Are we in a Rudd political bubble?

Ruddmania may have worn off for RAAF flight crew, but not it seems for the Australian public. Last week’s Nielsen poll showed approval for Kevin Rudd’s performance as PM at 74%, only one percentage point behind Bob Hawke at his peak. Newspoll’s respondents, reported in today’s Australian, are not quite so effusive, but at 68% satisfaction this is still higher than any other PM has received in the 22 years Newspoll has been asking the question.

Newspoll’s survey of leadership characteristics finds that he has the highest ever ratings (since 1992, when the question began) on the characteristic of ‘likeable’, higher even than Kim Beazley, who really was likeable. He’s off his peak for trustworthy, but it was 10 percentage points higher than anyone else had ever received (also since 1992). Though off his peak as well for cares for people, he is still very high on that, though not as high as obvious softy Kim Beazley.

I don’t think it is just my own political biases that prevent me from seeing what so many voters are seeing. He has none of Hawke’s charisma, none of Keating’s style and wit, none (OK, little) of Howard’s Australian everyman persona. He is our first nerd Prime Minister. I’ve got nothing against nerds. I am one. But I’m amazed that 74% of the Australian public approve of a man who must remind them of the annoying kid in grade 4 who answered all the teacher’s questions.

Is this the political equivalent of a bubble? One of the mechanisms causing bubbles to develop is herd behaviour, when people take their views of the value of something not from a direct assessment of its likely worth, but from the actions of others. Because voters see other polls rating Rudd highly, a positive feedback loop is created, and all pollsters hear is the conventional wisdom that they created themselves.

We have one condition for a bubble, which is that there is little genuine performance information yet available about the Rudd government. Their first year in office was largely a year of inquiries and reviews during a prosperous period in which no difficult decisions needed to be made. While the government is now in a hyperactive phase, the consequences of their actions are, for the most part, some way off.

By contrast, other leaders have made larger marks in their first year and paid some price. The Morgan Polls show that Gough Whitlam’s early crash through policies had his approval down to fairly typical levels (about half) by six months into his first term. Fraser came to power controversially; he never had high numbers. Keating arrived with a lot of baggage and was never popular either. Howard introduced a tough budget early in his first term and never had consistently high numbers.

Against the bubble hypothesis, some of the characteristics on which Rudd is rating highly, such as likeability and caring for people, are only partly products of a government’s actions. Personal assessments such as these can be easily be made by voters based on their own observation, without feedback loops or policy knowledge.

Overall though, it’s hard to believe that the fundamentals of the Rudd government will allow approval figures like those reported by Nielsen and Newspoll to continue. Compared to Hawke, whose high popularity lasted six years, Rudd lacks charisma, talent in his Ministry, and economic good fortune. Surely it can’t last?

28 thoughts on “Are we in a Rudd political bubble?

  1. John Howard was also a nerd and a very hard worker.

    To many Australians Kevin Rudd is John Howard with more hair and no workchoices. The fact that he also hands out cheques and this is somehow justified as sensible economics also helps.

    George W Bush was also wildly popular for a while when the US was in crisis mode.

    Like

  2. “But I’m amazed that 74% of the Australian public approve of a man who must remind them of the annoying kid in grade 4 who answered all the teacher’s questions”: Perhaps it is just rational, I assume rational individuals, thinking of whom they want to be PM, would approve of somebody who reminds them of that kind of person rather than the guy who was good at sports and nothing else! Seriously, I think what it is, is that Rudd is a “great moderate”. Howard was by no means a full on right-winger as he may have been portrayed by some and indeed in the scheme of things he was “centrist”. But he had his agenda which he pursued, ultimately to his downfall. So far, I don’t see that with Rudd (and despite people who might cite his Monthly article – He isn’t out to destroy capitalism…). Perhaps the times are different to those when Howard came in, but I get the impression that Rudd is really as centrist as you can get in many respects, even more than Howard was. And I think that may explain his popularity. Of course, only time will tell…

    Like

  3. Andrew, is this the expression of agony from a man who realises too late that he could have been PM, if only he followed cricket? I’m totally with you on Rudd’s qualities (or lack thereof). Being able to hand out vast sums of money in the name of economic necessity must help, as it allows people to feel good about receiving money that 12 months earlier they may have felt guilty about. Don’t forget that interest rates and petrol prices are also down massively. But it seems clear that while Australians don’t mind charismatic leaders (although perhaps not as keen as the Americans), they don’t rate wit or a sense of humour. Not good news perhaps for Gillard as a potential PM?

