The Faceless Men (And Women) Of The Polls
By Mike SeccombeFebruary 24, 2012
The polls show people would prefer Kevin Rudd over Julia Gillard as leader. But who are they polling, and would they be Labor voters anyway?
There is a wonderful passage in Mark Latham's Latham Diaries, which, although it refers to events almost a decade ago, goes to the very heart of the current leadership woes of the Labor Party.
On page 364, Latham records a meeting between himself, as leader, and Rudd, who wanted to be made shadow Treasurer. The meeting followed an unsourced newspaper report saying that Rudd would quit and go to the back bench if he did not get his way.
Latham records that at the meeting Rudd "went into a long explanation of why he's so wonderful.
"When he finished, I put my cards on the table: that I regard him as disloyal and unreliable, and he only holds his frontbench position because of his media profile and public standing among people who have never actually met him," the former leader records.
That brief passage manages to touch on three key aspects of Rudd. One, that he has extraordinarily high opinion of himself. Two, that colleagues think he is professionally weak and personally underhanded. And three, that his success depends overwhelmingly on uninformed assessments of him.
Let's leave aside the first two, though, for they could apply to many politicians. It is the third that makes the current Labor infighting highly unusual, if not unique.
That is the disconnect between the insiders' views of Rudd and the outsiders' views of him - and the views of Julia Gillard, which are the corollary of it.
People who know Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard overwhelmingly support her over him. Yet people who don't know them overwhelmingly support Rudd over Gillard.
To many of the public at large, it is Julia Gillard who, out of overweening ambition, knocked off a decent leader. To those close to the action, the overwhelming view is that it is Rudd who has the outsize ambition and who wields the shifty shiv.
Many people who don't know him apparently see him as able, if a bit nerdy. Many people who do know him see him as chaotic, and see her as the decent and capable one.
It's a very strange phenomenon, this schizoid perception. But it is certainly enduring. The polls showing the public perception that Gillard was the baddie and Rudd was the goodie took hold not long after he was rolled, coincident with a series of damaging leaks which many in Labor now say came from Rudd.
Twenty-one months since Gillard either knifed her way or was drafted into taking over the Prime Ministership - depending on your view - it persists.
On the day Prime Minister Gillard announced a ballot for the leadership, for example, an ABC vox pop recorded the old sentiments: She stabbed him in the back, she created Labor's problems, the wronged man deserved another go.
The same piece featured Rudd's wife Therese Rein, seeking to make an appeal to rally "ordinary people" behind him.
"What ordinary people tell me is that they trust Kevin and they respect him, they know how hard he worked …" She encouraged them to contact their local MPs and senators on his behalf.
It was all playing to Rudd's one great strength, so pithily put by Latham all those years ago - his "public standing among people who have never actually met him."
It's highly unlikely that it will make much difference in the party room on Monday. About three-quarters of the people in there, including all the most competent ministers, despise him.
But as we already know, thanks to a slip by Rudd's chief tactician, Bruce Hawker, they don't expect to win on the first attempt.
The apparent strategy is to keep agitating from the back bench and hope that public opinion eventually makes enough members of the Parliamentary party nervous enough to shift to him.
But will it work?
On the face of it, the polls give encouragement that it might. Only a couple of weeks ago, we saw another in the long series of Rudd versus Gillard popularity surveys.
This one, a Nielsen poll of 1,400 people, conducted between February 2 and 4, 2012, showed Rudd was still preferred over Gillard as ALP leader, 57 to 35 per cent.
But the details were interesting. They showed that among Labor voters, Gillard has now opened up a lead: 50 to 47 per cent.
Rudd's most ardent supporters were Coalition voters, who went for him over her 61 to 26 per cent. Oddly, Greens voters - who one might expect to have views closer to Labor than the Coalition - preferred Rudd 58 to 35 per cent.
We went to Nielsen's research director, John Stirton, for explanation of what it meant.
First, he confirmed that the figures for the Greens were not a rogue result, based on their small sample. "It is statistically significant that more Green voters prefer Rudd than prefer Gillard, and that has been the case for a few months now. That is real," he says.
Greens politicians spoken to yesterday were at a loss to explain this.
It is particularly odd given that when he was leader, Rudd treated the Greens with contempt. For 14 months, he would not even meet with the party's leader, Bob Brown, something that Brown referred to in interviews about the Labor leadership situation.
As for the Coalition vote, well, one might safely ignore most of that, because it came from people who were never going to vote for Labor regardless of leader.
"The core Coalition voters, they almost always tend to support the person who is not leading at the time. Especially if the incumbent doesn't seem to be doing terribly well…" says Stirton.
But that does not mean one can ignore the preferences of Coalition voters completely.
"Labor's primary vote is down, so a lot of people currently called Coalition voters are ex-Labor voters ... probably 10 per cent of current Coalition voters are ex-Labor," he said. So, he suggests, are some Greens voters.
In both cases, they probably abandoned Labor because of Gillard.
In summary, the headline figures for Rudd are not as strong as they seem. But the disaggregated figures provide no great hope for Gillard.
The key question is whether Rudd's public support will hold up, now that Labor people are no longer constrained by the need to keep up a pretence of respect , and are coming out with their stories of the "real" Rudd.
If enough senior Labor figures keep telling the people what a bastard Kevin Rudd is, will people begin to believe them?
Stirton has his doubts, saying Rudd's very carefully crafted public image, which he has polished since his regular appearances on the Sunrise program in 2005-06, has proved resilient before in the face of indiscretions.
"People haven't really engaged with the rumours that, from the public perspective, there's something wrong with the guy. He's been pretty Telflon-coated," Stirton says.
He cites examples of stories that failed to do any damage: Rudd at a New York strip club, too drunk to remember, Rudd abusing a flight attendant, et cetera.
"I remember in the focus groups when we asked about those sort of indiscretions - they just said, 'Well, he's human.'" (Stirton has no doubt that video of Rudd's expletive-filled tantrum, leaked a week before his resignation, did no damage either.)
Australians like their politicians to be "real", Stirton says, and since becoming Prime Minister, Julia Gillard had not managed to do it. She is apt to speak in "empty corporate cliché, the sort of rubbish that voters just switch off at," he says.
Yet, when she was real, as in days of yore before she became PM, she was "quite an appealing person".
Stirton notes that during the Feb. 23 press conference at which she announced the leadership ballot, once she got a bit fired up, Julia Gillard started to sound "real". Other insiders thought likewise. It was like the "old Julia", said a lot of people.
In contrast, Rudd's show was filled with rhetorical absurdities like "public attacks from faceless men" and claims that they had been stalking him over the months.
Yet when The Sydney Morning Herald published one of its little, unscientific polls later in the day, asking people whose presser was more impressive, Rudd won it 69 per cent to 31.
It must be so frustrating to those in the Labor Party who fondly hope that the public will now come to see Kevin Rudd as the fraud they believe him to be.
Perhaps they should consider that famous line by Jean Giraudoux: "The secret of success is sincerity. Once you can fake that, you've got it made."