For the better part of this year, Australia's Murdoch media hacks have been struggling with the fact that poll after poll, Howard and the Liberal Party have been shown to be deeply unpopular. The hacks have not yet come to terms with this fact, and consequently, every minor fluctuation in polling stats is hailed as the Great Leader's Comeback. After all, how could an adoring electorate that had elected Howard 4 times be so ungrateful?
Some time ago, psephological blogger Possum had subjected Howard's decline to some statistical analysis, with some interesting results. Readers who enjoy a bit of number-crunching may wish to seek out the original post, but here are some of Possum's conclusions:
The media pundits and parts of blogsville have been acting all surprised that
the electorate have somehow “turned” on the government out of the blue. But as
has been demonstrated here before time and time again, it’s not out of the blue.
There has been a consistent and growing swing away from the governments favour
since the 98 election with the swings to them trending less and less positive,
before turning negative, then turning against them in larger magnitudes.
nearly lost in 1998 – securing less than 50% of the two party preferred
They nearly lost in 2001, with some serious porkbarreling and the
Tampa/S11 riding to their rescue, giving them a primary vote spike which was
volatility off the longer term trend running against them at the time.
Over 2001-2004, 5% of the government primary vote went AWOL and stuck mostly
with the minor parties and a bit to the ALP, but the ALP under Beazley and
particularly Crean couldn’t grab those AWOL coalition votes. Latham came along
and grabbed not only that 5% of ex-coalition voters parking with the minors, but
also 3% extra from the Coalition primary vote. Latham imploded and that 7-8%
went back to the minors and the Coalition. Not because of Howard, but because of
Approximately 30% of swinging voters deserted Howard after the 2005
budget, taking 5% off the governments primary vote which went straight to the
Minors and undecided camp (and none of them have come back since), and another
3% thereabouts shifted between the ALP, the Minors and the Coalition on a
Along came Rudd and the underlying trend away from the
government crystallised into an ALP primary vote lift (rather than the minor
parties +undecideds where it had been hiding for the last 5 years to varying
Naturally, this account of the polls since Howard's reign conflicts with the dominant narrative that we encounter in the media, namely, that Howard is basically a popular leader, who's sudden fall from grace must have something to do with his age, or haircut, or something. (This line is particularly fashionable with the pro-Costello Murdoch hacks, such as Milne, or Bolt).
I won't try to engage with Possum's statistical analyses - though I have some foggy recollections of linear regression and the like, I'm seriously under-qualified for such a task. I will try to offer a little political reasoning.
Firstly, Howard was never popular. Never. For much of his career, he's been a laughing-stock, even among his own comrades, as I've pointed out in the past.
Secondly, Howard, the Great Leader, was never statesman-like, or possessed of any great talent, other than for internal party power-mongering. Australia has not had a less 'leader-like' leader in living memory, at any level. Maximising short-term political gain by any grubby means available has been Howard's stock in trade. He is not so much the Man of Steel as the persistent, insidious tapeworm, clinging desperately to avoid the ever-imminent expulsion. Even John 'warm lettuce' Hewson was more charismatic than this weasel.
Thirdly, Howard has been made to look better by a fawning media, and bumbling, bickering opposition. When the latter began to at least gain some semblance of organisation, this was immediately reflected in poll results. And, to be fair, the likes of Beazley, Crean, and Latham all made attempts (however half-arsed) to challenge the Liberals on the policy front, though almost all of these attempts were unreported by the media.
Fourthly, Howard's authoritarian leadership style, and emphasis on 'party discipline' (that is to say, stifling of all but the most inconsequential of dissent) has almost succeeded in lending an air of coherence to his doctrines. He is able and obsequiously supported by a host of withered half-men, such as Ruddock, Downer, Abbott, and Andrews, who are all far too reviled in their own right to ever consider leadership.
In short, Howard has been lucky, and has benefited for 10 years from a confluence of factors in his favour.
In 1998, he lost the popular vote (two-party preferred), but clung onto power all the same.
In 2001, he benefited from the bigotry that still pervades large swathes of 'Middle Australia'. With Pauline Hanson's One Nation Party in terminal decline, Howard was gradually able to steal a number of bogan votes, particularly on the platforms of 'national security' and 'border protection'. Of course, Australia's borders have only been invaded once, strictly speaking, and that was long ago, and by a rather different kind of 'boat people'. All the same, the Liberals' winning margin was not so great - one can only speculate that Howard may well have lost had Tampa and 9/11 had occurred some other year.
In 2004, Latham led the opposition through a bizarre and inept campaign that saw Howard re-elected with an increased majority. What the pundits fail to realise is that this re-election occurred in spite of Howard's policies, not because of them. Almost all of the much-despised Liberal policies were already there - Hicks, Iraq, inaction on climate change, erosion of civil liberties, etc. AWB was still to come, but this scandal was always politically irrelevant. Workchoices is the main piece of legislation to push voters over the edge.
Howard himself has done more than anyone to put class on the political agenda in Australia, eagerly cultivating the myth of 'Howard's Battlers', good, hard-working white folk from 'Middle Australia' who want tough laws on gays and asylum seekers. Perhaps believing his own mythology, in a fatal fit of hubris, Howard stripped workers of their hard-earned rights, thus ensuring that class remained at issue, though not for reasons of the Liberals' choosing.
It is convenient for the pundits to reduce these matters to a US-style election, and analyse them in terms of which 'candidate' has the nicest smile, or what-not. Even the Liberals' themselves think as much, with Tony Abbott deriding voters as 'sleepwalking' through a potential Liberal defeat this year. Of course, what these patronising and insulting analyses mask is the fact that voters are not merely rejecting a leader, or a haircut, or set of teeth, but are repudiating an entire series of policies that are fundamentally hostile to most Australians, and that serve the interests of a small clique of cashed-up elites. What Nietzsche said often of the Germans could equally be said of the Australians - namely, that yes, they are a bit stupid, but, unlike the Germans, they are not that stupid, and they know when they are being shafted.
A recent poll has even suggested that it's not merely the closet Bolsheviks who oppose Australia's foreign policy, especially as regards the Australian-US alliance. And a new study tells us what we already know, that is, that AWA's offer plenty of 'choice' and lots of benefits, but only for employers. The Government's costly ad campaigns, intended to add saccharine to vile legislation, seem to be thinning out, suggesting that these PR-exercises are genuinely repulsive for 'Middle Australia'.
Let us not, therefore, interpret these signs as evidence of voters playing the capricious tart, flirting with alternatives, or as indicators of consumers preferring a different political 'brand'. The so-called Labor Party is utterly bereft of vision, or any kind of pro-worker policy, but is still considered by voters to be less repugnant than the alternative. The outcome of this years' Federal Election will not be decided on the basis of who has the nicest soundbites, despite what the pundits tell you. Instead, as Possum's stats suggest, it will be based on a thorough repudiation of all that for which Howard and the Liberals stand.