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Mystery of the pro-Rudd Coalition voters


Julia Gillard and Tony AbbottShould Tony Abbott connive in allowing Julia Gillard to remain prime minister or should he try to force her out come what may?

This question is a version of the old conundrum that faces any opposition which secretly wants an unpopular government leader to stay until the next election while publicly trying to remove them as soon as possible. It is not a particularly unusual situation, but neither Coalition voters nor the Leader of the Opposition appear to have thought this through at the moment. Nor have the media outlets that report on the big public opinion polls.

This week's Herald/Neilsen poll shows Abbott is preferred to Gillard as prime minister by 46 per cent to 44 per cent. Neither leader is popular, though Gillard is especially unpopular. Only 39 per cent approve of Abbott's performance (57 per cent disapprove) and 36 per cent approve of Gillard's (60 per cent disapprove).

The poll also asks voters about their preferred Labor leader. The Sydney Morning Herald report shows that Kevin Rudd leads Gillard by 62 per cent to 32 per cent. But that figure is distorted by the overwhelming pro-Rudd preference of Coalition voters who prefer Rudd to Gillard by a massive 71 per cent to 19 per cent. Labor voters actually prefer Gillard to Rudd by 53 per cent to 45 per cent.

Despite having such a low approval rating Gillard retains the majority support of Labor voters, which, in one important sense, is what should matter, though Rudd is still remarkably popular given all that has happened.

Why are Coalition voters so anti-Gillard? One possibility is that Rudd is out of sight out of mind. Another is that they detect particularly unattractive qualities in Gillard.

Yet another is that they are just taking Abbott's lead. In his Budget reply speech he called for Labor to replace Gillard. This is good rhetoric but is it good strategy? Is this really what Abbott wants? He has also called for an early election which, presumably, would be fought against Gillard, whom he admits refuses to lie down and die.

On the question of whether Labor should change leaders, the SMH again gives prominence to the overall figure, that 52 per cent of the electorate say Labor should change leaders, while 45 per cent say stay with Gillard. But again this figure is distorted by the opinion of Coalition voters. They want Labor to change leaders by a margin of 62 per cent to 34 per cent. Labor voters say stay with Gillard by 66 per cent to 33 per cent.

Labor voters loyal to Gillard make an interesting study, but Coalition voters are much more interesting. What do they really want and why?

One inescapable reading of these polls is that Labor may do much better under Rudd's leadership. Rudd's greater personal popularity with disaffected Labor voters and long-term Coalition voters might even bring some of both groups across to the Labor fold.

Yet there is a contradiction. Some Labor voters admit this possibility that Rudd as leader might be good for the party, but still want to stay with Gillard. Presumably their motivation is either loyalty to Gillard or a belief that it is now too late to change leaders, or a personal assessment of Rudd.

The reasoning of Coalition voters, like that of their leader, is less explicable. They are caught between two stools. Surely they should want Gillard to stay put as PM if her unpopularity makes eventual Coalition victory more likely. But instead they want Labor to change leaders.

In electoral terms this is strange thinking. If Coalition voters like Rudd more than Gillard, then if Labor were to make him leader it may do better at the next election. Perhaps Labor would do so much better that the Coalition might even be in danger of losing that next election. That surely is not what Coalition voters want.

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

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



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Existing comments

Interesting analysis. But why don't opinion polls in Australia show us what would be truly instructive? What is the approval/disapproval rating of the Prime Minister among consumers of those media outlets which have been shown repeatedly in court cases and Press Council findings routinely to falsify the facts to conceal the truth? And what is her approval/disapproval rating among the minority who are well-informed?

Alan Austin | 06 June 2012  

Why are Coalition voters so anti-Gillard? Why are Labor Voters so anti-Gillard? Surely no one is so ingenuous as to deny that lying to the electorate about the carbon tax is a minor matter? Surely people can see the total erosion of border protection under Gillard? Surely even the blind can hear that there is an unneeded deficit which is growing alarmingly? I think people have woken to the fact that there is no principle undergirding Gillard's actions. In the midst of this mess, Abbott looks very principled by comparison.

Skye | 06 June 2012  

I have a question for everyone. Have you ever been asked for your opinion by these pollsters? Have you ever met someone who was asked? Where do they get these figures with their grandiose margin of error - a little maths to add respectability? Pitt St vox pop perhaps? Or maybe they have a stable of 5000 people from which they select a few thousand for their sample. Or to put it another way: in the aftermath of Leveson, would you believe something told to you by a company called NEWSpoll?

