Do issues explain Labor’s lead?

Labor’s lead in the polls is persistent and substantial, but the pundits are having trouble explaining why. Clearly Rudd personally is part of it, but his Newspoll lead over Howard as preferred PM (6%) is only half Labor lead’s on the two-party preferred (12%). The issue polling that has come out from ACNielsen and Newspoll this week helps us see what else might be going on.

Newspoll asks which party would best handle 18 issues, so it provides the widest scope for analysis. As The Australian, ever-keen to find a positive angle for the Coalition, noted this morning Labor has made no progress on probably the most discussed issue, industrial relations. I doubt this is a failure on Gillard’s part though – the labour movement has thrown everything they have into this issue for the last two years, and Labor was probably already as high as it could go.

Another traditional Labor strength, ‘health and Medicare’, has also seen only modest gains (I can’t even remember who their health spokesperson is), but it’s still the equal highest rating (45%) since Newspoll started polling this issue in July 1990. The Coalition on 33% is above their all-time low (26%), but it’s not much to show for the tidal wave of cash that it has sent over the health system- real per person spending up nearly 40% between 1995-96 and 2005-06.

Labor isn’t going anywhere on tax (32%; average since 1989 30%) or very far on unemployment (+2% since Rudd) immigration (+3%), interest rates (+4%), family issues (+5%) or defence (+5%).

Things are stronger for Labor on the presumably key issues of the economy and inflation, each up 8% to 30% and 28% respectively – but figures still low enough for this to be a key weakness for them, though in the ACNielsen poll this week 52% of voters thought that Rudd had a ‘firm grasp of economic policy’.

The big gains are in two areas, the environment and education. Labor’s rating on the environment has gone from being level with the Coalition on 28% each in June last year to a 14% lead now, 39% to 25%. As you can work out, most of this has come from supporters of ‘other’ parties. Perhaps putting Peter Garrett in the job has taken support from the Greens on this issue. But Rudd himself is probably a factor as well, with ACNielsen finding 71% of voters believe that he understands climate change issues compared to 37% thinking the PM understands those issues. (Curiously, fewer voters, 51%, believe Rudd has a firm grasp of something he does actually know a lot about, foreign policy.)

For education, in Newspoll Labor is up 12% to 50%, 7% above its previous best, though Newspoll has only been asking about this issue since 1999. This is a tribute to the power of image politics. In January, Rudd gave a speech in which he declared an ‘education revolution’. Yet unless I missed something important, all we have heard since is politics-as-normal tinkering ideas. In higher education everything they’ve announced is trivial or a defence of the status quo against proposed government changes. Indeed, so far it is less of a ‘revolution’ than Jenny Macklin proposed last year in a white paper that seems to have vanished.

Apart from these two areas, environment and education, and perhaps gains on the economy from a low base, Labor’s advance on issues and leadership is less than its gain in the two-party preferred. Could these factors be driving stated voting preference? Or is it nothing in particular, just a mysterious change in the political mood?

33 thoughts on “Do issues explain Labor’s lead?

  1. Maybe it’s just wanting to stop the Libs from going any further: people feeling that another win might see Medibank Private sold off (I’ll bet 99% of Medibank’s clients don’t want that to happen), everyone forced onto AWAs, and a nuclear power station built somewhere too near.


  2. Andrew, I’m not convinced that analysis of ‘the issues’ is sufficient to explain the consistently high polling for Labor. As you ask at the end of your post, I suspect there has been a change in the political mood. It’s not the policies per se, people are sick of 11 years of government based on fear, self-interest and economic ideology. They know the government is tricky, deceptive and untrustworthy. From experience they know what the government stands for, despite the rhetoric, spin or policy detail, and perhaps they’ve had enough.

    The economic good times are no doubt rolling along for some, including the commentariat, but I’m not sure the sentiment is shared by many who are doing it tough. WorkChoices was a bridge too far and a portent of a meaner future under the Coalition.

