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?