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<p>Photo by Mike Bowers</p>

Photo by Mike Bowers

The Faceless Men (And Women) Of The Polls

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.

“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.”

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.

<p>Photos by Mike Bowers</p>

Photos by Mike Bowers

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.

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.

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.

“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.”

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.

Australians like their politicians to be “real”, and since becoming Prime Minister, Julia Gillard had not managed to do it.

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.

Go figure.

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."

14 comments on this story
by Pravesha

I don't know where these polls are being done , but my experience is nothing like what they are saying . Most of the people that I know have tremendous respect for JUlia and trust her . i thought her press conference was brilliant , particularly when she told a journalist he was rude . More of this Julia please !

February 24, 2012 @ 1:48pm
by abrasiveteapot

Yep, I'm one of those who voted for Rudd in 07 and abandoned ALP in 10. Vote went to greens in the senate and Libs in the House of Reps. The only thing you left out was the NSW disease and the distaste that created for this sort of behaviour. If we hadn't already been through the unedifying Iemma/Rees/ KK spectacular, we MIGHT have been more tolerant. If JG were to drop the julia/real julia wooden personas and just be the person she keeps hiding we might have forgiven her (but not Shorten Arbib, Feeney and Bitar)

February 24, 2012 @ 3:19pm
by Mike

It's said that successful politicians campaign in poetry and govern in prose.
So far we've yet to see much poetry from Julia, but Kevin campaigns in poetry and governs in comic-book.

February 24, 2012 @ 10:19pm
by Dean

Great to see a well-researched, balanced report in the media. I appreciated Mike's approach to Nielsen to confirm the statistical significance of the data. In these turbulent times, we need more articles like this.

February 24, 2012 @ 11:09pm
by Joe

Button's article in the Age presents first hand experience. I agree with Julia's qualities. But logic is not the issue. For political expediency it may be neccessary to give the hounds their pound of flesh. Hopefully Rudd has learnt - and changed. The important thing is for Labor to stay in power long enough that their major measures - NBN, emisions tax, mining tax, cannot be rolled back.

February 25, 2012 @ 8:18am
by Feminist Culture Muncher

I think it's odd that anyone would think it odd that Greens voters preferred Rudd to Gillard.

Of course, both are players who will do anything to hold onto power, so in practice the distinction between them policy-wise is fairly minor (something the article failed to note).

However, there have been minor policy differences betwen the two and it's fair to say that for all his failings Rudd has been slightly to the left of Gillard. HIs CPRS was hopeless and would have locked in huge compensation for big polluters, but Gillard didn't want one at all; she was forced into producing a carbon tax because of being in a minority government. The carbon tax is superior to Rudd's plan only because the Greens were involved in creating it.

And who could forget the original, higher-yielding mining tax, the sword on which Rudd fell, which would have freed up more money to fund government services?

Similarly, Rudd raised pensions, a move Gillard was apparently against. She also attempted to introduce the Malaysian Solution.

Yet neither leader has been willing to implement major reforms that would have made Australia fairer: grandfathering the end of negative gearing and outrageous super concessions for the rich, lifting the dole above starvation levels, ending massive fossil fuel subsidies and funding decent public transport, and ending the funding of wealthy schools' swimming pools to adequately fund government schools.

Rule by big business and bribery of the middle classes wil continue regardless of which one wins the ballot; more so because in his current run for the leadership Rudd has apparently made a pitch to business, promising to be more business-friendly in a second incarnation.

February 25, 2012 @ 8:53am
by mjl

I watched the Rudd press conference in Washington in amazement. That compressed, prissy mouth is a trumpet of doom for Labour.

Rudd's assertions at the lectern are inventive just where one wishes for honesty, and slavish just where one wishes for independence and creativity. An air of pompous self-importance infects them all.

First there is the inventive assertion that the Rudd government achieved something. Beyond the apology to the indigenous people and a $1200 handout to anyone with a tax file number there is, actually, little to see. The NBN may or may not exist at some time in the future. Manufacturing is dead or dying. All other progress under the Rudd/Gillard government has consisted of standing by while Howard's policy machines throb on.

Then there are the slavish recitals of economic-rationalist cant, in which, for example, Rudd speaks of low government investment and debt as an achievement; or preens about Australia's national debt level while ignoring its monstrous level of private debt. There is not a word in, say, the Thatcherite view of the economy with which Rudd disagrees.

