New paradigms notwithstanding, the first week of the 43rd Parliament of Australia has confirmed a continuation of the gladiatorial contests that have characterised Australia’s model of presidential politics.
And that means a confronting truth for both Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott: the public’s perceptions of their personal strengths and weakness are central to the success of their respective political projects.
There was a time when character research was a dark art, the province of party focus groups, only dusted of at election time when attacks would be constructed around a candidate’s lack of ticker (read weight) or stubbornness (read age). The modern opinion polling means today it’s all out in the open.
Essential Research regularly asks its national research panel to rate leaders against 16 character traits, both positive and negative. Taken in isolation they may appear glib even gratuitous, after all what’s the point in asking the public about whether they trust a politician?
But looked at as a data set that is repeated at regular intervals, they provide the DNA of a leader’s public reputation and reinforces in stark terms how policy and political decisions can affect a leaders personality ratings.
When Kevin Rudd walked away from climate change his key indicators collapsed – not just those directly related to the backflip such as ‘visionary’ but general qualities like ‘intelligence’ and ‘good in a crisis’.
Likewise, when Malcolm Turnbull misfired on Godwin Gretch, his personal characteristics collapsed across the board.
So where do Tony Abbott and Julia Gillard stand post–election?
On first blush it seems the PM is in the driver’s seat. On all 16 indicators she is ahead of Abbott on positive traits and behind on negatives.
|Julia Gillard||Tony Abbott||Difference|
|A capable leader||59%||52%||7%|
|Out of touch with ordinary people||44%||53%||-9%|
|Understands the problems facing Australia||55%||53%||2%|
|Good in a crisis||46%||42%||4%|
|Down to earth||62%||47%||15%|
|More honest than most politicians||37%||32%||5%|
On many of the indicators the differences are minimal – neither are seen to be complacent, both are regarded as intelligent and hard-working and there is no compelling view that either is particularly honest, trustworthy or visionary.
But there are issues where Gillard commands significant advantages over Abbott: on both perceptions of arrogance (39 per cent to 60 per cent), being narrow-minded (35 per cent to 53 per cent) and being down to earth (62 per cent to 47 per cent).
So we have a leader who is self-deprecating, open-minded and down-home up against a vain, small-minded elitist. Sounds like a familiar narrative?
If only it were that simple.
Because there is another story that can be written if this week’s numbers are compared with the responses last time we asked the question, on July 5, in the days after Gillard became leader and before the election was called.
This time we have marked the change in response for each leader.
| Gillard change
|| Abbott change
|A capable leader||-13%||5%|
|Out of touch with ordinary people||9%||-4%|
|Understands the problems facing Australia||-13%||3%|
|Good in a crisis||15%||2%|
|Down to earth||-6%||0%|
|More honest than most politicians||-8%||-1%|
In this context, it is clear which leader emerged enhanced from the federal election – or more accurately, who lost political skin.
Abbott kept most indictors within the 2 per cent margin of error, with the exception of a 5 per cent rise in perceptions of capability and a slightly higher rise in perceptions of being demanding.
In contrast, Gillard has experienced double-digit drops in the sort of traits that any self-respecting leader wants to call their own, understanding, capability, vision, and ability to handle a crisis.
With Tony Abbott, what you see is what you get; with Julia Gillard, people are still working out whether Australia’s first female Prime Minister is a game-changer or just another politician.
How will these numbers shape the way the leaders act? Here are five predictions:
1. Gillard will find a matter of principle to base Labor’s second term around.
2. Abbott will strain every fibre of his being to show some flexibility.
3. Gillard will not lose the accent, nor the Bulldogs scarf.
4. Abbott will seek to be seen drinking beer, not shandy.
5. Both will deny they are being poll-driven.
Peter Lewis, Director, EMC