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Game of Polls

At the Side Project blog, Warwick Holt suggests opinion polling has become a bloodsport, and wonders if the public are getting a taste for it

In recent weeks, the TV show being discussed around everyone’s watercooler has been Game of Thrones. The epic, blood-drenched tale of tyrants and ambitious claimants clashing in a medieval fantasy world has captured the imagination of Australians. Even Prime Minister Julia Gillard said it was her favourite show.

Sorry, of course that should read “former Prime Minister” Gillard. Last week Australia changed leader again without an election actually being held, and the response has been immediate and substantial. Looking at the polls makes me wonder if we have an electorate now engaging with politics not as a realm of ideas and policies, but as a gladiatorial clash of kings and queens.

Gillard said her favourite character was the Khaleesi, the Mother of Dragons. For three years, she managed to be the Mother of Factions, arguably an even trickier beast to tame. But in the broader community, the drumbeat grew louder for a return to the old leader.

The government had been languishing at beneath 45% of the two-party preferred (TPP) vote for most of the time since the 2010 election. Figures like that were going to translate to a bloodbath with 30-plus seats lost.

But instead the blood was let in the caucus room, in what a popular Twitter hashtag on Wednesday night dubbed a “Rudd wedding” (referencing GoT’s notorious “red wedding”).

And as ruthless as Rudd and his backers may have been, as torn as the party members themselves were in casting their votes for a man many of them would have viewed as a treacherous underminer, politically it seems to have been a masterstroke. Rudd looks like he might not just “save the furniture” but actually keep the Lodge to house it in.

The six polls released since last week’s leadership spill all now have the ALP TPP figure at 48% or above. The weekend’s Roy Morgan poll even trumpeted a Labor lead with 51.5%.

The recovery in Labor’s primary vote is even more (ahem) Stark – around 7% in a week. And Rudd is romping it in over Opposition Leader Tony Abbott as preferred Prime Minister.

According to Crikey’s psephologists (which is a fancy word for people who statistically analyse elections), this points to another hung parliament or even an outright ALP victory – due to the particularly severe swing back to Labor in Queensland.

Of course, many suggest this is Rudd’s “honeymoon period”, but personally I’m sceptical. A honeymoon period suggests a time of giving a new person a chance. But Rudd is hardly someone we don’t know. In contrast, he was someone the public was baying for the return of, in spite of the steady stream of comments about his apparently dysfunctional leadership style. In fact to many in states where the Labor brand is on the nose, the very idea of Rudd standing up to the party may be one of his major attractions.

Remarkably, the public support for Rudd shown in polls prior to the leadership spill seems to have translated directly to voters switching to Labor. Many pundits had suggested Rudd’s high approval may be partly due to Coalition supporters preferring Rudd purely to mess with the government. But actually, the people were continually expressing their wish for a change of Labor leader, and when they got it, they switched their vote back to the government.

Obviously there is some residual resentment from the way Rudd was outed in 2010, and for many it may be a matter of “righting a wrong”. Though Gillard was herself elected leader on the back of falling poll figures, and gave the ALP a bounce (admittedly much smaller) in the polls back then. And the government did manage to get just over 50% of the TPP vote at the election. If the electorate was that outraged about Rudd’s knifing, they seemed to take a while to register it.

But whatever the reasons for Gillard’s plummet in popularity – a sense that “Rudd was robbed”, the cut-throat hung parliament, the carbon tax “lie”, shock jocks, misogyny, redhead discrimination – she who lived by the polls ultimately died by the polls.

Perhaps it comes down to the very system that has just brought us six polls in a week. (And that’s with Nielsen still to report.) Since Rudd’s victory in 2007, the increasingly regular opinion polls show a voting public that seems to have become far more fickle.

It’s hard to believe that in early 2010, just after Tony Abbott became Opposition Leader, the ALP TPP vote was in the high 50s. By mid-2011, in the wake of the carbon tax announcement, it was the opposition who were sitting around 60. Over 15% of voters changed their minds about the major party they preferred in 18 months.

In the long history of opinion polling that represents a tsunami of swinging voters. And last Wednesday, half of them swung right back - overnight.

That a change of leader could cause such a sudden shift in sentiment – particularly when unaccompanied by any policy change – suggests that Australian politics has become increasingly presidential. Less people are tied to a particular party than in the past, instead looking at, or at least forming an opinion on, the different leaders on offer (even when they’re technically not).

In this world of constant, endless polling, polls have become trial elections. Every week comes a fresh song of fire and ice, pitting leaders against their rivals. The media are poll-watching, the public are poll-watching, and most critically of all, the parties are poll-watching.

And while the Gillard government achieved far more than they’re given credit for (despite being hamstrung by minority government, she passed legislation at a greater rate than any previous Prime Minister), there’s nothing more important to the parties than these relentless snapshots of the electorate’s mood. And sometimes, like last week, the party decides to take action based on that mood.

While some were quick to declare last week’s coup as the “death of democracy”, in fact what happened was a sort of Australian Presidential primary, where the electorate finally got the Labor candidate they wanted.

Three years between elections is an awfully long time to wait for an electorate with a short attention span and an inherent dislike of politicians. The public may have realised that the power to choose their leaders – if not their governments – now seems to be in their hands. Sniff the wind, jump on the latest wave of support and watch the blood flow.

If I were Tony Abbott, I’d be assembling my army and fortifying the battlements. He’s never been personally popular with the electorate, despite the success of his negative, adversarial style of opposition, which seems to be ripped straight from the pages of George R.R. Martin’s saga. Let’s face it, he has torn down two Prime Ministers (even if one of them is now back on the Iron Throne).

Kingslayer Abbott says he’s more of a Downton Abbey fan. But if the ALP’s numbers continue to be in the ascendant, he’ll want to watch out when the next poll comparing his popularity with Malcolm Turnbull’s is published. Outside Canberra's wall, The Australian public have had a strong taste of their opinion poll power. And Winter might be coming for Tony next.

As well as being The Project’s resident qualified maths geek, Warwick runs a Media Empire, and occasionally tweets @wokholt.

The opinions expressed in The Side Project blog do not necessarily reflect those of The Project or the Ten Network.