Statistics, like beauty, can be very much in the eye of the beholder.
Take yesterday’s Herald-Nielsen poll, for example. It has the Coalition’s primary vote at 45 per cent to Labor’s 33 per cent with the former ahead of the latter on the two-party preferred vote by 54 per cent to 46 per cent.
Good news for Tony Abbott and the opposition, you would have thought. But this is not how some journalists saw it. On ABC TV News Breakfast yesterday, Virginia Trioli introduced a report on the Herald-Nielsen poll by claiming that it “has got bad news really for both sides of politics”.
Then it was over to Canberra-based reporter Frances Bell, who commented that the poll was “not good for Julia Gillard or Tony Abbott”. She pointed out that Gillard’s “personal approval rating has dropped 5 points to 47 per cent and Tony Abbott’s personal approval rating has also dropped 3 points to 43”.
Hold it there. At 47 per cent and 43 per cent respectively, both the Prime Minister and the Opposition Leader are doing OK. However, Bell drew a different conclusion – and went on to claim that “both leaders are sort of looking over their shoulders at their predecessors in the poll”. She pointed out that Kevin Rudd was preferred leader to Gillard by 39 to 34 per cent and Malcolm Turnbull was preferred Liberal leader by 37 to 31 per cent.
Later in the morning, on ABC Metropolitan Radio 702, Deborah Cameron declared that “Kevin Rudd and Malcolm Turnbull have both shot to the front”.
This is all very superficial. Political leaders are elected by their respective party rooms and MPs take note of the party members who preselect them. The fact is that, according to the Herald-Nielsen poll, Labor voters prefer Gillard as ALP leader (54 per cent) over Rudd (35 per cent), Greg Combet (5 per cent) and Bill Shorten (3 per cent). It is not dissimilar with the Liberal Party. Coalition voters prefer Abbott (46 per cent) over Turnbull (27 per cent) and Joe Hockey (25 per cent). The strongest support for Turnbull comes from Greens voters.
If the Prime Minister and the Opposition Leader were to be hit by the proverbial bus, it is likely that Combet or Shorten would emerge as Labor leader while Hockey would probably win majority support in the Liberal party room.
Some journalists become obsessed with reporting leadership speculation – partly because it is easy and partly because they become infatuated with celebrity. The fact remains that the best guide to determining election outcomes turns on each party’s primary vote. Right now, the Coalition is well ahead of Labor in all the polls. According to the Herald-Nielsen poll, Labor’s primary vote is 33 per cent. According to Newspoll, it’s 30 per cent.
Then there is the question of policy. The major polls are registering a significant decline in support for the Commonwealth government imposing a price on carbon. The Herald-Nielsen poll has support for a carbon price at 35 per cent, compared with 56 per cent opposed. According to Newspoll, the comparable figure is 42 per cent to 53 per cent.
Clearly the Gillard government has got a difficult task ahead of it in order to convince a majority of Australians to support the imposition of a carbon tax – leading, in time, to an establishment of an emissions trading scheme. First, Labor has to get this through both the House of Representatives and the Senate. Then it has to win the next election.
As the German sociologist Max Weber said a century ago, democratic politics is about slow boring through hard boards. In NSW over the past four years, the Opposition Leader, Barry O’Farrell, has shown patience combined with determination. He has seen off the electorally successful Labor premier Morris Iemma, followed by Nathan Rees, and now faces the telegenic and sassy Kristina Keneally.
O’Farrell is not an exciting politician. Yet he has a very good grasp of the electorate and knows that what voters want, above all, is good government. The Coalition is clear favourite to win on March 26, with O’Farrell’s Newspoll approval rating at 49 per cent. Good enough. In the end, most voters make a choice about which of the two major parties they want to form government.
Two-and-a-half years is a long time away. Yet the evidence suggests that the election scheduled for 2013 will be decided on whether, and how, Australia should price carbon at a time when the likes of the US, China, India and Japan do not have a carbon tax or an emissions trading scheme.
At the moment, Abbott and the Coalition have reason to be pleased with the polls. But there is time for Gillard and Labor to make a comeback.