Federal Politics


It's the character that counts

The election will not be won by popularity, being positive or negative or specific policies, but by who makes us more comfortable

The election seven-and-a-half months hence is now Abbott's to lose. He has, or so the polls suggest, a margin with voters that would see the Coalition winning comfortably, if not with a landslide. Yet the same polls suggest that many voters have reservations about Abbott personally, and about his ''secret agenda''. This is why, so it is said, Abbott must now go ''positive'', switch to outlining detailed policies and give a message of hope and optimism to make voters more comfortable with the inevitable.

The same wisdom gives Julia Gillard credit for courage, for staying calm and not panicking, and for staying positive despite ''negativity'' and sheer oppositionism from Abbott. That obstinacy and refusal to be diverted has seen her gain ground from a point where, a year ago, Labor's cause was hopeless, to a where Labor, if behind, is still within contention. So she must must stay the course, refusing to be distracted, confident she will be vindicated by the sheer inanity of Abbott positions - for example, on carbon tax.

Yet there is ample evidence that this is not the real logic of politics. Voters, especially swinging ones, do not do abstract comparisons of policies. They make decisions, partly intellectual, partly emotional, about the character of the rivals, and who they feel to be best suited to lead Australia in these times. Winners are those who catch the mood.

All the more so when faced with invidious choices. Political leaders always claim that the election ahead is one of the most important ever facing the nation, with voters, at a crossroads, making historical choices about where Australia will go. But if there has been a less important election in prospect for Australia, I cannot remember it.

I am not convinced that Tony Abbott would be a worse or better prime minister than Julia Gillard, or that he will take the nation on any path much different from Gillard. I have yet to see any evidence that he has a fundamentally different economic policy, or different industrial relations policy than Labor's. On significant social issues (including Aboriginal affairs and maternity leave) his instincts are to the left of Gillard's. On others, such as boat people, he is slightly more to the right, but only slightly more morally contemptible.

Champions of both parties will struggle mightily to suggest that tiny differences of emphasis in foreign affairs, defence, trade policy, law and order, and social welfare policy are significant, but they will labour in vain. Even if such a case could be made, it seems unlikely that these issues will much move voters.


If voting was voluntary, as some suggest, both Labor and Liberal would struggle to find large crowds of people thronging the queues. I am not sure whether voluntary voting would always handicap Labor more than the Liberals, but I should think that right now Abbott could muster more zealots in his crusade to liberate Australia from a dreaded and dreadful Gillard government, than a Gillard sounding the tocsin for true believers to rally behind Labor in its darkest hour. But this is because she has watched complacently (and indifferently) as ALP members have been ignored, and activists and idealists have deserted to the Greens. In any event, only rarely is the size, or the passion, of the vanguard a measure of the movement behind the leaders. Large numbers at crusade meetings often presage heavy defeats, as Whitlam discovered.

Indeed, the real problem confronting Gillard and Abbott is that neither has shown themselves much capable of inspiring, galvanising or leading any sort of movement. Neither invites much in the way of affection or enthusiasm, although, in each case, there are voters lukewarm about one but choleric in their detestation of the other. An ideal campaign slogan might be ''I'm not as bad as him/her''.

Admirers wobble, enemies multiply; time and experience has tended to polarise only the number of people lacking any enthusiasm to have an opinion at all.

Their most familiar ''faces'' may reassure adherents but rarely operate to attract potential supporters. Abbott's verbal aggression, in-your-face masculinity, various manifestation of his silliness (such as wearing hard hats or blaming everything on a fairly harmless carbon tax) may reassure some faithful but turn many off. Equally, Gillard playing Princess Di at natural disasters, priggishness and ineffable bad judgment in personal appointments is not calculated to make the neutral think she is improving from experience.

The tragedy for both is that their personalities were formed by the time they entered, too young and too inexperienced, Parliament.

Neither has improved in likeability over time, nor have we got to know them better. I expect that no advertising or spin campaign can make voters (or historians) warm to either. Voters need a different reason.

Abbott has been in public life for more than 20 years, a minister for 10 and Leader of the Opposition for three. On paper he has been very effective, and his leadership is not seriously challenged. His personality, his religion, ideology and economic, social, political and moral ideas are often discussed closely - even more than one might expect of a possible prime minister. Most of us have an opinion of him one way or another. Yet few, even few intimates, claim a ''feel'' for how he would behave in a particular crisis, by what compass he would steer if there were new and unexpected events, or where his equilibriums lie. All the worrying given that he is so often portrayed as a fidget, and, perhaps contradictorily, a tightly coiled spring repressing his inner Catholic so as to satisfy his overweening ambition. Indeed, many do not even know what his core values are, let alone what his real ''character'' is.

John Howard famously inverted the 2004 election after polls showed voters no longer believed his words, to make it one of ''trust.'' Blessed with the rivalry of Mark Latham, about whom many voters had forebodings, Howard argued, convincingly, that voters knew him, had a sense of who he was and what he stood for, a feel for his instincts. They ''knew'' from long experience how he would apply his values and beliefs to events. In all of these senses, Howard was correct: he could reverse policy or programs at the drop of a hat, yet voters generally thought him consistent and were never ''surprised'' by his footwork. By contrast even close supporters of Gillard and Abbott are often amazed, negatively, at their brainstorms.

Voters do not much ''know'' Julia Gillard any more than they do Abbott. She has shown qualities, including a remarkable hide in the face of unremitting abuse from a sector of the population, but neither her cornflake packet civic ideals, nor her humour or interaction with the public has much made voters feel comfortable with her, or to regard her as trustworthy or predictable.

An election victory will, most likely, not be a result of perceptions about who is positive or negative, about policies vague or detailed, or scare campaigns about secret coalition or Labor agendas.

The winner will be whoever understands that voters are going to decide on the basis of which leader they feel more comfortable having in charge, and whoever sets about influencing that decision.

>> Jack Waterford is Editor-at-Large. jack.waterford@fairfaxmedia.com.au


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