    Every time the government attacks Rudd as being dishonest or deceptive I think people are wondering…and your point is…? It doesn’t wash, it simply reminds the electorate that Rudd is a mere apprentice to the Master Howard in the honesty and trust stakes.

    My call is that if the polls maintain Labor’s solid lead after this week’s heavy weather, it will confirm that people have stopped listening to Howard and it may well be game over for the Coalition..


  3. Slim – But even if your analysis is right, it does not explain a sudden and major shift unless we can construct an argument that the electorate has long held these views but not until the last six months has Labor reached some threshold of credibility at which people are prepared to support them.


  4. “people are sick of 11 years of government based on fear, self-interest and economic ideology. They know the government is tricky, deceptive and untrustworthy. From experience they know what the government stands for, despite the rhetoric, spin or policy detail, and perhaps they’ve had enough”

    I don’t get it – these views were not so widely held until Rudd’s asendence- now everyone is on the train. This is the key unknown – why now, why not when Crean or Latham was leader ?


  5. Even the evidence on the untrustworthy aspect is weak. In the most recent Newspoll on whether Howard was trustworthy (March 07) 49% said he was, but his average for his whole time as PM is 54%, so no great change. And Rudd on 67% was only slighly above Beazley’s final result, 62%.

    The Australian Election Study asks about whether people in government can be trusted to do the right thing. The 2004 result, 40%, was an improvement on the two previously elections (low to mid 30s).


  6. It’s not Howard that’s the problem. Based on the poll results showing Costello’s unpopularity, you can infer that the government as a whole (and the actions of Downer, Ruddock, Vanstone, Andrews, Bishop etc) are what has turned people off.

    The polling keeps showing the coalition as competent economic managers (ad-nauseum) but they’ve managed to generate a long serious of damaging scandals (AWB, the fallout over kids overboard after the election, kids in mandatory detention, Iraqi adventurism, WorkChoices ). None of the polling companies have touched these issues other than workplace relations, which is why on the surface the results are so perplexing. Every long serving government generates an inevitable list of negatives.


  7. There’s polling on most of these issues, but we keep going back to the same basic problem: why would their importance grow rapidly and then persist as they fade in memory?

    What we are looking for here are not the factors that might explain an anti-Coalition vote, but the factors that explain a big shift in the 2-party preferred *this year*. Why would children overboard be an issue in 2007 but not 2004?


  8. Andrew Norton wrote: What we are looking for here are not the factors that might explain an anti-Coalition vote, but the factors that explain a big shift in the 2-party preferred *this year*. Why would children overboard be an issue in 2007 but not 2004?

    My personal theory is that voters were every bit as uneasy about those things in 2004, but didn’t think they had a credible alternative to vote for. Now they do.

    It is only a theory, but I do think it may explain why Howard’s Government always goes into a serious mid-term polling slump before rallying after throwing wads of cash at the electorate and masses of mud on the Opposition just before the election. Although this time, I am hoping, it won’t work, because they do see Kevin Rudd as credible


  9. Andrew Norton wrote:
    Why would children overboard be an issue in 2007 but not 2004?
    The fallout didn’t occur until well after the events transpired – little bits and pieces of information leaked out about who knew what, when. That’s the real problem with plausible deniability, nobody will ever get properly fingered, but the blame will eventually coalesce with whoever was in charge at the time. It just takes time. We expect our leaders to be responsible, whether they are personally responsible for errors or not (i.e. they should be kicking butt and taking names rather than saying they can’t remember).

    Add to that the end of the ALP’s decade long commitment to picking unelectable leaders and you’ve got a perfect storm. At this stage, Ruddocks dirt unit could uncover the re-animated corpse of Stalin running the AWU and it still won’t make any difference.


  10. Andrew

    Education in fact was a Lib issue last time when Latham threatened to take money from the private schools and dish it out to his constituency. He lost.

    I think the issue is prosperity: Uninterrupted prosperity for the past 12 years and no thunderstorm in sight. The electorate now feels “expansive” wants to spend money for the environment and education. A solid recession will change that quickly.