    Like

  4. “Overall though, it’s hard to believe that the fundamentals of the Rudd government will allow approval figures like those reported by Nielsen and Newspoll to continue?”

    People asked that back in March…. of 2007

    Food for thought.

    Like

  5. f a man who must remind them of the annoying kid in grade 4 who answered all the teacher’s questions

    He reminds me of those slimy, hand-wringing, nerdy Sunday school teachers who were the basis of my eventual turning away from religion.

    Like

  6. PC – I am confident it won’t last, because it never has in the past – though Hawke did keep it up for a long time. I suppose the interesting question for political scientists is whether the unusual circumstances of the Rudd government’s first year compared to the first year of earlier new governments – the best set of social and economic indicators for 40 years and no difficult and major policy shifts – set up artificially high support levels given the fundamentals, which were essentially unchanged from Howard’s last year.

    Like

  7. “But I’m amazed that 74% of the Australian public approve of a man who must remind them of the annoying kid in grade 4 who answered all the teacher’s questions.”

    Why the amazement? Bob Carr was just like that, and he won three NSW elections, two of them by landslide. (NSW is 40% of the country, so can be considered representative.)

    Rudd is unfailingly polite (in public), reassuring and non-threatening. He is the old fashioned bank manager, the President of Rotary, the friendly Primary School Principal. He appeals to the strain of Australians that are large in number but whose voice is rarely heard; Menzies’ forgotten people, two generations later.

    Of course, as with Carr, you have to consider Rudd’s popularity in the context of the quality of the Opposition.

    Like

  8. Oh no, Bob Carr had wit and the imagination that comes from massive learning. Rudd doesn’t have either; while I’d vote for him as PM he wouldn’t be my preferred companion for an evening in the pub. Whereas Carr would be good company (at least if you like books).

    But yes, Rudd is Howard-lite; a hard-working, unimaginative, detail-oriented, colourless, small-c conservative busybody. Apparently that’s what Australians want.

    Like

  9. Andrew,
    Perhaps Australians are just at heart social democrats? let’s face it, the west in general is moving towards social democracy, especially in Europe. And in Anglosphere countires social democracy has already conquered some, like NZ and Canada, with (until recently) only Australia and the US being the odd men out. And let’s face it, the public got used to handouts from government during the Howard years, with big spending splurges by the Coalition government before each federal election. And Howard was hardly an anti-government libertarian was he??? Howard a fiscal conservative? Only when it suited him. As you’ve often pointed out, the size of government grew under Howard. I think the Australian people have come to realise that at elections they can always vote themselves more money, with the major parties desparate to buy their votes. And they like the secure, protective warmth of a ‘caring’ government looking after their needs between cradle and grave. Australians have never been the rugged individualists that Americans are or once were. We expect government to be there in the bad times – now we probably think government should be there in the good times as well. Read de Tocqueville (I’m sure you have!): the benevolent despotism of the democratic state is fast becoming the norm across the west …

    Like

  10. “considering Rudd in light of the appalling mess Carr left behind in NSW.”

    Carr proudly did nothing. His agenda was to leave NSW as he found it; nothing more, nothing less. The place appeared to be ticking over OK and there was no perceived need to do anything, so it was a popular strategy. Of course the day of reckoning was always going to come. Carr knew this, and got out, leaving his successors to wear the blame. In contrast, Rudd is all hyperactivity. He wants to accomplish many things. It is also a popular strategy for the times.

    Like

  11. I think KRudd scores points in several ways.

    1. He seems to care, he comes across as organised, his minor flaws and stuff ups make him seem more “real”. Plus his ability to admit to making mistakes “I’m only human”.

