The tyranny of polling is now complete

The ascending influence of opinion polling has now locked in a style of federal politics that’s little more than a popularity contest. Call it the modern cult of leadership.

The latest opinion polls confirm the fact that Australian politics since the election of the first Rudd government has essentially been about the popularity of those who lead the Labor Party and the Liberal Party.

The tyranny of opinion polls has in part created – and now reinforces – the fact that politics in Australia has become essentially a popularity contest.

The opinion polls have decided the fate of Malcolm Turnbull, Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard and opinion polls are the reason Kevin Rudd, deeply unpopular to say the least with the majority of his caucus colleagues, is prime minister again.

None of this had anything to do with policy issues, the vision thing or the challenges that face the country.  We know this because the polls, since Gillard was removed, show a significant improvement in Labor’s primary vote and even more importantly, show that Kevin Rudd is far and away the preferred prime minister over Tony Abbott, by a margin of almost 20 points.

This has nothing to do with policy issues because Rudd’s determination to get rid of Gillard was personal and in essence, there were no real policy differences between Gillard and Rudd. And in large part, there are no major differences on policy between Rudd and Abbott.

There’s no doubt that gender issues played a part in Gillard’s demise and there’s no doubt that some of the vitriol directed at her was because she was a woman.

But because politics in Australia is a contest about leadership, Gillard’s inability to construct a public persona that was appealing, that matched the sort of person she was in private – warm, friendly, smart, efficient  – was fatal.

Gillard might be brave and determined, but she was a victim of the modern cult of leadership. This cult of leadership meant her gender became more important for some people than it should ever have been.

Margaret Thatcher was never much liked and when she was first elected Conservative Party leader, I was living in London and Thatcher was known as the ‘milk snatcher’ – she was in favor of cutting out free milk to British school children – a nickname that surely was given her because she was a woman.  A woman taking milk away from small children!

But Thatcher was a radical conservative, determined to introduce fundamental change. There was a real battle over policies and vision between the Thatcher led Conservatives and an increasingly discredited Labor ideology.

Thatcher transcended her gender and her gender quickly became a non-issue. It’s not as if Britain in the late 70s and early 80s was a less sexist society than Australia is in 2013. 

Gillard’s great misfortune was that she became prime minister at a time when there were no great policy and ideological battles in Australian politics.  

Kevin Rudd knows all this. For all his intellectual pretensions, for all his grandiose talk about great moral challenges facing the country and for all his ruminations about the future of social democracy after the GFC and the Great Recession, Rudd is not really a politician driven by a vision of a radically different Australia. He has no such vision.

The public Kevin Rudd, the one he has so painstakingly constructed, is his great achievement. This Kevin Rudd, despite the depredations heaped upon him by his colleagues, remains relatively popular.

If the times did not suit Julia Gillard, they suit Kevin Rudd. He might be considered a hopeless leader by those who have worked with him and for him, but he remains Labor’s best chance of making the election a real contest.

This is Tony Abbott’s challenge: to somehow deconstruct the public Kevin Rudd so that the perceptions of him are closer to those of Rudd’s colleagues, particularly those who publicly excoriated Rudd.

Some of them nevertheless voted for him against Gillard and some of them remain in his cabinet. These senior Labor MPs, in the lead-up to the election, will have to tell fibs about the prime minister.

Given the fact that Tony Abbott’s standing in the polls has always been pretty ordinary, deconstructing Rudd might not be easy.  

A decade ago, that might not have mattered much – Keating, for instance, was ahead of John Howard as preferred prime minister before the 1996 election and yet Labor lost that election in a landslide.

But in 1996, election campaigns had not yet become essentially about leadership and the tyranny of opinion polls was not yet complete. When Paul Keating said back then that if you change the government you change the country, it felt true. And indeed, the country did change during the Howard years.

Is that still true? Perhaps it is. The future cannot be foreseen and the unforeseen is more likely to determine the character of the next Australian government, than anything that Rudd or Abbott may say or do in the lead-up to the election.

The election of course won’t be decided by the unforeseen. It will be decided by those Australians in marginal seats, those who, according to the polls have swung back to Labor – and those who are thinking of doing so – because Rudd is the leader.

It won’t matter that perhaps 100 years of political experience – and not inconsiderable political talent and wisdom – in the form of those senior Labor people who will retire at the election will be lost to Australian politics.

They will be quickly forgotten. Perhaps they have already been forgotten.  All that will matter is how Rudd and Abbott are performing according to the polls.

But popularity contests are fickle things, especially political popularity contests. Small mistakes take on great significance.

A false sentence can be a vote changer. And the relentless concentration on these things by journalists accentuates the pressures on Rudd and Abbott to be disciplined, to speak in slogans and to remain on message.

In other words, to avoid being human. 

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