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Good policy comes second to voter trust


Abbott & Gillard'Labor fails to convert widespread support for NDIS to ballot box', trumpeted The Australian's report of the latest Newspoll.

The failure, according to the paper's political editor, Dennis Shanahan, consists in this: an overwhelming majority of poll respondents, 78 per cent, want the proposed disability insurance scheme, for which the Gillard Government has gained Opposition approval. Yet voting intentions have scarcely shifted from the dismal prospect for Labor indicated in the previous Newspoll, taken a fortnight ago when bipartisan support for the 0.5 per cent rise in the Medicare levy that will pay for DisabilityCare was far from certain.

The two-party preferred vote for the coalition is now 56 per cent, up one per cent, and for Labor it is 44 per cent, down one per cent. These variations are within the statistical margin of error, so no change: the government is still heading for a thumping defeat, as polls have been predicting for months.

Well, yes. The puzzle is that Shanahan thinks that this translates into a story about the government's 'failure' to gain any traction from its win on disability insurance.

The reality is that an election is not a referendum on a set of policies. People typically vote for whoever they trust to govern, and the votes that decide elections are rarely cast by citizens who could give a detailed explanation of the rival parties' platforms.

There is no shortage of academic research to support this contention, but anyone who has handed out how-to-vote cards on election day knows it to be true from experience. Politicians and journalists must know it, too, but it is an oddity of modern democracy that both groups frequently act as though it were not so.

To say people vote for the party or candidates they trust — or more precisely, for those they trust more than the alternative — is not to say voters are stupid. On the contrary, it reflects their instinctive understanding that implementation of a political party's platform is not a necessary consequence of that party winning an election.

Nor, in this context, should 'trust' be understood to mean 'like'. Tony Abbott has often trailed Julia Gillard in personal approval ratings, but even when her net approval rating has been higher than his the two-party preferred vote has usually indicated that voters intend to hand him her job at the next election.

None of this means that policies don't matter, of course, or that voters always place their trust wisely. But it does mean that a transfer of power isn't to be explained simply by the fact that when policies are in dispute the alternative government has accumulated more ticks from voters than the incumbent.

There are elections when such disputes loom large, as the Howard Government's workplace laws did in 2007, or the Chifley Government's plan to nationalise the banks did in 1949. But these were exceptional polls, and in each case it can be plausibly argued that the contentious policy assumed the significance that it did in voters' minds because it unleashed a deeper discontent.

Many people who were not union members voted Labor in 2007 because the Howard Government's radical deregulation of the workplace aroused fears about job security. And in 1949, at the end of a decade marked by war and the steadily expanding role of government, the Coalition's call for the unshackling of the economy eclipsed Labor rhetoric about the need for democratic control of 'the money power'.

Much more typical have been the defeats of governments whose store of trust among voters had run out. In 1972 the ALP under Whitlam offered Australians a comprehensive agenda of reform, but more potent in the defeat of the Coalition after 23 years in government was the most memorable slogan in Australian political history: 'It's Time'.

A similar mood for change swept Labor away three years later, and then back into office again in 1983. In each case, what sealed the incumbent's fate was a growing sense of economic insecurity among voters, rather than disputes about the merits of rival platforms.

The next change of government, in 1996, was even more notable for an absence of substantive policy debate. John Howard became prime minister chiefly by reminding voters that he was not Paul Keating.

The 2013 election campaign won't be a policy-free zone, but if voters opt for change, as polls strongly suggest they will, they will very likely make their choice on grounds other than their assessment of particular policies.

Of course most people see the need for a disability insurance scheme, and accept that they will have to pay for it. The Prime Minister's adroit manoeuvering of the Opposition Leader and his colleagues into supporting the scheme and the levy, however, was never going to instil confidence in her among voters who mistrusted her anyway.

Their lack of trust is a deeper, more intractable problem for the Government, because it ultimately derives not from policy or the legislative record or even the state of the economy. It derives from continuing unease about the circumstances in which Gillard became prime minister in the first place.

The disconnect between debates about policy and the decisions voters make also has consequences for Abbott. There have always been some on the opposition benches who think that the Coalition's plan for six months of paid parental leave should be scrapped because it is too expensive. In the past week that internal debate became public, with the consequence that Abbott found an unaccustomed ally in the feminist advocate Eva Cox.

Most feminists, Cox wrote, only opposed Abbott's plan because he had proposed it, and they should cease supporting the Government's cheaper but inferior scheme. She is right about the inconsistency. But will feminist activists now be rushing to cast a vote for the coalition on 14 September? Somehow I doubt it. 

Ray Cassin headshotRay Cassin is a contributing editor. 

Topic tags: Ray Cassin, Julia Gillard, Tony Abbott, NDIS, paid parental lead



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Existing comments

A public stage, such as politics, is a messy place to learn about that most fragile of values - trust. The pursuit of power, which underpins all political manoeuvres, makes a strange companion to cultivating a sense of self and a sense of respect for others. I would speculate the majority of voters regard the shenanigans in the halls of power with a weary resignation at times - who can blame them?

Pam | 08 May 2013  

Just exactly what did happen when Julia Gillard took over from Kevin Rudd at the head of government? Despite any amount of words on the record, it remains a mystery just precisely what Julia Gillard really said and did during that week of June 2010. What really happened? She was catapulted into a position that may well have been hers in due course anyway. Those events had more to do with a crisis of confidence in Rudd’s leadership style in-house, something that was going to come to a head sometime. Yet ever since, she and Labor have been unable to shake the impression, reinforced every week since by the Murdoch press in particular, that Julia Gillard is not to be trusted. The Greens obviously trust her, the Independents trust her, and yet the systematic campaign has succeeded in making Julia Gillard look untrustworthy, as though it were a matter of common knowledge. This article cranks out the accepted ‘wisdom’ as though that was all there was to know. There is something obscene about this simplistic dismissal of Julia Gillard. Meanwhile, watch the Opposition Leader make trust a key to his campaign, this from a person who couldn’t lie straight in bed.

