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?