Hollow men fall on Labor's western front

Labor's game of 'swap the leader' is spectacularly backfiring as polls show the party is haemorrhaging favour. Kevin Rudd simply isn't giving voters an alternative to the Abbott agenda.

The 2013 election looks set to be the biggest shakeout of political culture since the Whitlam dismissal, with the ‘hollow men’ approach to politics being exposed for what it really is – cynical, oblivious to the real Australia and, now, ineffectual.

Naturally, I’m talking about Labor’s disastrous game of swap-the-leader in late June, with all its subsequent policy backflips and disingenuous ‘smile with the leader!’ photo ops in which a beaming Kevin Rudd appears beside some wincing Labor MP about to lose their job.

The hollow-men syndrome is not exclusive to Labor, but it is there that the poll-driven policy-on-the-fly approach to politics has been most refined. The great mystery is why that side of politics still thinks it works. 

Polling published by the Australian edition of The Guardian today backs a point made by Business Spectator on Wednesday (A Rudd-slide in the wrong direction, August 14) – that the conventional polls are slow to predict the scale of the rout Labor faces.

One weakness of conventional polls is that they stick to ‘preference flows at the last election’ to try to decipher what’s going on this time around. 

We already know that preference flows will be quite different this time around, with Bob Katter and Clive Palmer expected to preference each other, and Liberal preferences being off limits to Greens this time around – it was Liberal preferences that allowed Adam Bandt to win only the second-ever seat for the Greens in the lower house (Michael Organ was the first at a by-election in 2002).

Another weakness is that they focus on top-line voting data, not the ‘granular’ data on which the Business Spectator/Torque Data results were based. That survey showed an approximate split of lower house seats of 90/60 in favour of Tony Abbott (this is without factoring in independent seats).

The Guardian poll today, conducted with market research firm Lonergan Research, is also uncovering massive swings in electorates that the major polls are yet to identify as trouble spots for Labor. 

Assistant Treasurer David Bradbury’s western Sydney seat of Lindsay is one such trouble spot. The poll found 60 per cent of the primary vote going to Liberal Fiona Scott (previously the Libs had 43 per cent), and Bradbury slipping from 45 per cent to just 32 per cent. 

That’s a wipeout and many will find those numbers hard to believe. However, Lonergan research managing director Chris Lonergan told Guardian Australia: “Given the size of the swing, we have triple-checked the data and we are very confident this poll is accurate. We asked respondents how they voted last federal election. When we model this historic data we would have predicted Bradbury to be elected over Scott with a two-candidate preferred vote of 52 per cent, which is very close to the actual 2010 poll result of 51 per cent.”

The Torque and Lonergan market-research based methodologies are different to those used by Newspoll, Galaxy, Nielsen and Roy Morgan, but it would be wrong to dismiss their alarming findings for Labor. It was a market-research panel-based survey, the Essential Poll, which most closely matched the voting results from the 2010 election. 

This is all alarming stuff for Labor’s hollow men (and some hollow women). The return of Rudd was supposed to stop this kind of haemorrhaging. So was a string of policy announcements cooked up by the smartly-dressed young know-nothings helping Rudd drive Labor over a cliff. 

Abbott is cruel to refugees – let’s be crueller! Abbott’s winning on the carbon tax – okay, we’ve dumped it! Abbott is slashing spending to return to surplus – we’ll do that too! Abbott won’t touch tax reform – neither will we! Abbott wants to splash tax dollars around in the far north – we’ll splash more around!

It’s childish, unprincipled and too-clever by far. And that political culture is destroying a once-proud party, failing to deliver voters anything like an alternative to the Abbott agenda and making formerly respectable Labor MPs into bare-faced liars ("Of course we like Kevin!").

And it is now committing the cardinal sin of politics – it's not working. In fact, it looks to be pushing Labor’s vote back down to levels that even Julia Gillard could have beaten.

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