However my amazement grew not detail by spurious detail, but on reflection about the performance as a whole. The policy stuff jars because it is election-time boilerplate; it really sounds as if Rudd believes himself to be leader of the opposition, with every right and interest in savaging the incumbent leader. Rudd Redux is a grotesquely devious and destructive performance, and yet Rudd seems to think it does him credit: the transcript of the Washington press conference is even now on his own Web site.

Just how widely can one define one's own interests in power and how narrowly define Australia's public interest? Gillard's betrayal of Rudd was one answer. Rudd has set new marks by which to measure the abyss.

February 25, 2012 @ 10:10am
by Greenish

Green voters don't like Julia since she publicly said no to same sex marriage, and upset so many long-term committed couples and their families and friends. Kevin is now favoured because even though he might have the same opinion as Julia, he hasn't said so publicly. The negative polling for Julia by greens just reflects that disappointment in her attitude to same sex marriage, plain and simple. It's not support for Kevin, it's annoyance with Julia.

February 25, 2012 @ 10:57am
by John

I can't comment on personalities, but I do know that Julia's argument that she can "get things done" is a little bit specious. Because of the time line for the incoming Senators from the 2007 election, Rudd had to deal with a Coalition absolute majority in the Senate for all the time he was PM. Julia had to wait too, but now shen can get things through the Senate with the help of the Greens.

February 25, 2012 @ 12:28pm
by Kevin

Rudds "cabinet supporters" are the one's we should be paying attention to, Marty the coaly and airport Albanese. These men of the past need to be given the flick along with Rudd.
If these guys support Rudd I'm just not interested in Rudd, it's Rudds campaign against poker machine reform that led Labour backbenchers into backing down on reforms hence seriously damaging Gillards integrity at a time she didn't need it.Gillard made a mistake in not forcing reform.

February 25, 2012 @ 12:47pm
by susan

When Rudd came to lead the Labor Party, many of us were uttlerly captivated by his refreshingly frank demeanor and great story. We loved all those promises.

The global financial crisis obviously short circuited a lot of the promises. Giving Australians financial and job security came first. Completely understandable.

Somewhere along the line though, things grew weird. It was always Rudd delivering good news, along with more and more promises. Other politicians only appeared to deliver bad news.

At the same time, during month after month after month noticeably little was achieved to benefit Australians in the long term. We became less happy as a nation. Uncomfortable with the manner of Rudd's rolling, the choice to do so made absolute sense to me.

From the first, Gillard and her Ministers spelled out clear agendas. Slowly, with essential if lengthy negotiations, things are being achieved that are of real substance, including the NBN, a viable carbon price, tax relief for those on lower incomes and ongoing education evolution. There is so much more to come, including a viable disability insurance, aged care reform that ensures fair financial arrangements , and the sharing of mining profits with the Australian people.

Julia Gillard deserves the opportunity to see all her hard work, and that of her Cabinet colleagues, come to fruition. Perhaps then the public at large will recognize what most federal Labor politicians already know - this Prime Minister does indeed get the job done!

February 25, 2012 @ 2:13pm
Show previous 11 comments
by Patrick

"It's no longer necessary for a political candidate to guess what an audience thinks. He can [find out] with a nightly tracking poll. So it's no longer likely that political leaders are going to lead.

Instead, they're going to follow."

- Douglas Bailey, on Gerald Ford's 1976 Presidential campaign.

February 25, 2012 @ 4:32pm
by Matthew

Those of us in NSW, and to a lesser extent Queensland, know the ALP Right faction disease at the state level. What is missing in this analysis is that the Sussex St Right Faction is deeply unpopular, and the public have had it with their machinations. Gillard has tossed the Faulkner/Bracks/Carr Report into the long grass. That is a) disrespectful to learned elders of the party and b) unforgivable. The party members and much of the public cannot bear a party in which democratic views are so compromised. Without change the ALP will suffer death by a thousand cuts.

They must embrace internal reform - sans Arbib, Howes, Shorten, Tripodi etc. Of the candidates, only Rudd has shown any interest in embarking on this task.

February 25, 2012 @ 8:39pm
by Debbie

I am glad that at least one media outlet is providing some fair interpretation of Nielsen Poll results. All the other media outlets so far have failed to do so. Thank you for providing quality journalism.

February 27, 2012 @ 10:51am
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