|It's not whether you win or lose|
It’s too early to make a call of the election, but if you’re a forecaster why wait until it’s obvious? So here’s my call. Julia Gillard is going to win. But that doesn’t mean that Tony Abbott can’t be a winner too.
Labor was always odds-on to win - four-to-one at the moment according to the betting markets. But there are battles and there are wars. It’s not who prevails this time, but who prevails most times that ultimately counts.
So Abbott’s job is not to beat Gillard, but to provide a platform for the election after next. Can he achieve this?
My judgments are partly based on our most recent qualitative polling which received 2,225 responses. They suggest that the selection of Julia Gillard has restored Labor’s fortunes on a two-party preferred basis to where they were in April, when Labor would have won an election by a margin of around four points.
In April while Kevin Rudd was still up on the high-wire you could feel the strain if you put your hand on it. Now, while the two-party preferred vote is healthy for Labor, they are much more reliant on the Greens as primary votes have leaked away to their left. So there is strain still there.
Our respondents, who are more likely than the average to follow current affairs, give Gillard a slightly better rating than Kevin Rudd but only because some of them have moved from disapproving to withholding judgment.
At the same time, they have moved against Tony Abbott.
This means that Julia Gillard’s position might look robust but is fragile, while Abbott’s is deteriorating. She’s vulnerable, but he’s going backwards.
This election the issues are fairly clear. There is the government itself and the record that Julia is trying to “move forward” from. Closely allied to that are issues of debt, increases in the cost of living, economic management, and a general concern for the country.
These are more closely associated with coalition voters. Then there is climate change, education, health and population, which are more closely associated with Labor voters.
Asylum seekers and immigration are also present and are negative for the government, presenting a reason to vote Green or Coalition.
A week ago Julia Gillard declared that this election would be a referendum on a sustainable Australia. This is very clever. It’s a good vehicle to appeal to a number of conflicting constituencies simultaneously without alarming any of them.
On its plain meaning her pitch will be well-received.
In research we undertook for the LGAQ last month we found the public is, at worst, resigned to population growth and, at best, enthusiastic about it. They see it as linked to economic growth, and their biggest concern is that infrastructure isn’t keeping pace.
Most concern about population growth occurs in the developing areas of south-east Queensland where it is changing the nature of neighbourhoods. Areas like this in Queensland and New South Wales will decide the results of the next election.
As enunciated by PM Gillard this policy takes on more strategic dimensions than just a policy to keep the urban fringe happy.
She framed it in terms of a fragile environment, a signal to Greens that climate change is not forgotten.
It also speaks to concerns about asylum seekers - “sustainable growth” is a left-wing version of “we will decide who comes …”.
And it reassures about the economy, a traditional Coalition strength, and frames this policy area in terms of infrastructure provision, an area stronger for Labor than the Coalition.
Yet according to our polling the pitch doesn’t work well. Greens and the remnants of the Australian Democrats are marginally convinced, but it doesn’t resonate with blue collar conservatives. (Not that Abbott’s mantra of waste, debt, taxes and boats does any better, in fact it does much worse.)
Responses to Gillard’s battle cry feature themes such as “spin”, “hot air”, “rhetoric” and “words”.
Most worryingly for her campaign, the “moving forward” motif is becoming an object of derision. As one respondent said:
“Gillard The Slogan Bogan. She's so backwards with her moving forward slogan. She's a policy free zone. Boat people policy? Maybe oneday. In Due Season. Nothing but a mess she's trying to run away from as fast as possible!”
So why is Abbott falling further behind? (Though he may have a bounce this week off the back of his debate performance.)
I think there are two reasons for this. While Gillard is not seen as the ideal solution to the problem of Kevin, her elevation shows Labor is at least prepared to address it. Voters have “moved forward” from Howard and will give Labor another chance, but if Gillard fails her demise will be more precipitate than Kevin’s.
The other reason is that the confused Liberal campaign has run away from Abbott’s most leverageable asset - his authenticity. An example of that is the way they have tried to neutralise industrial relations by effectively outsourcing their policy to the government for at least their next term.
Responses on the question of preferred PM show that Abbott is still well regarded and has some of the best characteristics of a PM. The two themes associated with him are “trust” and “leader” - he is a known commodity. While for Gillard they are more generic - “woman” and “policies”. She gets marks for femininity, novelty and what she says she will do, he for masculinity, familiarity and a track record.
So how does Abbott get back into the game? He has to play to his strengths. He’s unlikely to win the next election, and he should say so. That would help to rehabilitate his authenticity because 87 per cent of our respondents would agree with him.
Then he has to give an alternative philosophical vision of where he thinks Australia should be heading. There’s no obvious coherence to what he’s offering at the moment. And then he’s got to dedicate himself to what the vast majority of voters are crying out for - keeping Labor honest.
Abbott got a lot of respect when he ran the Ironman Australia Triathlon not because he won, but because he finished. He’s in a similar race now.