FROM THE GALLERY | 08 May 2013  

Well said 'from the gallery' I'm not sure what Australians want for the future of this country. Perhaps we've had it too good for too long. The education, health, disability, climate change policies Labor have initiated are vital for our future. And what from the Opposition? Nothing except self-serving attacks with no explanation of how they will keep our nation in the fortunate position it is in. Be careful what you ask for -you just might get it and more with an Abbott government.

Margaret | 08 May 2013  

"Their lack of trust ... derives from continuing unease about the circumstances in which Gillard became prime minister in the first place". That doesn't explain why so many other politicians who deposed a leader haven't been saddled with this 'trust' meme. As From the Gallery points out, the widely respected Tony Windsor trusts Gillard more than Abbott.

Russell | 08 May 2013  

Julia Gillard seems to have locked Tony Abbott's support for the NDIS- a great development nationally. Abbott's vocalized support has to measured against the liberal party's silence on the issue for eleven years .It is vey much like saying I dearly wish to go heaven but not just yet"

B.Braganza | 08 May 2013  

Lack of trust inevitablly leads to seeking other bases on which to depend. As Greg Dening put it, Humani Generis freed people to follow their own conscience within their marriage. The bad handling by the Hierarchy of the clerical abuse of children further alienated many Catholics from trust in the government of the Church. But probably the greatest undermining of trust is the refusal of Church Leaders to acknowledge the new discoveries and insights that have become apparent with new depths of scholarship and research about the rise of Christianity, and the formation of many of the traditions that evolved from those early times. Peter Kelly high-lighted some of them in his book "Searching for Truth", but it all seems to be being ignored. Perhaps we owe more to evolution from the ostrich than we have realised. In U.S. A., the once solid Catholic Latino faithful are pouring into Protestant churches in great numbers. In Australis, many people are simply drifting away.

Robert Liddy | 08 May 2013  

The only error made by the Prime Minister was her failure to make it a clear that we live in a world of unprecedented change and that these policy changes are caused by events and countries over which Australia has no control or influence. Thankfully, we have policy makers who are aware that changes in international economic circumstances cannot safely be ignored.The change of Prime Minister was an ugly chapter in Australia's history but we should never forget that it was the overwhelming wish of the Labor Caucus and from all accounts a change that had to be made sooner rather than later.

David | 08 May 2013  

May 2010 prior to challenging Rudd, Gillard's said "There is more chance of me becoming the full forward for the dogs than there is of any change in the Labor party. Then on June 23, 2010 Julia Gillard moved agaisnt Rudd and on 24 JUne Gillard assumed the leadership. Gillard announced the next Federal Election would be held on 21 August 2010. Julia Gillard before the Election said "There will be no carbon tax under the government I lead" The Gillard government promised to return the Federal budget to surplus for the 2012-13 financial year, and Gillard said there is "no ifs, no buts' about this promise. In December 2012 Swan announced that the government no longer expected to achieve a surplus. I ask Eureka Street supporters and contibutors, who do you,think you can trust?

Ron Cini | 08 May 2013  

Gillard’s full quote on the carbon price was “there will be no carbon tax under a government I lead, but let’s be absolutely clear. I am determined to price carbon”. She did that. People who call her a liar are being selective in their use of evidence to support the claim. In a couple of years the carbon price will be set by the market which should please all free marketeers. I do agree Labor went on about a budget surplus long after it became clear a surplus was not on the cards. Now Labor is criticised for responding to economic reality rather than blindly pursuing an unrealistic surplus and the serious economic consequences that would have had. We should also remember that surpluses and deficits are not intrinsically good or bad, but are economic tools to achieve an outcome. As for the leadership change in 2010, well that happens in all parties and it isn’t pretty. Just ask the first term LNP leaders who were recently knifed in Victoria and the NT. Who can you trust? It is clearly not a one sided question.

Brett | 09 May 2013  

Well said Brett. Like many who long for rational, responsible, and civilised government at all levels I despair at the stupidity, arrogance, and brutality exhibited by members of both major parties while recognising the significant positive contribution being made by others. I fear the worst - an Abbott led government with a majority in both houses - an elected dictatorship effectively - but I hope, perhaps unrealistically, for another hung parliament where every new issue will have to be negotiated on the floor of the House and Senate.

Ginger Meggs | 09 May 2013  

Just one comment: "There will be no carbon tax under the government i lead" Do i need say any more..

Michael Johnson | 11 May 2013  

If voters are so concerned about how leaders are replaced why is dennis napthine's accession completely not an issue? perhaps because the libs don't go demonising it at every chance ?

edwin coleman | 12 May 2013  

I think the difference Edwin is that Bailleau resigned whereas Rudd was removed by a spill motion. But so what? Ours is not a presidential system, we don't directly elect our PMs or Premiers. They are appointed by the GG/Governors and hold office only so long as they retain the confidence of a majority of the parliament, not just the confidence of their own party. Since the last election, Gillard has retained the confidence of a majority the parliament and so long as she does maintain that majority she has every right to lead the government. The plain fact, as Russell said, is that irrespective of the way that she became leader of her party, a majority of parliamentarians did and still trust her more than they trust Abbott

Ginger Meggs | 13 May 2013  

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