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Kevin's bounce


Red bouncing ballNo one knows whether Kevin Rudd's positive impact on Labor's vote will last. While the potential bounce was long predicted by the opinion polls they could never tell us why. But then again he has always been an enigma. His immediate record of popularity after becoming Opposition Leader in 2006 was equally astounding.

As the Rudd-Tony Abbott contest begins afresh there is a lot more that we need to know. Trying to explain Julia Gillard's unpopularity is the best place to start.

There are various questions. Why was Gillard so unpopular? Why is Rudd now much more popular than she was? Why is Rudd now much more popular than Abbott?

The polls as published in the media don't attempt to answer these questions. They just leave them to journalists and columnists who write accompanying stories based on their own hunches.

There are, of course, many potential answers to the popularity questions. But the fact that there are so many is a complicating factor rather any sort of a resolution.

Take the question of why Gillard was so unpopular, which is crucial because it still remains central to the Rudd-Abbott contest. There are so many possible answers that no single one will do.

  • She was never forgiven for the method by which she came to office so she lacked the legitimacy and authority that normally comes with the position.
  • She was never forgiven for breaking her promise not to introduce a carbon tax. Her post-election agreement with the Greens to do so meant that she wasn't trusted and was even seen as dishonest.
  • She was an unmarried, childless woman and that counted against her with some voters, especially some men.
  • She presided over perceived failures in policy, including refugees and asylum seekers, the carbon tax and the mining tax.
  • She presided over perceived failures of implementation, including the GFC school building program. In addition she presided over drawn out and costly programs such as the national broadband network.
  • She was a poor public communicator and failed to effectively sell Labor's successes, including the economy and foreign policy. In addition she was surrounded by ministers who were also poor communicators and who thus couldn't compensate for her weaknesses.
  • She alienated the Left in the community by not being progressive enough on issues like gay marriage and asylum seekers and also alienated the Centre and the Right on issues like asylum seekers and taxes.
  • She presided over a hung parliament and led a minority government.
  • She was outmanoeuvred by a skilful and disciplined Opposition Leader.
  • She suffered continual internal destabilisation and disunity by Rudd and his backers.
  • She was treated unfairly by some sections of the media.
  • She was a victim of other circumstances beyond her control, such as the damage to the Labor brand Australia-wide, especially from party corruption in New South Wales.

These points provide a framework for considering the Rudd-Abbott confrontation. What does Rudd offer that Gillard didn't other than obvious greater popularity in the polls?

Some of Gillard's perceived problems clearly don't apply to Rudd, including her personal characteristics and abilities and the events before and after the 2010 election. Now that Parliament has finished sitting, perceptions of the hung parliament and minority government are also less relevant.

Other possible negatives, including the damage to the Labor brand at the state level, will continue to linger, though the intervention in NSW is an attempt to counter that.

What's left to make Rudd bounce? The secret of Rudd's future poll success or failure will have three elements.

The first imponderable will be the effectiveness of the counter-campaign by Abbott and the Opposition.

The second will be continued perceptions of the Labor Government's policy and implementation record which is shared between Gillard and Rudd.

Most importantly there is Rudd's remarkable personal appeal which is the great intangible and the key to predicting the height of any continued Labor bounce.


John Warhurst headshotJohn Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University and a Canberra Times columnist.

Bouncing ball image from Shutterstock

Topic tags: John Warhurst, Julia Gillard, Kevin Rudd, polls, Labor, Tony Abbott



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Existing comments

There's Something About Kevin. It doesn't explain everything but it does explain a lot. I think the way Gillard came to power, the fact that she wasn't a traditionalist in terms of her personal life (unmarried with a partner, childless), and her perceived poor public communication skills, perhaps unfairly, counted against her. Her many fine qualities were overshadowed. It didn't help that the Opposition Leader was relentlessly negative towards her in a personal fashion either. I also think Rudd's reaction on being dumped, where he publicly showed his intense feelings, made a strong impression that wasn't forgotten. He displayed his vulnerability, despite his many flaws, and showed us his humanity. Perhaps this counts for a lot with a jaded voting public.

Pam | 05 July 2013  

She was never forgiven for the method by which she came to office so she lacked the legitimacy and authority that normally comes with the position : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZN5PoW7_kdA

Annoying Orange | 07 July 2013  

I suspect the real problem was that she simply did not seem to care about much beyond being in office. Most leaders say they want the position to do something. The Gillard line was 'I'm the best person to do this job'. That was compounded by very strange disconnects like its okay to choose your own family structure but not for gays to marry; misogyny is evil but other human rights like asylum don't matter. I also suspect the sleeper was her enthusiasm for ever-closer bureaucratic supervision as the solution to everything from turning education policy exclusively towards test scores to imposing income management on more and more people.

Alan | 07 July 2013  

You didn't even mention her appointment of Peter Slipper as speaker and then her subsequent hypocritical speech on misogyny, whilst defending his misogyny. Or her defence of the ALPs protection of a HSU crook until it was just too embarrassing, "a line has been crossed"! You could just go on and on!

Now returned Labor Voter | 08 July 2013  

Thanks John Warhurst for a good article and to Alan for a excellent response . I am a Gillard supporter but I think Alan you have outlined some perceptions which are very real in the context of her Prime Ministership...... .anomalies that were hard to resolve

GAJ | 08 July 2013  

Having opened ES this morning after a few days out west appreciated JW's balanced comments .Randomly broke open the word @ Proverbs 25.4 "Take the impurities out of silver and the artist can produce a thing of beauty.Keep evil advisers away from the king and his government will be known for it's justice " We can be sure Frank will use his influence wisely.

john kersh | 08 July 2013  

It is incontestable that Kevin Rudd has been disloyal to his party and less than honest in denying this. He has pursued a policy of self indulgent vengeance motivated by his knifing. I am surprised that the electorate still sees him as a worthy leader. Maybe this is a comment on our relativism and lack of clear, moral thinking.

grebo | 08 July 2013  

one cannot underestimate the influence of the Media especially of the electronic media. The Media always distorts facts. Julia's one liner about the Carbon Tax left out the second half of the sentence that stated that she would consider a carbon trading scheme.

