IT has not been much of a honeymoon period for the Abbott
government, with approval for the government and for Abbott dismally
Last Sunday marked the first anniversary of the election
of the Abbott government, and with it came the inevitable flurry of
report cards from assorted species of pundit, both friendly and hostile.
Some were kinder than others, but a collective verdict of “must try
harder” came through loud and clear.
As even the strongest supporters of the government’s policy
record are required to acknowledge, polling indicates that no government
has ended its first year in a more precarious electoral position
certainly since Gough Whitlam, and perhaps even since Jim Scullin
brought Labor to power just in time for the Great Depression to strike
in 1929. For some idea of how historically unusual Tony Abbott’s
position is, the charts below plot his government’s progress alongside
the first-year performance of Kevin Rudd in 2007-08 and John Howard in
1996-97, as recorded by trend measures of the two-party preferred vote
and prime ministerial net approval (i.e. approval minus disapproval).
Even from the very start, it was evident that Abbott had
arrived in office with public goodwill in unusually short supply. Polls
conducted in the wake of electoral victories are usually as good as it
gets for a government, owing to a sense that a new incumbent should be
given a fair go, and that the opposition in any case will be in no state
to resume the reins as it licks the wounds of its defeat. However, the very first polls
conducted in late September found that the Coalition’s lead had
actually narrowed slightly, and at no point since has the poll trend
matched its 53.5% two-party vote from the election. Tony Abbott’s
personal ratings at least rose after the election victory to the highest
levels they have yet known, but this was true only by his own rather
During this period, Labor was executing a public relations
coup through the civilised and innovative manner in which it was
choosing its new leader, presenting a very different image from the one
the party had laboured under during the Rudd-Gillard wars. Meanwhile,
the government deliberately kept the lowest of profiles as part of
Abbott’s declared strategy to “take politics off the front page”, a line
last heard from Malcolm Fraser in 1975.
This stood it in stark contrast to the Rudd government,
which came to office determined to project a renewed sense of vitality
by signing the Kyoto protocol, apologising to the stolen generations and
conducting the long-forgotten 2020 Summit. None of this, of course, was
to do Rudd any good in the long run, but at the time his personal
ratings reached heights not seen since 1983 when a newly elected Bob
Hawke set to work holding a national economic summit and signing the
Prices and Income Accord.
John Howard’s personal ratings never quite reached such
heights, but the net approval chart shows him briefly knocking on Rudd’s
door during his third month on the job. The catalyst for this was the
Port Arthur massacre, which unfolded eight weeks after the election, and
Howard’s robust policy response in the weeks that followed.
Common to Abbott, Rudd and Howard was a decline in net
approval of around 20% between their early peaks and the midpoint of the
year, but from that point on the similarity breaks down, with Rudd
enjoying a second wind towards the end of the year, Abbott taking a
further dive, and Howard’s position remaining more or less stable.
The mid-year decline in Rudd’s personal rating coincided
with accumulating difficulties for his government, including rising
petrol prices and concerted industry resistance to the “alcopops” tax.
The effect was obscured on voting intention by trouble in the Coalition
camp, which culminated in Malcolm Turnbull’s coup against Brendan Nelson
in September. However, the government suffered a reality check in June
when it faced its first byelection in the regional Victorian seat of
Gippsland, and suffered a surprisingly forceful swing of 6%.
The turnaround arrived with the onset of the global
financial crisis in September, in what ultimately proved to be another
lesson in the ephemeral nature of opinion poll dominance. However, it’s
interesting to note that this was not accompanied by a further lift in
Labor’s lead on voting intention, perhaps reflecting a positive early
response to Malcolm Turnbull.
Meanwhile, the Abbott government’s first landslip after the
Gonski debacle in November left it trailing on two-party preferred, a
position Howard wouldn’t reach until well into his second year, and Rudd
until his third. Then came the second body blow after the May budget,
since when not a single published poll has shown the Coalition in the
The situation has moderated a little since, with Abbott’s
personal ratings especially recording a sharp uptick after the MH17
disaster, albeit from a pitifully low base. Voting intention has also
been trending in the government’s favour as the budget backlash has
cooled off, with the issue agenda shifting to the more favourable
terrain of national security.
Nonetheless, the uncomfortable fact for Abbott is that his
record to date has disproved the notion that governments can count on
opinion poll dominance during their first year in office. Now he must
worry if a rather more important axiom is set to fall by the
wayside — the one that says Australian voters don’t evict governments
after a single term.