Frank | 06 June 2012  

I do not think you understand the conservative mind well at all. It is more cunning than you give credit for. They want Rudd back as Labor leader knowing he will call an early poll to ride his apparent popularity, which is what Labor detractors have been anxious for.. an early election reduces the risk of the Coalition making an unrecoverable blunder (think Hewson or Latham). The second thing they would relish is the ability to savage Rudd at the election poll, an opportunity denied them last time. Most Australian voters are more savvy than you acknowledge in your article a fact many in the media do not appreciate.

Bewitch | 06 June 2012  

A swap to Rudd would see Labor quickly climb to 35% primary, and close to 50-50 two party preferred, with a chance to beat Abbott at the next election. If they hold off, they will face the biggest defeat in history and plunge the country into a conservative nightmare with untold consequences for working people, and conservation and environment. The Labor Party will be condemned for the most stupid, selfish and wilful act in the history of Australian politics if they allow this to occur.

Lars | 06 June 2012  

The last year or so of Rudd's Government was completely stalemated by his total lack of ability to negotiate with the minor parties. He could not even get the Greens to support his “Cap and Trade” legislation. By contrast, Julia, under much more trying circumstances, has succeeded with almost every bit of legislation she set her mind to. A return to Rudd and his ineptitude would lock down government and ensure a Coalition victory.

David Player | 06 June 2012  

Coalition supporters simply wish to undermine any Labor leader, whoever she or he may be - and Labor people would probably treat a conservative Prime Minister in a similar fashion. The recent newspaper polls should not be taken seriously. If Rudd did return as Prime Minister, anti-Labor people who now seem to praise him would do a speedy u-turn.

Bob Corcoran | 06 June 2012  

May I return to the conundrum that John poses; why is it that coalition voters overwhelmingly prefer Rudd to Gillard when such a change might be seen to put an Abbott victory at risk? Perhaps the answer is to be found in also considering why it is that Labor voters overwhelmingly prefer Turnbull to Abbott? Could it be that both Gillard and Abbott are being blamed, rightly or wrongly, for what many (most) believe to be the degradation of parliamentary standards of behaviour, and that Turnbull and Rudd - because they've been off centre stage, are seen as untainted?

Ginger Meggs | 06 June 2012  

We moved into a conservative nightmare when Rudd took over and did very little work for the time he was there.

He kept all of Howard's public servants, and by doing that happily adopted all of Howard's thinking - because Rudd hates labour, unions and the ALP, and is really quite happly with a Howard world perspective.

Gillard proved herself to be incompetent in her portfolio, making a hash of IR and importing the worst ideas around for education from the NewsCorp stable, and pretended it was an education revolution.

God help us all if Rudd gets a sniff of The Lodge, and who really cares if Abbott gets in, his policies are foolish, dangerous and offbeam but so are the NSW and Qld and WA government policies, and the punters think they are great.

Let these voters see their security crumble before their eyes when they vote for Abbott.

As for Gillard, she has failed to make the most of the legislation she did get through, and she only got it through because the Greens forced her to.

She is devoid of any good ideas herself, and is little more than an empty husk being blown by the forces of politics that are above her skill levels.

Andy Fitzharry | 06 June 2012  

Why are Coalition voters so anti-Gillard? Why are Labor Voters so anti-Gillard? My view is because of a vindictive campaign waged by 'The Australian' and other Murdock outlets... and because she is a woman. I totally reject that the PM is not principled and that she leads a dysfunctional government. It's annoying that so many Australian do not look at the facts but believe News Limited (not called that for nothing) and accept Tony Abbott's word! Really bizarre stuff. Specifically, the Carbon Tax is a necessity for the future of Australia, Australian jobs the planet; the PM isn't the only leader who has had to break a promise. Abbott, in power, will not be able to stop the boats unless he willingly allows the relationship between Indonesia and Australia to deteriorate to the point that it affects trade/defense/diplomacy. As for the economy, one only has to look at the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) that predicts Australia's economy will outperform the rest of the developed world over the next year. So let's not have too much righteous huffing and puffing about principles.

Jeff Kevin | 06 June 2012  

Just answering Frank's question to everyone: No, I have never (in my 45 years in Oz) ever been asked a question by pollsters. Nor do I know anyone who has been asked. I have also wondered who these people are? how many come from South Australia? How many from the ACT? And the Press people (C. Ulhmann for instance) never tell us OR ask questions of the polling agencies for us to find out who these people (the ones voting in Polls) are! I prefer Julia, who has managed - in a hung parliament - to pass a lot of legislation which Rudd (or the "mad monk" for that matter) would not have passed.They wouldn't have had the guts to do it. I agree with tony Windsor that, considering the circumstances, and an abusive opposition, she has had the guts (thank God!) to change her mind and go for a carbon tax, and brought down the most distributive budget in many years (read R. Gittins). If Abbott is elected we will be looking at a return of neoliberalism favouring the well-off and punishing the poor as D. Cameron is doing in England. I don't really want this.

