Possums Pollytics

Politics, elections and piffle plinking

Coalition of the Stiffed

Posted by Possum Comitatus on October 25, 2007


Me in Crikey yesterday HERE.

And have a look around the Crikey bunker while you’re there.


The “It’s Time” factor seems to be on the tips of politically fashionable lips everywhere at the moment, but what is interesting with the whole “It’s Time” thing is the underlying dynamics of it that have been going on over the last 6 years or so.

One of the more well argued theories about the Howard government is that there has been two Howard governments, the one that went from 1996 through to the Ryan by-election of 2001, and the one we’ve had since. The former was the fiscally prudent, measured and relatively cautious government, the latter is the big spending, whatever it takes, wedge first & clean up the mess later government. The Responsible vs. Populist faces of the Howard administration writ large.

There is some compelling evidence of this theory if we look at the three measures of government support in the polls; the government primary vote, Howard’s preferred PM rating, and Howard’s satisfaction rating.

If we chart these three measures against each other starting from the 1996 election through to the present, you can see clearly how the dynamics between these three measures over the two Howard governments changed quite dramatically. For this we are using Newspoll monthly averages.


Between 1996 and just before the 2001 election, the three measures walked in relative lockstep, yet from the 2001 election onward, where Tampa and S11 played havoc with the polling, the story has been dramatically different.

People clearly became more satisfied with the way Howard was doing his job, and his preferred PM ratings increased to a level far higher than was the case over the first 5 years of his government. The primary vote however became relatively disconnected from these qualitative measures. The pursuit of a populist face delivered in the areas where one would expect – the qualitative ratings.

On the Opposition side of the ledger, a completely different dynamic was playing out:


If we take 2003 for instance, it really is quite a feat to have a higher primary vote than a satisfaction rating. The vote during that period probably represented the absolute baseline primary vote level of the ALP, the real deal True Believers if you will.

Yet the problem with being a populist government is that you end up fighting nearly all of your battles on the populist front. If that’s where you shift the PR focus, that’s inevitably where the electoral competition plays out. We witnessed that with the Latham leadership – the reading of books to rugrats and the politician’s superannuation issue. But the problem with populism is that the nature of what is popular and what captures the public’s attention shifts with time. And like most peddlers of fads, unless you keep changing with the times and keep feeding fresh popular initiatives into the system, public attention starts to wane and people start switching off. Worse still is the possibility that the public start seeing the populist initiatives for what they really are. Porkbarrels and scare campaigns only work for so long, they might give you the short term boost, but they also destroy your longer term core credibility if their electoral razzle-dazzle becomes passé or time shows the electoral stunts to be nonsense.

Another problem with the populist approach is that what is popular for some is anathema to others. Think the race dog-whistle and how that plays out in Fairfax compared to North Sydney. Think reconciliation and how that plays out in North Sydney compared to Fairfax. Populist policies have a tendency to give with one demographic hand and take away with the other. But after a long enough period, there’s something to dislike for everyone. People have good memories when it comes to being on the wrong side of a wedge, the losing side of a porkbarrel or the neglected side of a voting demographic. That alone reduces the long term power of the populist approach.

People remember when they’ve been screwed far more than they remember when they’ve been electorally smooched.

That gets us onto how that effect plays out and there’s two little graphs worth having a geek at. The first is the government primary vote charted against a cubic time trend via a regression equation. What the cubic time trend allows us to do is create a line of best fit onto the government primary vote that takes into account its honeymoon period and its 2001-2004 populist revival:


The regression equation that created that line explains around 50% of the movement in the government’s primary vote over the period of 1996 to the present. As we can see, the trailing off since 2004 has become pronounced. It also reflects pretty well the consequences of playing on the populist front for too long. When you combine that with the public impact of hard policy issues like Workchoices (in terms of both experience and perception), being on a hiding to none is hardly a surpise.

The next little graph worth looking at is a quadratic time trend charted against the government primary vote for the period since the 2001 election, where the populist change of the government began.


Which highlights the key problem that the government is experiencing; the populist approach to government has political blowback as an inevitable consequence.

You might be able to get a short term boost out if it, you may even be able to suck a few years worth of support out of it, but it will always kill you in the end as a “Coalition of the Stiffed” starts building against you.

Having an Opposition Leader that is more popular than a piece of mouldy cheese and doesn’t look like he’ll lead the country to Armageddon just allows the fallout to manifest more brutally than it ordinarily would.

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10 Responses to “Coalition of the Stiffed”

  1. pligg.com said

    Coalition of the Stiffed « Possums Pollytics

    One of the more well argued theories about the Howard government is that there has been two Howard governments, the one that went from 1996 through to the Ryan by-election of 2001, and the one we’ve had since. The former was the fiscally prudent, mea…

  2. John V K said

    All is revealed the dog whistle broke. The carrot is rotten and the stick is broken.

    Aussies are not haters. I dont care what people say I have interviewed thousands of them, self interested but they will accept the stick if it is necessary but not as an argument.

    Can’t talk about the maths but the logic is impeccable.

    Fiscally prudent and econmicmanagers means you must walk the walk.
    That bloody Latham and the idiots that installed him, need a turn in the barrel.

  3. Thee is ‘us and them’ populism which I agree yields short-term benefits but runs out of steam, also as Australia becomes more ethnically diverse it is also counterproductive. There is ‘ordinary populism’ (John Wanna’s phrase) well practiced by Bracks, Rann and now Rudd.

  4. Alan said

    I wish I could follow all the maths logic, Poss. But the political logic is undeniable. Could you run those same kinds of graphy things with ‘negative variables’ in them, like AWB scandal, etc? Do those issues really change votes, or just polarise further?

  5. Rocket said

    Things definitely changed when Shane Stone became Liberal President – the famous “mean and tricky” memorandum. Of course ironically things changed in the NT as well – the 2001 NT election (with Shane Stone gone) lacked the usual “dog-whistle” aboriginal issue (1985 – Uluru handback, 1993 – Mabo, 1997 – Wik) and the CLP finally lost.

    I liked the cubic model – you could probably also apply it to Labor in office 1983-1996 with the truning point around 1989.

  6. […] Possums Pollytics has the following graph: […]

  7. Humpty Dumpty said

    Interesting analysis of the populist law of diminishing returns poss. The problem that remains is how you put the pieces of the divided polis back together again ‘post-Rodent’ – hopefully its not a humpty-dumpty scenario.

  8. Rod said

    Not really “on topic”, I guess, but should we be expecting new poll results from Neilsen, Galaxy and Morgan today? Can’t see any sign of them so far, but they all released polls last Friday. Are they now operating on weekly schedules or does this only kick in later in the campaign?

    I found myself wondering , too, whether certain media outlets might actually decide not to release a poll result during an election campaign if it didn’t “fit” what they wanted. Does this ever happen?



  9. Possum Comitatus said

    Not sure when the next polls are out.

    I dont think the media would hold back polling that is running against any ‘line’ they may be taking. Polls generate headlines which generate sales, and that generates advertising revenue.

    Who knows – they might, but they’d be utter clowns if they did.

  10. Rod said

    The new Morgans (both last weekends face to face and mid week phone polls) are in – http://www.roymorgan.com/news/polls/2007/4233



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