John ozanne | 08 July 2013  

Is there a political journalist/commentator/academic who comes anywhere close to John Warhurst in writing so clearly, succinctly and objectively about politics in Australia? But then most Australians don't want such clarity and objectivity. They, take for example the readers of the Herald-Sun, want politics to be covered like sport - lots of conflict (biffo), scandal (preferably sexual) and lots of pictures (75% of the media space). Male (Abbott) v female (Gillard) can entertain the yobboes for only so long. But now we have The Pugilist v The Nerd (The scenario Rudd wants). This is better than a World Wrestling Federation match up. It might develp into a tag team bout but I doubt it. Rudd appears to take instructions from no one. Abbott's biggest asset is his single-mindedness. I hope Eureka Street can prevail upon John Warhurst to call the fight over coming weeks.

Uncle Pat | 08 July 2013  

There is a big difference between Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd. Julia Gillard is a far better PM . She had to pay for all the mad bad things done by Kevin Rudd. The Labor Party had no choice than to ditch Kevin Rudd and hope for the best at the last election. Julia Gillard managed to remain in power, but she had to “do a deal with the devil”, I mean the Greens. In general Julia Gillard did the best she could considering that the a smiling political assassin was waiting to ambush her. Kevin Rudd remains a fake plastic PM, more interested in his own glory than the welfare of Australia. His rudeness to staff and “underlings” show his true character. He is responsible for the crazy pro-people smuggling policies, which lead to the death of so many. He is responsible for pushing the “pink bat policy” without safeguards leading to more casualties. He is responsible in causing fear to people making a livelihood in mining communities. He is responsible for wasting a massive budget surplus . He is responsible for unsustainable policies leading to a massive budget. He is responsible for straining relations with China and Indonesia.

Beat Odermatt | 08 July 2013  

She is a women who didn't toe the gender line -- she did the aggressive that only men are supposed to do - and hey was used up like other female leaders in this country. I want to see the media tear a male to bits in the same fashion. No male gets it right either, but that conveniently gets forgotten .

Hilary | 08 July 2013  

Funny now that Julia is history how so many of her former critics who never had a good word are saying reasonable, even polite, things about her. Better late than never I suppose. It's just a shame they could not do it earlier. Rudd meanwhile now seems to be personally responsible for all the perceived ills facing the nation, even though as a country we are doing it better than most. Seems you just can't please some people.

Brett | 08 July 2013  

Doing a good job is not enough. It does not carry a positive weight. But, things that go wrong carry a large negative weight. This left her open to the negative onslaught from the opposition, from Kevin's supporters and the media. Apart from that, perhaps Government actions were, to Gillard and her ministry, so obviously the right things to do, that she did not understand they needed explanation. E.g. replacing Kevin, defending the need to switch on carbon, introducing policy which sometimes seemed half baked and without preparing the ground. On the other hand, having a vision, carrying a standard, leading the way is positive. But the lack of these things, by themselves, is not a negative. Julia Gillard did not understand this. I do not know if Kevin Rudd does, either. He has not articulated a vision. He does carry standards, but does he believe in them? Perhaps not, or he would not have folded in his first term, but taken his standards to a double dissolution. But he does act as if he is going somewhere. So, he is a moving target and much more slippery, but Gillard was a sitting duck (a Mallard, perhaps? :-)).

Peter Horan | 08 July 2013  

Remember an important imponderable - Rudd's plunge in popularity resulted in Gillard taking over. There is also the question, considering the circumstances, whether or not Rudd had won a second term , which Gillard did, even though it was a minority government.

nick agocs | 09 July 2013  

Interesting point you make, Nick, but outside the empirical sciences, it is very hard to test a hypothesis in political science, even if we must use "physical" analogies to describe what happens in the complex labyrith of interacting variables that make up the politco-socio-economic process. One man's plunge can be another man's (or woman's) dip, dive, precipitancy, belly-flop etc. I supose it depends on the state of mind of the observer.

Uncle Pat | 09 July 2013  

I can only speak for myself and my colleagues, but our dissatisfaction with Gillard stems directly from the fact that she is a product of the corrupt factional politics of the ALP. Others have noted her lack of passion as well as her inconsistency in actions - I believe these are not communication issues on her part, but a direct result of a PM being driven to appease factional powers within her party. Contrast this with Rudd and it's easy to see that as odd as it may sound, he's a political outsider in his own party. The public may not be able to put words to it, but the instinct is that he is essentially incorruptible by these factions because he does not trust them (and with good reason, correct?) I think a great deal of swing towards Labor over the last few days can be directly attributed to Rudd attacking his own party - he is running against them and it's entrenched power brokers just as much as he is running against Abbot.

Jake | 11 July 2013  

Excellent point, Jake. However, I think Rudd has a tiger by the tail when he courts the media. The media thrives on conflict and Rudd gives it to them in spades. He is not only in conflict with the L/NPs and the apparatchiks of the ALP, he is in conflict with the dominant Alpha Male culture of Australian society. He reminds me of the schoolboy who is included in the team photo of the First XI because he was a meticulous keeper of the scorebook. He will be a worthy subject of study by some PhD student in Political Sociology/Psychology.

Uncle Pat | 12 July 2013  

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