    2. Apparently he’s taken the whip to the public service. Everyone outside of the public service assumes they are slackers so we like the idea of our leader making them work hard since we pay them with our taxes.

    3. He comes across as very smart, even if he doesn’t have any brilliant new ideas he does appear to follow the details of lots of areas.

    4. He’s labour, but not an ex-trade unionist.

    5. Lots of pushing his personal story, coming from a struggling background. Local boy made good. Likeability, cares for people, etc… are all down to media presentation (like years on Sunrise).

    Like

  12. And he has a knack for mainly only annoying those who for the most part couldn’t bring themselves to vote for Liberal over Labor anyway: “overworked” public servants, greens with the 5% ETS, aborigines who no doubt expected a lot more by now, unions who are always annoyed that things havn’t gone far enough their way.

    Like

  13. Martin – Yes and no. Any democratic system has tendencies towards growth of government, and the Australian political culture does not have the same sources of resistance as the American political culture. On the other hand, I think there are cycles in these things, as my various articles on attitudes towards taxing and spending indicate. Rudd will leave us with huge fiscal problems, which should contribute to unhappiness at high taxation.

    Like

  14. The question “are you satisfied or dissatisfied with the way Kevin Rudd is doing his job” could actually elicit support from people who have no intention of voting for him and even from people who disagree with some of his policies, as suggested by the voiting intentions data. The question invites an assessment on procedural rather than substantive criteria. His reputation for diligence would certainly help him on this measure, especially among people without strong views on policy.

    Like

  15. Lets be honest, letting some flight attendant know in uncertain terms that your not impressed with the service and all the other petty stuff the opposition and press goes on with doesn’t amount to a pile of beans.

    The question is policy, we are in the middle of a serious recession and the government is saying we will do this this and this to try and help, the opposition is blocking it or harping on about flight attendants. It really isn’t that difficult to work out why the poll figures are where they are.

    At the moment you have the choice of a “policy wonk” or a snob. Agree or disagree I will take the “policy wonk”. As for the current state of the Liberal party, you would have to be insane to vote for that rabble.

    When the right wing nutters exit stage right things will change, but that isn’t going to happen soon is it.

    Like

  16. He’s handing out 1,000 buck notes every few months, so why would the masses be happy. However wait until the bill comes it.

    Like

  17. Lower petrol prices, low interest rates, low unemployment, no notable tax increases on the agenda lots of handouts and plenty of symbolic spin. It won’t last.

    For what it is worth I loath Kevin Rudd. And I have never before in my life loathed a PM. I loathed him even before he was PM. Give me Crean, Latham or Beazley instead. Even Costello would do.

    Like

  18. Andrew, the issue that is easily forgotten is the quality of the Opposition. It is not only bad – it is appalling (even from a fiscal viewpoint – sorry I disagree with you, Andrew).

    If we were to get someone with less ideology and more practical commonsense – as well as less snobbery – things could indeed go bad for Rudd. But, alas, as Hewson put it his morning, Turnbull is lucky to get as much as he is getting.

    Like

  19. Fred – Another little research project for me – in theory the standard of the opposition should show in the better/preferred PM question than the satisfaction question, which is what I am reporting here. You could be satisfied or dissatisfied with both, and is clearly the case here be satisfied with the PM but planning to vote for the Opposition anyway. That’s how I would have classed myself for much of Rudd’s first year – he wasn’t doing very much and therefore I was not dissatisfied, but nor was he better than things would have been had Howard had continued. Now, however, I am highly dissatisfied with Rudd. The worst PM since Whitlam.

    Like

  20. Andrew Norton says:

    We have one condition for a bubble, which is that there is little genuine performance information yet available about the Rudd government. Their first year in office was largely a year of inquiries and reviews during a prosperous period in which no difficult decisions needed to be made. While the government is now in a hyperactive phase, the consequences of their actions are, for the most part, some way off.

    The federal ALP looks to be in a small political bubble. In 2006-07 I predicted that, come election time, Rudd’s electoral performance would not match his polling numbers. As predicted, the ALP’s final 2PP (52.5) was way below its average polling result (mid 50s) achieved in the 12 months prior to the election.

