As we saw in the case study in chapter 6 of the textbook Australian Political Institutions 10e (pp 222-224) performance in opinion polls has been a determinant in whether prime ministers and opposition leaders retain their position. Prime minister Kevin Rudd was replaced on 24 June 2010 by a majority vote of the parliamentary Labor caucus in part because polls were showing his popularity was in decline. His replacement Julia Gillard suffered the same fate on 26 June 2013 when we was ousted by a majority vote of caucus in favour of a resurgent Kevin Rudd.
The case study explains that Gillard’s falling popularity at the polls and Rudd’s stronger polling as preferred prime minister, accompanied by a decline in the party’s first and second preference performance in the polls, had led to constant media speculation about a leadership challenge. Rudd did challenge on 27 Feburary 2012 but was convincingly defeated by 71 to 31. But this did not put a stop to rumblings about Gillard’s leadership as her status in the polls continued at a low level. A second leadership challenge anticipated for 21 March 2013 did not eventuate because Rudd did not put his hat in the ring when it became clear that he did not have the numbers to win.
The leadership saga continued as Labor and Gillard’s popularity remained slumped in the doldrums and Rudd continued to poll well as preferred prime minister. In February 2013 for example, 61 per cent of votes (and 45 per cent of ALP voters) preferred Rudd as prime minister (Farr, M. 2013, News Limited Network, 18 February http://www.adelaidenow.com.au/news/labor-and-gillard-losing-support-poll/story-e6frea6u-1226579918358). On 19 May 2013 polling revealed Labor’s primary vote at a dismal 31 per cent (Newspoll/The Australian, http://www.newspoll.com.au/opinion-polls-2). Sunday Fairfax papers on 23 June 2013 on the results of its polling estimated Labor would lose 35 of its 71 seats in the House of Representatives but that Labor’s chances would be greatly enhanced by around 7 per cent on a two party preferred basis if Rudd were reinstated as prime minister (AAP, 25 June 2013, http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/breaking-news/labor-could-lose-35-of-71-seats-poll/story-fn3ddiwe-1226669168446).
Leadership challenge speculation intensified in the media and some cabinet members apparently were prepared to support Rudd. On 27 June 2013, Gillard called a spill motion in caucus which she lost to Rudd by 57 votes to 45. Gillard was defeated because Labor MPs who voted for Rudd considered he had more chance of sustaining a lesser defeat or even winning the next election. This included some previously staunch Gillard cabinet supporters such as Minister for Education and Workplace Relations Bill Shorten who stated: ‘it is my personal conviction that the best interests of the Australian nation and the Labor party must come first….I believe that Kevin Rudd being elected tonight provides the best platform for Labor to be competitive at the next election (cited by Griffiths, E. 2013, ABC News, 26 June http://www.abc.net.au/news/2013-06-26/rudd-prevails-over-gillard-in-leadership-ballot/4783422). Minister for Finance and Deregulation Penny Wong who said: ‘I voted for Julia on the last occasion because I still believed that she was the person who should be prime minister and out of personal loyalty and as the first female prime minister I thought it was important to continue to support her. Then I gradually became more and more concerned at the political position of the Labor Party. Particularly in this last week I’d been weighing up what I saw as my two loyalties, which previously had been aligned. My personal loyalty to her and my loyalty to the party.’ For Senator Wong those two loyalties stopped being ‘aligned’ when she voted for Rudd (Shepherd, t. 2013, ‘Adelaide Now, 29 June http://www.adelaidenow.com.au/news/penny-wong-reveals-why-she-betrayed-julia-gillard/story-fni6uok5-1226671770803).
Labor’s leadership change brought about an immediate spike in Labor’s popularity. Labor’s two-party preferred status increased from 43 per cent under Gillard to 50 per cent under Rudd placing the ALP on even terms with the Opposition. Rudd’s polling at 58 per cent was well ahead of Abbott’s 32 per cent standing as preferred prime minister.
Abbott’s low polling results became the subject of media speculation about his leadership which was further fuelled by a Fairfax-Nielsen poll which showed deposed Liberal leader Malcolm Turnbull polling at 62 per cent as preferred leader of the Liberal party compared to 32 per cent for Abbott (Kenny, M. 2013, 15 July, www.theage.com.au/federal-politics/federal-election-2013/rudds-pulling-power-puts-poll-on-knife-edge-20130714-2pyea.html). On 14 July 2013 Turnbull commented on the Financial Review Sunday program: ‘there are a lot people out there who would rather I was leading the Liberal Party’ but indicated that he would remain part of the Coalition team ‘in a senior leadership position’ and that there would not be a leadership challenge before the federal election (www.afr.com/p/business/sunday/turnbull_says_people_would_prefer_fbjVKWJsnf3R6S0CnEYVJ).
The significance of political polling for Australia’s political system
The destruction of Australia’s political leaders by poll axing has become a regular occurrence for both major parties. On the Labor side Keating deposed sitting prime minister Hawke in 1991, Rudd was ousted by Gillard in 2010 and Gillard suffered the same fate in 2013. Liberal opposition leader Brendan Nelson was deposed by Malcolm Turnbull in 2008 and subsequently defeated by Abbott in 2009 by 1 vote in a party-room leadership challenge and there are rumblings that Abbott might not last as leader because of his poor standing in the polls.
There are several questions for students to consider. Should political polling be the primary determinant and driver of who leads a political party and the Australian government? What are the implications for Australia’s political stability if prime ministers and opposition leaders are regularly deposed on the back of a fall in support in the polls? If Australian politics become poll-driven does this mean that party leaders will be reluctant to take hard decisions necessary for good government but unpopular with the electorate? What are the implications for Australia’s democratic processes and responsible government? At the end of the day, however, the poll that matters most is the one where Australians cast their votes at the ballot box to determine who will govern Australia.
Dr Gwynneth Singleton
17 July 2013