Bipolar Nation


A type of market research called the projective technique, long applied in the consumer products field, is now coming to be used in politics. It’s supposed to be a way of delving beneath consumers’ surface responses to get to their deeper, unarticulated feelings. They are asked to ‘project’ their feelings for one thing onto another.

So, for example, in the prelude to the last US presidential election, market researchers asked Americans to think about their presidential candidates as cars. If George W Bush were a car, what make would he be? The most common answer was that he’d be a Ford. And his opponent, Senator John Kerry? He’d be a BMW.

What does it mean? A Ford is nothing glamorous. But it is genuine local product familiar and reliable. A BMW is expensive and high-performance. But it is foreign, elitist and European. Suspiciously European. It’s no surprise, on this analysis, that Bush went on to win the 2004 election.

In Australia, Tim Grau of the public affairs consultancy Springboard conducted a similar exercise in 2005. He asked voters in focus groups to think of our national leaders as dogs. If John Howard were a dog, what breed would he be?

The most common answers were fox terrier, bulldog and Jack Russell terrier. What does this mean? ‘Our research has consistently found that strong and successful political leaders are characterised by voters as œworker  dogs,’ reported Grau, ‘the type you would have for protection or to do work around the home or property.’ They are small, agile and aggressive.

Asked the same question about Peter Costello, voters most commonly replied that he’d be a labrador or cocker spaniel. These, said Grau, are the sorts of breeds you might like to play with in the backyard, but not the sorts of dogs you would trust to protect your house and family.

When it came to the former Opposition Leader Kim Beazley, by far the most common reaction was Saint Bernard, followed by Great Dane. These breeds are supposed to be likeable and loyal; the bad news is that they are also seen as big, cuddly, slow and dopey not the types you’d trust with the protection of the family home.

Although Grau once worked for the Labor Party, his findings carry a favourable implication for Howard voters see him as the ideal breed for leadership.

What about Kevin Rudd? He was not included in the exercise, conducted when he was merely a frontbencher. In early 2007, voters were still forming their impressions of the new Labor Leader. Rudd has the qualities that he needs to emerge as a strong, viable alternative prime minister he is more terrier than labrador but the open question is whether the electorate will see him that way.

Tim Grau is not the first person to compare a Federal leader to a canine. Jeff Kennett once disparaged Costello as having ‘all the attributes of a dog except loyalty.’ Categorising our national leaders as varieties of dog is irreverent, cheeky, and that’s why audiences love to hear about it greying industrialists and grave-faced economists every bit as much as flip undergraduates and the anxious unemployed.

In talks that I give to various audiences on national politics, it never fails to raise a gleeful laugh. We delight in taking down our leaders. They are all just a pack of dogs, as one big investor put it to me. The more we belittle our leaders, the more we enjoy ourselves.

Although a member of a reviled group, a leader’s standing is nevertheless vital, especially if that leader happens to be prime minister. Fascinating new research by Professor Ian McAllister of the Australian National University has shown that every extra percentage point in a prime minister’s approval rating produces an improvement of 0.47 of a percentage point in the government’s electoral support compared with that of the opposition.

So a prime minister with a strong approval rating can lift the electability of his entire Party he is a political strongman who, for every step he moves up in our esteem, is able to raise his Party by a half-step.

And, again, Howard has proved to be a breed apart. His approval rating has turned out to be the most enduringly buoyant in the 30-year history of opinion polling in Australia. Paul Keating, in his five years as Prime Minister, rarely moved out of the 30 per cent approval range. Howard has never been in it. Most Australians approve of the way Howard does his job, most of the time, according to both the main published opinion polls, Newspoll and ACNielsen.

Opposition leaders don’t make so much of a difference. The standing of a prime minister is almost three times more powerful than that of an opposition leader in deciding elections, McAllister found. An extra percentage point in an opposition leader’s approval rating produces an advantage against the government of only 0.18 per cent.

So a leader’s standing matters a great deal. His breed characteristics, his polled approval rating however you want to measure it, the way that the voters rate leaders is a vital variable in deciding the outcome of our country’s political equation.