    It also goes back to Workchoices. The average stiff feels like Howard has done a number on him. It was all sticks and no carrot. It was also a policy the government was unable to sell properly because most ministers didn’t really understand how to counter the union lies and deceit. They were well and truly cooked.

    Sarkozy is trying a different tact. He is offering tax-free any hours worked over 35 hours a week once it is scrapped. Guess what, the working stiff support him on this. Funny how carrots work too, hey?

    If the libs had used a derivation of Sarkozy’s policy they wouldn’t be in the mess. Carrots work and it isn’t too late. I can’t imagine why the Libs never turned around and offered to make an across the board tax offering that was a head turner like Sarko’s, which actually focused tax benefits to the people felling most of the change. It’s amazing what a tax-free portion of your salary can do for morale.


  11. I don’t think it’s anything to do with the list of issues David mentioned. Those things are old news and do not matter to the marginal voters. Other possibilities are interest rates, petrol prices and stagnant property prices in most of the country since 2003. But I agree that none of that emerged in late 2006 when Newspoll really started to turn.

    I think Rudd must be a big part of it. He’s still new to the leadership, hasn’t stuffed up and people know that he really wants to win (unlike Bomber). Looking back at Newspoll, it should be remembered that at the same stage in 2004, Labour was leading 52-48 and had been as far out in front as 55-45. Yet the Coalition still won 53-47 and increased its majority.


  12. Your brief quip about The Australian is spot on, Andrew. As Quiggin noted recently, they are basically now in full barracking mode for the Libs. I think that Denis Shanahan’s jottings, in particular, should be moved to the Opinion pages, if not the comics.


  13. Yes Tom.

    We’ll ignore the Fairfax stable and the ABC in this discussion. They of course cut things right down the middle. Professor Quiggin always has a good handle on such things displaying an even handedness that even shocks me at the best of times..


  14. “(Curiously, fewer voters, 63%, believe Rudd has a firm grasp of something he does actually know a lot about, foreign policy.)”

    An outcome which, I suggest, casts doubt on the reliability of the rest of the poll results.

    Unless, that is, respondents had strong views about Rudd’s ‘troops out of Iraq’ stance.


  15. I agree, JC, that the ABC and Fairfax – and particularly The Age – also have their biases, but it is a matter of degree. Further, their biases tend to be against socially conservative and economically liberal policies; not for or against one of the main two parties.


  16. Tom

    Do you want to edit what you just said about The Age and the ABC. The Age is perfectly within it’s rights to be as flaming red as they like as far as I’m concerned.

    But you are not serious are you: that The Age is not as party biased as The Oz?


  17. JC. I can’t think of any paper more biased than The Oz, so by default The Age can’t be as biased (not that I read the Hun). It seems to me that 100% of all stories with bias favor the Liberal party, and the bias occurs more often than the Age. Am I missing something here?


  18. I think, JC, that the Opinion writers in The Age generally exhibit the biases I mentioned earlier, and that the paper offers insufficient opportunity for the airing of counterviews. At least, though, these writers’ views are labelled as “opinion”.

    While there is also some bias evident in The Age’s selection and presentation of stories as “news”, my judgement is that it is far more balanced in this regard than The Australian has become of late.


  19. Conrad

    You’re missing the fact that i haven’t argued the Oz isn’t biased, of course it is, You’re missing Tom’s contortions to try and give the Age a pass.

    Tom when was the last time The Age ran a piece that wasn’t pro- AGW?

    I also don’t see the Oz’s news section as biased.


  20. So, my distinctions between news and opinion, and between bias favouring parties and bias favouring political philosophies, are “contortions” are they JC? Well, if you only have the capacity for a simplistic, uni-dimensional, black and white view of the view, I guess making such distinctions would seem like contortions. But for most of us, its just called nuanced thinking. Perhaps you should try it some time.


