis, especially when Tony Abbott’s main contribution as Opposition Leader seems to be taking the form of gaffes.
But all this searching around for reasons for the sudden drop has overlooked the most surprising thing about this situation – that Rudd was so popular for so long in the first place. He’s hardly a beer-swilling champion like Bob Hawke – in fact, his demeanour is so detached that he makes Paul Keating look like a man of the people. And whereas Barack Obama was elected on a wave of lofty rhetoric that was only going to lead to disappointment given the obstinacy of even the Democrat members of Congress, surely even Kevin Rudd’s friends would be hard placed to describe him as an inspiring speaker.
Tony Abbott has argued today that the poll numbers reflect nostalgia for the Howard Government, but I suspect the opposite is true – the public were so sick of the Coalition by 2007 that they were delighted to have someone else to vote for. It wasn’t that everyone fell in love with Rudd, it was that they fell substantially out of love with Howard, Costello, Downer and the rest of them, and he seemed like a reasonable alternative. At the time, being moderate, unglamorous and seeming vaguely reliable was exactly what voters wanted. Kevin Rudd certainly gives the impression of being sensible, even though we now know that his love of reports, enquiries and subcommittees is so great that if anything, he’s so sensible as to be paralytically cautious.
At the beginning of his term, Rudd made an apology that made almost everyone besides Wilson Tuckey proud, and then kept his record poll numbers because he was overwhelmingly giving the public what it wanted – someone who wasn’t Brendan Nelson. With the bar set so low, it’s no wonder that Rudd remained popular. Not only could a drover’s dog have beaten Nelson, but a drover’s dog’s flea could have. In fact, I’ll go further – a drover’s dog’s flea could have beaten Nelson if they were a minister in the NSW Government.
Next came the financial crisis. It’s hard to remember now, as we seem to have survived unscathed, but in the second half of 2008, everyone was genuinely worried about their jobs and their homes. It felt like the sky was collapsing, and the stockmarket certainly did. I’m not enough of an economist to know whether Rudd’s rapid stimulus action genuinely saved the day, or it was just that Australia was insulated from the worst of it through both decades of sensible financial management from both parties, and the inherently middle-class nature of our society. Plus interest rates plummeted, and that always makes Australians like their Government, even though they haven’t got much to do with it. But whether or not the PM truly saved the day, he certainly seemed to know what he was doing, and that was reassuring at a time of general panic. And so he remained phenomenally popular in the polls.
Finally, we had the rollercoaster ride that was Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership. Lots of people agreed with the previous Opposition Leader’s politics, but they were generally Labor voters. Turnbull made the cardinal mistake of responding to the Government’s policies on the basis of whether they were sensible or not, instead of just opposing everything for the hell of it, and that made him seem weak, especially on climate change. With the Opposition not really taking the fight to Rudd – chiefly because moderate Liberal and conservative Labor politicians agree on almost everything except unions nowadays – Turnbull essentially made Rudd look good, and particularly during Utegate.
I don’t think that Rudd was never genuinely popular on his own merits. Instead, circumstances unfolded to make him seem vastly better than several unappealing alternatives. So what’s changed? Firstly, the electorate understands more about his character now, and doesn’t think all that much of what it sees. Tony Abbott’s attacks on him as a waffler who can’t get anything done are hitting home, and that’s why the PM has responded with the health initiative – the first genuinely bold reform he’s advanced since taking office. It’s also why he’s tried to tone down the bureaucratese lately, although he still has a lot of jargon to unlearn.
The second reason is Tony Abbott. Yes, he stuffs up regularly, and yes, his social views are extremely conservative. And I’m sure that Julia Gillard would cream him, as she has all those times when they’ve debated one another. But for Rudd, he’s pure Kryptonite because he’s a conviction politician who seems to never have heard of a focus group, and that’s winning back a lot of the voters the Coalition lost.
But not enough to win. And here’s the thing that isn’t making headlines – Labor’s two-party preferred lead remains comfortable. It’s 52-48 in this Newspoll, and I’d be willing to bet that things won’t get any worse for the Government unless it turns out that Stephen Conroy has been making child porn as well as trying to ban it. Australian elections are all about the uncommitted middle ground, and they’re still firmly in the Rudd camp, even at a moment that may well prove to be Rudd’s nadir, pollwise.
From here, I predict that the Government, having been caught napping, will figure out where Abbott’s vulnerable – and health is an excellent battleground for a Labor Government to fight on. If Rudd gets his plan up, he’ll look good. And if he doesn’t, he’ll probably look even better, because he’d probably win a referendum on it given the performance of most State Governments on health. And unless he somehow learns to run things past his advisors before opening his mouth, Tony Abbott’s gaffes will come around as regularly as Rudd’s appearances on Sunrise.
The Prime Minister’s long, somewhat mystifying honeymoon is over. But it would be foolish to assume that simply because Australia now sees him as the language-mangling, obsessively process-driven, thoroughly unspontaneous career bureaucrat that he is, he’s going to lose the next election. Rudd wouldn’t have announced a parental leave policy like Abbott’s without running it past not only his colleagues, but several departmental enquiries, not to mention a phalanx of pollsters. And that’s why, when it comes to the task of winning over the 10% of voters that actually decide Australian elections, he’ll almost certainly keep his job.