Monday, September 12, 2011


Polls, leadership, and policy.

You wouldn't think it's too hard to get the order of importance right. This is my effort to assist our modern politicians . . .


Nielsen normally provides some of the most authoritative polling results in the country. That’s why no one can question the findings of yesterday's report, insisting that bringing back Kevin Rudd would catapult Labor to an “election winning lead". That's true – today. But it doesn't mean that he, or anyone else for that matter, could turn into the party's savior.

While providing vindication for the former PM, there’s absolutely no guarantee that the voters would retain their loyalty to Rudd if he was brought back. Polls represent a snapshot, answering simply the questions that are being posed at that particular time. Experienced analysts (like Nielsen's John Stirton) can interpret the entrails, but a simplistic answer (like replacing Julia Gillard) will rarely work in the real world. This requires harder answers.

After all, what is one to make of another of yesterday's findings? It's difficult to believe, for example, that six percent of Green voters are actually in favor of asylum-seekers being just simply towed back out to sea – and yet that's what the poll asserts. I don't doubt the results; it's just that these people are probably indicating their frustration about the other choices that are being presented by the political parties.

What people want is a solution. Only someone completely stiff-necked could assert there is no merit in some combination of Nauru, Malaysia, as well as onshore processing, and yet neither of the major political parties appear to want to accept this.

That's why polls should remain just a tool to used by political apparatchiks, rather than a method for formulating policy. Perhaps if Labor returned its focus to actually governing properly and effectively, many of its other problems would disappear.

Obsession with the stain of Rudd's assassination has given Gillard the image of some kind of Lady Macbeth. No one would be surprised if she was seen pacing the corridors of the Lodge late at night crying, “out, out, dammed spot" as part of a futile effort to expunge him from the country’s corporate memory. It won't work. The party has reached its nadir. All that can save it is good policy.

Tragically for the Prime Minister, her own personal representation has already been indelibly engraved in the public mind. It's a picture utterly devoid of authority. When Gough Whitlam created the modern party by uniting the workers with the intellectual left, he united the two forces with one key idea: The Leader. It became part of the party's founding myth. The idea was simple. Because the stresses of modern life were pulling in so many different ways it was necessary to have someone above the chaos that could envisage a bounteous future and then guide the country to this Promised Land.

This was the formula followed by Bob Hawke and Paul Keating and, excitingly, by Kevin Rudd right through the year-long election campaign of 2007. Gillard trashed this idea the minute she admitted it was somehow ‘wrong’ of her to begin shifting her own personal knickknacks into the Lodge until the occupancy was legitimised by the people at an election. Then came “real Julia", another disaster all of her own making. The problem was not just the suggestion that we'd somehow got hold of the idea she was someone she wasn't, the issue was the familiarity. She was the common, first name, girl next door. Fine for a date, perhaps, but not someone we could look up to, a Lady Thatcher for our time.

Tomorrow night the ABC will unwittingly continue this relentless assault until the last few remaining shards of her dignity have finally been stripped away. It's far too late to attempt to re-make the product or engage in rebranding exercises. The seeds have been too long germinating. Remember the tooing and frowing on the night Gillard was finally pushed to overthrow her master? She should have stormed into his office, thumped the desk, and demand the primeministership as of right, because she was confident she was the right person to lead the nation. Instead she dithered, wondering whether to strike, giving Rudd time, consulting with the plotters. This planted the seeds of doubt in our minds. Today they have blossomed into flower.

And yet the government cannot afford to cut her down. Instead, in what little time it has left, it desperately needs to refashion its corporate myth. An alternative is readily to hand. It was even used, briefly, by Hawke in the fading days of his government. Gillard needs to forego the attempt to portray herself as anything other than the leader of the board. The only way forward is for her to push good policy to the forefront.

The only way to save herself is by dissipating the focus as quickly as possible, and even that will not be fast enough. When Gillard assumed the leadership she made the mistake of identifying Rudd's three critical failings: mineral resources tax, action on climate change, and an influx of asylum seekers. He bequeathed a legacy she's been utterly unable to solve. If she can find a solution, based on good policy, other achievements of the government will be able to shine.

If Senator David Feeney, for example, makes a contribution it’s usually dismissed as that of powerbroker. That's true. But it also ignores one of the most major structural changes to the Army since the Howard government abolished the Ready Reserve Scheme back in 1996. Back then the force was hollowed out. There were more rifles, but no one to support the troops. The reserves lost focus and funding. The sudden crisis in East Timor exposed the fragility of this structure. The effective result has been the slow cannibalisation of the reserves in order to support our deployments.

Now Feeney’s behind a real push to integrate the different forces. Although problems remain (particularly the financing of the new force) the result is good policy. It highlight’s the opposition’s failure to come up with any dynamic defence policies, reverting to cardboard cutout caricatures instead.

The only way the government can improve its polling is to focus on good policy. It may still be too late, but it will at least offer voters a choice.

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