02/09/2003 - 22:00

Joe Proprezeczny - State Scene: PMs’ fame is fleeting

02/09/2003 - 22:00


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AUSTRALIAN prime ministers, like democratically elected leaders worldwide, are under constant pressure from published opinion polls that tell voters how leaders are faring between elections.

Joe Proprezeczny - State Scene: PMs’ fame is fleeting

AUSTRALIAN prime ministers, like democratically elected leaders worldwide, are under constant pressure from published opinion polls that tell voters how leaders are faring between elections.

Pollsters and newspapers that regularly assess voter sentiment mathematically would be at a loss without PMs, premiers and opposition leaders to aim intruding questions at voters about.

Not readily available until now is a concise assessment of what all the decades of polling about prime ministers have meant.

But the director of the Australian National University’s Research School of Social Sciences, Ian McAllister, has just released such an assessment, covering the years 1968 to 2001, that shows how they’ve fared since the drowning of Harold Holt.

Dr McAllister’s findings are carried in the July 2003 issue of the Australian Journal of Political Science.

One revelation is that PMs, fairly quickly after occupying The Lodge, experience slides in popularity.

This doesn’t mean they’re without popularity rises, but such boosts are short-lived and can’t overshadow general downward trends. Paul Keating was the exception, which suggests our national leaders tend to quickly put-off voters.

Take Liberal John Gorton, Holt’s successor.

He began with 62.5 per cent nationwide support, rose to nearly 65 per cent in 1969 only to promptly slump to below 45.

Another Liberal, Billy McMahon, took over with 55 per cent backing.

But within a year he stood at 25.

Although he managed to lift this to 33 per cent, Labor’s Gough Whitlam, who ousted him, briefly looked good.

Whitlam began his short-lived ‘It’s Time’ period with 62 per cent approval.

Within months, however, he’d slumped to 45. But he managed to bounce back to 57 per cent followed by another slump, and finished his career, in 1975, below 40.

Malcolm Fraser came next. He opened with 40 per cent, briefly rose to slightly over 50, then slumped to 35, followed by a brief surge in 1977 to nearly 60 per cent.

Thereafter he slid to below 30, never again coming within cooee of 50 per cent.

Bob Hawke, although initially different to his four predecessors, also eventually went the same way.

He stood at 55 per cent in 1983, rose to a spectacular 74 per cent in 1984, hovered between 45 and 60 per cent for three years (1985-88) but finished his leadership career with a tortuous slide to McMahon’s level of a dismal 25 per cent.

Although Paul Keating never experienced ratings above 40 per cent – always hovering between the 20 and 40 marks – he was unique in that he actually closed his prime ministership above the level he’d launched it.

He gradually rose from 25 to 35 per cent support. Not high, true, but nearly 50 per cent above where he’d began, so in this regard he differed from his five predecessors.

And finally there’s John Howard.

Between 1996 and 2001 he’s had two very short-lived stints over the 50 per cent mark – one in 1995-96, the other during 1999.

Otherwise the Howard saga shows him only marginally above Keating’s 35 per cent, finishing level most of the time. That, in a nutshell, is the sorry pattern for Australia’s past seven PMs.

One of Dr McAllister’s conclusions is that, during the years 1968-2001, voters steadily drifted away from strong party loyalty to “candidate-centred politics”.

Parties, of course, aren’t unique in this regard since other institutions such as, say, the churches, have also shed stronger and broader community ties over the same period.

“In the absence of partisan and social ties anchoring voters to specific parties, voters are more politically volatile, and, as a result, more susceptible to the influence of a political leader with whom they can identify,” Dr McAllister says.

“In recent years, these changes have been exemplified by the increasing proportion of late deciders during election campaigns.

“This large group of undecided voters has fundamentally altered party campaign strategies and placed the leader at centre stage.”

This appears to explain why most voters so quickly cease backing prime ministers.

Elsewhere Dr McAllister reinforces his point about “candidate-centred politics” by pointing out that voters and journalists constantly refer to governments not by party designation but by the leaders’ names.

We therefore now speak of the Howard or Gallop governments or administrations, rather than Liberal, Coalition or Labor governments.

“Parties, too, consider it advantageous to market political choices to voters through a personality,” Dr McAllister says.

 “And for their part, voters prefer to hold an individual accountable for government performance, rather than an abstract institution or a political ideal.”

These are certainly thought provoking observations and ones worth knowing.

But don’t feel Australians are unique.

An undergraduate politics textbook shown to State Scene last week carries a table showing ongoing popularity levels of America’s eight presidents from Eisenhower to George Bush (Sr.).

The table shows that all except Gerald Ford, who held office for just over a year, and the two-term Ronald Reagan, quickly experienced popularity slides, just like Australia’s PMs.


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