Thanks to Sharyn Raggett

But on what basis do we rate our leaders? How do we make a judgment about their standing? Is it based on their personality? It is, of course, in part. We are human and we have human responses to others. It is undeniable that some Australians voted for Bob Hawke because of his ‘irresistible’ sex appeal; I know one who said she did so simply because of his mesmerisingly lovely, silvery, wavy mane of hair. Others voted for Paul Keating because of his air of dashing dangerousness.

This is an element of the political contest that seems to have become dormant in the age of John Howard, a man whom Michelle Grattan once memorably described as ‘awesomely ordinary.’ Labor’s National Secretary, Tim Gartrell, unable to unseat the Prime Minister, resorted instead to satirising him as ‘a 21st-century cross between Richard Nixon and Gollum from Lord of the Rings.

Yet leaders’ personalities and personal attributes are thoroughly inadequate as a way of explaining how Australians vote. If we voted according to our reactions to leaders’ personal qualities, Kim Beazley would have defeated Howard for the prime ministership. How can we know this?

In the 2001 Australian Electoral Study, rigorous and wide-ranging polling conducted by the political science departments of some of the country’s leading universities, Howard and Beazley were seen to be about equally intelligent, knowledgeable and inspiring. But on three other positive personality attributes, Beazley was seen as the better candidate more honest than Howard, more trustworthy, and more compassionate. Howard had an edge on Beazley on two measures he was seen to be a fraction more sensible and, in the only area where he had a commanding lead on his rival, he was seen as offering ‘strong leadership’ by a margin of 72 per cent to Beazley’s 45 per cent.

Anyone arriving in Australia from Mars and being shown this polling could have been excused for predicting that Beazley was likely to win an electoral contest. Voters’ reactions to Howard’s personality were hardly warm: he had a decisive advantage over Beazley in only one of the eight positive personal attributes. But Howard was preferred overwhelmingly on the question of ‘strong leadership.’ So if we are not responding to Howard’s personality so much as to his leadership, how are we forming these views?

By the time of the Federal election expected this year, Howard will have been in power for about 12 years. This is one-fifth of the entire span of the modern Australian two-Party political system, which took shape in 1949 with Robert Menzies’s creat
ion of the Liberal Party. This is remarkable endurance.

At every election, John Howard reminds us in the starkest possible terms that our federal government has the weightiest of responsibilities. The national government has monopoly power over the two areas that most immediately and emphatically determine the fate of the country macroeconomic management and national security: our prosperity and our security. Strip everything else away, and these are the bedrock policy determinants of national success. Or national failure.

A Federal election is where, for the briefest moment, we have the power to choose which Party will manage these grave national responsibilities. You may want to snicker at me for the rest of the political cycle, Howard seems to be telling us, but on election day I want you to understand that you are taking part in the highest of high-stakes enterprises for a democratic nation-state. Not only that, Howard seems to say, but I want you to worry about it.

And if you’re not worried, he will try to make you so.

After winning power in the 1996 ‘anti-Keating’ election, Howard has used one or other of these two themes national prosperity and national security to win every election since. In 1998 Howard used the purported danger of Labor to make us fear for our post-recession prosperity; in the post-9/11 election of 2001 he told us to worry about terrorists and suspicious boat people; in 2004 he frightened us with the threats to both our prosperity and our security. Labor, he said, was a danger to our interest rates and also a threat to the US alliance in an age of terror.

This is Howard’s formula. He reminds us at every election that the federal government is here to provide prosperity and security, and then frightens us with the thought that either of these could be at risk.

And guess what? It just so happens that the Australian voting public sees Labor as being the better Party to handle just about every other major area of policy health, education, industrial relations, welfare, family issues but not these two great federal monopoly powers. By an emphatic margin of two to one, Australians trust the Howard Government to better manage our national prosperity and our national security.

Howard only has a couple of cards to play, but they are the trump cards of Australian national politics.

This is an edited extract from Quarterly Essay 25, Bipolar Nation: How to Win the 2007 Election, by Peter Hartcher (Black Inc., $14.95).

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.