Nathalie | 06 June 2012  

"They are caught between two stools." What an odd choice of words!

Michelle Goldsmith | 06 June 2012  

We must remember that the Media control opinion polls. Questions asked are not honest but reflect the results the compilers want. For the last few years we have been bombarded by adverts put forward by vested interests that include the mining lobby and conservative politicians without real informed discussion.

john ozanne | 06 June 2012  

There is no mystery about coalition supporters favouring Kevin Rudd; most of these people are anti-feminist and conservative. I also believe that the Liberal party has gained a lot of support from the conservative and reactionary former DLP supporters by attracting conservative Catholics such as Tony Abbott, Joe Hockey, Julie Bishop and Kevin Andrews. People should not take seriously the meaningless opinion polls which are taken every five minutes and rely on loaded questions. Most Australian people are apathetic about politics because 95% of them are affluent and are only motivated by spending their money on the latest electronic gadget.

Mark Doyle | 06 June 2012  

I wish I had a recording of the telephone interaction (not conversation) that occurred some six months ago. To say the least, I would not trust some pollsters because of my experience. I was surveyed by a machine which rang my phone. Being negative about Mr Abbott was not a problem, but when I was positive about the Prime Minister, the telephone line dropped out without completing the survey. Was it a glitch or deliberate? Some weeks later, a caller to Jon Faine on ABC 774 reported the an identical experience. Maybe the questions I did not hear would have been about Mr Rudd and Mr Turnbull. If support for Mr Abbott and Ms Gillard is excluded in the survey, perhaps that would go some way to explain such an anomaly. Apart from that, the problem with the politics of negativity is that it is a negative-sum game - mud sticks. So, doing the right thing or not doing the wrong thing is not enough. This would explain why Ms Gillard and Mr Abbott are less popular than Mr Rudd and Mr Turnbull, who are out of the firing line and are not in a position to do the wrong thing. It also explains why the Labor Government does not "cut through" - good policy only holds its position; bad policy and misbehaviour, proven or not, dominate the public discourse. Indeed, the memory of Mr Rudd and Mr Turnbull is that they had something positive to say about the future and therefore what we should do now. I hesitate to use the word inspiring without qualification, but we certainly had that feeling about Mr Rudd from the 2007 election - he appeared to be an inspiring leader. So perhaps that explains why the polls show this. If we ever have a politician who is seen as a leader, who inspires, who points the way, a positive-sum game can come into play in which he or she can do no wrong. He attracts support as in "Kevin 07" or Whitlam's "It's Time" campaign. Problems are ignored. Perhaps this is why we only have some of the story about Mr Rudd's demise. My advice to the Prime Minister would be based on this approach, and what has she got to lose? It is a pity it often comes into play when the other side are doing so badly.

Peter Horan | 06 June 2012  

The reason "coalition" voters want Rudd in is because they're not really Coalition voters! Think about it for a second. The interviewee would be a swinging voter, or someone (like myself) who was fed up with how everything has gone downhill since Rudd was deposed. Kevin Rudd held a mid-70s approval rating. Even if that has slipped a bit, where do you think everyone has gone to?

David | 07 June 2012  

I don't think it is too hard to understand. Labor voters prefer Gillard as they have realised she is getting the job done and has been a good negotiator - obviously better than Abbott to form the minority Government. Rudd's leadership has been well documented as someone who was not a team player, was driven by his individual goals and was not just a monster to staff but to most who had to deal with him. Of course Labor voters aren't going to want him back. Non-Labor voters want him back as they know how diastrous that will be. As for Turnbull and Abbott - why hasn't this article shown that Abbott only leads Turnbull by one point by LNP voters? LNP voters are more split between who they prefer than the Labor voters are, which to my interpretation means Gillard has actually got a much stronger following with not just her own party, but her party voters, than Abbott has, yet most news articles never reflect this. Perhaps media should just publish the polling results in full and let the readers/viewers come up with their own analysis instead of all this one-sided stuff we keep reading.

Bernadette | 09 June 2012  

Yes, Frank. I have been surveyed, more than once, and by a real living, talking human. The last time the topic was about poker machines, gambling and Andrew Wilkie. I live in the seat of Denison.

Anne M | 12 June 2012  

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