The personal as political

Posted on August 8, 2010 by


Yesterday’s Age/Nielsen poll has an interesting twist: along with the usual variations on the question “Who will you vote for?”, it asks electors to rate Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott on specific personal qualities. Since we’re intent on turning this election into a soap opera anyway, we might as well get a better idea of how people judge the main players.

The leader is normally the most prominent marketing asset each party has (with the strange exception of the National Party, for whom it’s Barnaby Joyce for some reason), so their influence on the story of politics is not exaggerated. The leaders give political stories their character, so it’s interesting to see what kind of characters people think they’re living with.

According to Nielsen, those character themselves are roughly aligned with the traditional roles of their respective parties – which might sound like an obvious outcome, but is notable in this election that has been characterised by so much sameness between the parties. More people rate Gillard than Abbott on being open to new ideas (72% vs 55%), having a firm grasp of social policy (69% to 51%), having a clear vision for Australia’s future (60% vs 51%) and understanding climate change issues (55% to 40%). I’m tempted to see most of these as positive results for both leaders among their respective parties’ core supporters; after all, being open to new ideas and focusing on the future are hardly the stated goals of conservatism. And global warming is just another part of that hypothetical future that conservative movements seem not terribly interested in.

Gillard also wins on competence (72% vs 63%) and being a strong leader (60% vs 54%), while Abbott scores higher on having a firm grasp of foreign policy (46% vs 39%) and on having the confidence of his/her party (73% vs 63%), not surprisingly.

Neither leader broke 50% on trustworthiness. Abbott languished at 46% and Gillard barely surpassed him at 48% – a statistically insignificant lead. If anything, I’m surprised their ratings are that high; I’m still yet to hear a person of any political persuasion express an unqualified positive statement about either leader, besides that solitary hairdresser from Penrith after the leaders debate.

I would have liked to see a few more political leaders rated in this poll. Nielsen should consider including Bob Brown next time, and Warren Truss just for a laugh.

Two quick disclaimers:

  • Election polls are usually taken too seriously as predictors of election outcomes. As social researcher Hugh MacKay wrote in the Fairfax papers yesterday: “Polls taken just before campaigns begin usually point to the result; mid-campaign fluctuations track little more than day-to-day responses to the torrent of media coverage.” So I don’t put much stock in recent poll results that show Labor has lost its lead over the past fortnight. Nothing much has happened in that time to sway people’s votes on election day.
  • The real influence of the leader on the policies of the party as a whole is almost certainly exaggerated. From the outside, it’s difficult to see how much power they really have, but it’s clear that all leaders have to work with or against strong forces in setting the political agenda. Kevin Rudd appeared to be largely his own man, not controlled by the factional power brokers; that made his rise to power both remarkable and almost fated to end with a sudden crash.

Words – Fraser Allison

Image – stock.xchng

Posted in: Fraser Allison