The impact of poor political poll results on a party’s decision to replace a sitting prime minister or leader of the opposition was examined in the textbook (Australian Political Institutions 10th edition pp. 222-224). This was illustrated by the overthrow of Labor prime minister Kevin Rudd and opposition Liberal leaders Brendan Nelson and Malcolm Turnbull. As we will see below, the replacement leader is not immune from from leadership challenges if they too fail to perform satisfactorily in the polls.
Political polling and Julia Gillard’s leadership
The Labor party under Gillard’s leadership was returned to power at the August 2010 election but as a minority government reliant on the support of the cross bench in the House of Representatives and the Senate to pass its legislation through the parliament. The Gillard government trailed the Coalition in the polls, falling to 30 per cent in January 2012. Gillard maintained a lead over Opposition leader Tony Abbott as preferred prime minister but between June and November 2011 she fell behind, regained the lead briefly and then fell behind again in early February 2012 (Newspoll and The Australian, http://www.newspoll.com.au/opinion-polls-2/opinion-polls-2).
The fact that the polls were showing Kevin Rudd as most preferred prime minister ahead of both Gillard and Abbott encouraged a leadership challenge by Rudd supporters (Shanahan, D & Franklin, M. 2012, 25 February, http://www.theaustralian.com.au/national-affairs/in-depth/kevin-rudd-alps-best-hope-newspoll/story-fnccyr6m-1226281089887). Gillard convincingly won the party room vote that took place on 27 February by 71 to 31. One of the reasons why poor polling did not cause a change of leadership on this occasion was the fact that the majority of the Labor caucus was not prepared to work with Rudd as leader (Hartcher, P. 2012, 27 February, http://www.smh.com.au/opinion/politics/will-of-the-people-fails-to-sway-caucus-20120227-1txt2.html). Nevertheless, it was predicted in the media that Gillard’s future leadership fortunes would ‘rest on the opinion polls (Coorey, P. 2012, 27 February, http://www.abc.net.au/news/2012-02-27/line-blog-monday/3853898).
Labor’s polling remained well below the Coalition into 2012, tumbling to 27 per cent in April. In March and April 2012 Abbott again outpolled Gillard as preferred prime minister (Newspoll and The Australian op.cit). A major reason was the forthcoming introduction of the carbon tax on 1 July. In June 2012 speculation again arose whether Rudd would challenge Gillard for the leadership with speculation about an ‘unofficial deadline of October’ for a caucus ballot (Kelly, J. & Packham. B. 2012, 12 June, http://www.theaustralian.com.au/national-affairs/polling/rudd-backers-working-to-october-deadline-for-new-leadership-challenge/story-fnc6vkbc-1226393243909). In July Chief Government Whip Joel Fitzgibbon, who had been associated with the move to reinstate Rudd, warned that Gillard’s leadership would be under threat if Labor continued to do poorly in the polls: ‘Populism matters in politics, and no matter what political party you’re talking about, if leaders remain unpopular long enough they’ll inevitably stop leading the party’ ,he said. Gillard responded that the party had resolved the leadership issue in February (Cullen, S. 2012, 17 July, http://www.abc.net.au/news/2012-07-17/joel-fitzgibbon-wont-guarantee-gillard-will-lead/4134982). Labor continued to trail the Coalition in the polls but from September Gillard maintained her lead over Abbott as preferred prime minister. The October ‘unofficial deadline’ passed without a challenge but media speculation about a further challenge by Rudd continued. This was denied by Rudd. However, speculation about a leadership challenged continued even after Gillard announced the federal election would be held on 14 September 2013.
On 9 March 2013 it was reported that Gillard’s strength in the polls as preferred prime minister over Abbott ‘kept her critics at bay’, but polling continued to show Labor lagging behind the Coalition on primary and second preference votes. On 10 March there were media reports that Gillard’s leadership faced a crucial fortnight with Labor MPs reportedly warning her leadership could prove unsustainable if the poor polls continued and reports of Labor power brokers canvassing the option of a delegation of MPs to get her to stand aside (Maiden, S. 2013, 10 March, http://www.dailytelegraph.com.au/news/deadline-looms-for-prime-minister-julia-gillard/story-e6freuy9-1226593924698). On 12 March, however, Gillard led Abbott as preferred prime minister, Labor’s primary vote increased and the two-party preferred difference narrowed (Newspoll/The Australian, op.cit). According to Age journalist Peter Hartcher the Gillard government’s survival prospects were being ‘recalibrated’ on a ‘poll-by-poll basis’ (Hartcher, P. 2013, 13 March, http://www.theage.com.au/opinion/politics/democraised-labor-hangs-on-every-poll-20130312-2fymt.html).
On 21 March the matter was brought to a head when Simon Crean, a senior cabinet minister, called on Gillard to resolve the leadership issue with a caucus ballo which she then scheduled for 4.30 p.m. Even though Rudd was continuing to poll better than Gillard as preferred prime minister, he chose not to run when it became apparent he did not have the numbers to win. Just before the caucus meeting he announced he would honour his previous commitment not to challenge unless he was drafted by a significant majority and the position was vacant (Harrison, D. & Hurs, D. 2012, 21 March, http://www.nationaltimes.com.au/opinion/politicalpnews/rudd-refuses-to-run-for-leadership-pm-prevails-20130321-2ghh9.html). Rudd subsequently declared that under ‘no circumstances’ would he again seek the Labor leadership (AAP, 22 March, http://www.couriermail.com.au/news/breaking-news/gillard-surprised-rudd-didnt-put-hand-up/story-e6freono-1226603058727).
This saga illustrates that even though poor political polling created the circumstances and provided the catalyst for speculation and two challenges to Gillard’s leadership, it proved not sufficient reason for a majority of caucus to vote for a leadership spill in favour of Rudd. The reason, as in February 2012, appeared to be their unwillingness to work with Rudd as party leader.
We might ask whether knee jerk reactions whenever a party leader performs poorly in the polls is justifiable. There are, after all, occasions during a term of any government when hard or unpopular decisions need to be made that require time to prove whether or not they are good policy. Political stability may be better served by a longer term view of the performance of a leader. In the final analysis, voters have the final say when they cast their judgement at the ballot box.
1 April 2013