Last year was a dream for political junkies: polls came out weekly, and each one mattered.
Polls of course only matter in so far as they influence perceptions; but it is foolish to forget they are not just random results – they do reflect reality. Rudd was in front all of 2007, therefore the Howard Government was in trouble in perception and reality.
Tony Abbott in a moment of great self-delusion last year forgot the second aspect and tried to argue that the only reason the Howard Government was in danger of losing the election was because the polls were saying they were in danger of losing the election.
To continue the Abbott argument into this year, we can say that Brendan Nelson is only struggling because the polls are telling everyone that he is struggling. Obviously this ignores the fact that you don’t need a poll to tell which way the political wind blows when it blows as bad as Nelson does.
The other argument put forward about the polls is that Rudd is not ahead because he is popular, or because the Government is doing well, but because the alternative is unpalatable. This is known as the Iemma Explanation. It’s a cute argument; akin to saying Leyton Hewitt’s time as world Number 1 didn’t really count because he didn’t have to beat anyone of any note (Sampras was past his best, Federer had yet to really arrive).
Now those in the media, such as Denis Shanahan, who have been predicting the end of the Rudd honeymoon for about 18 months, have been viewing politics as the AFL and see Rudd as the Adelaide Crows. Throughout the first 10 rounds of this years’ season the Crows were doing great, but they hadn’t actually beaten any team of worth. Now that they have lost to Brisbane, Hawthorn, Geelong and Collingwood, they suddenly seem ordinary (losing Burton didn’t help either).
Likewise, the commentators believe Rudd’s been getting wins over the easy opponents – Kyoto, Sorry, China, Nelson; but when he comes up against the tough opponents (and the “tough decisions” he apparently cannot make) then he will fall faster than my mood while watching Adelaide capitulate during the first quarter against Geelong.
The problem with this argument is that Australian politics is a tennis match not the AFL.
Rudd does not have to stay on top of the Premiership table; he only has to beat the opponent across the net. At the moment it’s Nelson. True there may be something to the argument that he is only winning because of Nelson’s copious unforced errors, but it’s still looking like being a win in straight sets.
The problem with the AFL theory is also that the Libs are not Geelong. They have a few in the party who think they are Gary Ablett or Cameron Ling, but the truth is in the first seven months, neither Turnbull, nor Bishop, nor Hockey, nor Abbott has scored any goals on Rudd at all, and unfortunately not only are they not a team of champions, they are not a champion team.
Their captain’s performance hasn’t helped - the only time Nelson has sounded slightly convincing was during his Budget reply speech when his rent-a-crowd in the public galleries cheered his every attempt at humour or conviction. His fuel excise policy was a nice mark 50m out from goal, but you wouldn't back him to put it through from that distance.
Going back to the tennis analogy, many think Turnbull will be Federer to Rudd’s Hewitt (Howard being the past-his-best Sampras). The argument is that once he takes over, the numbers will turn and it’ll be an LNP Grand Slam in 2010.
I’m not so sure. Mostly this is because Turnbull has failed to ace Wayne Swan despite the Treasurer spending much of the first sitting period of parliament looking and sounding nervous and unprepared. In March, all the talk was about how soon it would be before Rudd replaces Swan. Since the budget, this talk has died. During the last parliament session Swan at times laughed openly at some of Turnbull’s questions. He appeared well-briefed, confident, and most importantly looked to be enjoying Question Time.
But then given the opposition’s poor performance, it’s little wonder he is enjoying it. Consider the last question Turnbull asked Swan:
Mr TURNBULL (2.43 p.m.)—My question is addressed to the Treasurer. I refer to the Treasurer’s top 10 tips for shoppers, which are listed on his personal website, and to the Prime Minister’s answer to the Leader of the Opposition’s first question. Tip No. 8 states that shoppers should:
Ask store managers to match their competitor’s prices on particular products ...
Will the Treasurer confirm that under the government’s proposed Fuelwatch scheme, once a petrol retailer has nominated their price, it will be illegal for them to match a lower priced competitor, even if asked by a customer to do so?
This is an absolute full toss, fully deserving to be dispatched to the fence (Question Time must always be talked of in cricketing terms – it’s a Yes Minister rule). The problem is the reference to Swan’s Top 10 Tips; the rest is superfluous. Any Minister with any level of intelligence above that of a newt will focus only on that. Which indeed Swan did:
Mr SWAN—I thank the honourable member for his question. The opposition can do nothing but sneer at average Australian families who do the shopping. They have a snobby disdain for the fact that people out there might be interested in where they can buy a special. That was absolutely on display in this House last week by the member for Curtin—the snobby disdain for the fact that I have had a price watch operating in my electorate since 1993. It is staffed by a band of loyal volunteers who have supplied information to people in my electorate who want that information and who have come to rely on it.
Of course a point of order followed, but Swan was being relevant, and carried on happily.
The problem is Turnbull tried to be too clever. He thought he had trapped Swan by showing the hypocrisy of his own “tips” (let’s just forget that Swan’s tips do not suggest getting a petrol station manager to match prices, so he’s comparing apples and oranges), instead he gave Swan the opportunity to talk about how out of touch is the rich Mr Turnbull. It is indicative of many of Turnbull's questions, and they have in effect allowed Swan to come back from 5-Love down and now finds himself serving for the first set at 6-5.
Such a performance by Turnbull really should not be surprising; he was a poor performer last year as a Minister in parliament. In spite of this, I thought he would be better in opposition (lawyers are good at asking questions), but too often he falls into the trap of trying to be clever, and instead comes across as being too clever by half. In retrospect this should also not have been surprising – it was the great failing of his performance during the Republic referendum.
It is in his nature. It won’t change if he takes over the leadership.
So back to the poll. ALP 55% - LNP 45%. Yep it’s a drop for the Government from the dopey heights of March and April. But it doesn’t matter. Nelson is still in the teens when it comes to preferred PM, and I don’t think any poll will matter until the opposition leader is within 15% of Rudd on preferred PM. If Rudd stays above 50%, and Nelson or Turnbull or whoever can’t get above 35%, then the election will be a rout.
And the reality is even if a leader does get that close, it still won’t matter until we get into 2010.
So we’re only in the early part of the first week of the tournament; the problem for the opposition is that on the other side of the draw I don’t see any potential match-ups that will stop Rudd progressing to another title.