    The bubble is much worse in the case of Rudd’s leadership which has not been tested by the need to take unpopular actions. Most of Rudd’s governmental actions have been symbolic (the Apology) or procrastination (inquiries) or sell-outs (CPRS).

    Rudd has learned the essentially “c”onservative lesson of post-modern AUS politics: no social change, no electoral pain. For most of the run-up to the election I predicted that Rudd would be, so far as substantive policy is concerned, a Howard me-too. Rudd is the ultimate small “c” conservative and it has paid off, so far.

    By contrast Whitlam, Fraser, Hawke, Keating and Howard all took unpopular or contentions policy stands which – quelle surprise – made them unpopular in some sections of the community. A reform-fatigued polity is not grateful for a demanding leader

    Andrew Norton says:

    Surely it can’t last?

    What is surprising is that so many people do not find Rudd’s personality to be…unappetising. I am something of a (self-hating) nerd. I much prefer the company of “tough guys” (my pub mates) and “sexy broads” (my wife). And this is coming from a nerd. Surely the rest of AUS is even more antipathetic?

    The only satisfactory explanation that I can find is that Rudd has found the electoral sweet spot between conservative substantive policy and “constructive” symbolic politics. AUS people are very grateful for a politician who appears to care but who does not actually ask them to make any sacrifices.

    Like

  21. Jc April 8th, 2009 16:14

    He’s handing out 1,000 buck notes every few months, so why would the masses be happy. However wait until the bill comes it.

    Rudd’s massive popularity precedes the stimulus giveaway. but such things cant hurt.

    Fred Argy April 10th, 2009 07:47

    the issue that is easily forgotten is the quality of the Opposition. It is not only bad – it is appalling

    Nor can Rudd’s popularity be explained by the weakness of the Opposition. Rudd was popular when he was in Opposition. And Turnbull is not a weak Opposition leader.

    Of course the other explanation is that the ALP is now the Natural Party of Government. Which confers a kind of divine legitimacy on whoever is its leader. There maybe something to this theory.

    But mostly one has to draw the conclusion that Australia has changed and become a very wimpy sort of place full of ENTER-score counting, super-annuation watching milquetoasts. Rudd very much fits this mould.

    Undoubtedly this is good for reducing social pathology. Its just not very sexy.

    “Do we want a prime minister who looks like a dentist?”

    Dame Edna Everage on Kevin Rudd’s public persona.

    Like

  22. Gee, Jack you’re quick to confer ” natural government status” to a party that has won one election.

    I wouldn’t be that quick.

    I think it is actually safe to say that Australians don’t often change government and when they do, they do for a long time.

    Like

  23. The ALP have won about 20 of the past 22 state elections. They should have lost the QLD election. There is something “wrong” with the L/NP that the swinging of the electoral pendulum cannot fix.

    Like

  24. The ALP will probably win the next two federal elections, depending on how well its machine operators can spin things. (Which is pretty well, going by their performance so far.)

    The LN/P tends to only win federally when the national debate turns to cultural identity or national security issues. It appears to own these issues due to a certain basal level of xenophobia amongst the population. (Its an island “girt by sea”, the only line anyone ever remembers in the national anthem.)

    If I was an LN/P politician I would run hard against the massive immigration influx, being careful to not step on the “diversity” minefield. This is really damaging social amenity and uitlity at the metro level. (queues in public transport, road traffic, parking, shortages in day care, schools, hospitals, housing, dwindling stocks of water, CO2-lessish air, arable top-soil, exhaustible energy etc)

    Politically its a no brainer. Immigration tends to benefit the ALP politically due the ethnic identity and economic dependency of immigrants.

    Mass immigration probably harms the LN/Ps popular base amongst lower-middle class struggling to maintain their social status, trying to afford a mortgage and worried about decline in standards.

    The LN/P could also swipe some blue collar ALP voters worried about the threat to jobs and the shrinking shares of public assistance for education and health.

    They might even get a few old-fashioned GREENs who are worried that too many people spoil a green and pleasant land.

    But the L/NP are committed to the mantra of growth, owing to their dependence on major retailers and property developers for political donations. So it aint gonna happen.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s