  21. Yes Tom, you’re right and i was wrong all along. The Age is nuanced of its support of the socialist left and the Green party.

    Let’s casually forget that it wasn’t long ago that David Marr gave a speech suggesting that effective journalism calls for “soft left advocacy”. Of course, he’s with the Sydney Morning Herald another member of the Fairfax stable that does nuance really well.


  22. I see the Oz’s news section as completely biased JC — just yesterday there was “Rudd doesn’t understand economics” or whatever was as the headline, even though the data on productivity is completely mixed.

    Also, saying a paper is biased because it pushes global warming is hardly worthwhile given the massive majority (including the science community) that does believe in it. You may as well as start giving time to people selling magical cures to cancer. I think a better evaluation can be done on policy issues where there is much more diversity in opinion (e.g., eduction, workplace laws etc.). In this case, I see the Oz as completely biased, which is not to say The Age is not.


  23. “In this case, I see the Oz as completely biased, which is not to say The Age is not.”

    Then you agree with me all along, Conrad.


  24. Where you said

    (Curiously, fewer voters, 63%, believe Rudd has a firm grasp of something he does actually know a lot about, foreign policy.)

    The Age article you cite is curiouser and curiouser:

    the Mr Rudd is far ahead on understanding climate change (71-37) but lags 51-63 in understanding foreign policy.

    So the survey subjects were even more ill-informed than you noted (unless you did a typo). And how many fell into the ABC/SBS viewer camp who new better, OR into the Channel 7 Sunrise-watching demographic, with both groups having good reason to know better?
    The phrase "wisdom of the electorate" springs sarcastically to mind…


  25. Dave – You’ve finally got me on a factual error. I used Howard’s figure for Rudd, who was indeed on 51%. But it makes the result even more curious, and rather confirms that many voters don’t notice the Shadow Ministers (or indeed Ministers).


  26. Not a factual error… but a typing error in the 4th para where you mention defence (+5%) twice.

    I find the Oz’s coverage of sport to be totally unbiased. I don’t know *what* the rest of you are complaining about. 🙂


  27. Andrew, re post 3: it’s possible that there has been a shift in the questions being asked. The answers Labor offers are addressing the questions asked now, as opposed to those being asked in previous elections.

    Environmental issues were pressing in 1990, and Labor won the election that year. I think there’s a general perception that Howard does not even understand the questions on issues like the environment or education, let alone have the answers, and policies are just elements that people use to support or refute this overall belief. Rudd’s focus on policy give people a feeling that the feeling that Howard’s had his day can be justified.


  28. Andrew – I agree that the most important questions being asked shift over time; in that sense it has been a counter-cyclical government in that it held office despite one of its major issue strengths, the economy, dropping down the agenda, and two of Labor’s issue strengths, health and education, climbing to the top. National security is an exception to this counter-cyclical pattern.

    I can understand why people want a change, but as a student of public opinion a rare large and seemingly decisive shift is something the usual theories cannot easily explain.


  29. Can’t anyone just accept that voters might just have had enough after 10 years of Howard and his ‘core’ and ‘non-core promises’ and constant dissembling? With the smirk as the probable next leader (but don’t dismiss the millionaire minister for wind and water) why should we continue to let the same party govern for 10 years or 13 if re-elected. At my age, I plan to get quite drunk on election night and hope fortune favours a change.


  30. Yes of course, We deserve a change after all it’s been a hellish decade having to endure this regime for so long..


  31. Conrad, TomN

    This is what passes for a title to a piece in the SMH.

    “Better the unions’ lackey than Howard’s bitch-boy”


    Please link to its equivalent in The OZ.


  32. Andrew: "Factual error?" wasn’t out to “get you”, and my “curioser and curioser” was directed at the polled, not you.

    “and rather confirms that many voters don’t notice the Shadow Ministers (or indeed Ministers).”
    Yes! Or the issues, or the policy alternatives. If democracy depends on an engaged citizenry we haven’t got one. Why isn’t there an enlightened despot when you need one?


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