Fickle voters are starting to channel surf
Seventy-two channels, and still nothing on, wise-cracked the US entertainer, Bob Hope back in the 1970s.
Decades later, in this era of multi-media platforms, some people might lament that Hope didn’t know the half of it. The big challenge now, with all the information coming in, is to grade it - to pick the significant, from the loud but unimportant.
In politics, this challenge has always been there but having more information on what voters think may have made the job harder, not easier. Scandals are dissected, polls and focus group research consumed and interpreted, trends identified, and conclusions reached.
The voters, we are invited to conclude by all of this, are a volatile lot, heaving and swaying in response to issues and grievances as they emerge.
This is pertinent right now because there is a strong sense that politically, thing have just moved. That we are at a hinge-point in the political cycle and a permanent change has occurred.
Whether or not this is fact, we’ll come back to, but everyone agrees on one thing, border protection is the catalyst.
The net result is that for the first time since his election, Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd is under genuine score-board pressure - knee-deep in hot water as his self-proclaimed moral high ground sinks into the marsh.
It took the 78 Sri Lankan Tamils aboard the Australian Customs vessel, Oceanic Viking, no time at all to poke holes in his political fix, dubbed unkindly, ``the Indonesian solution’‘.
Now, as the stand-off nears a third week, and baring a radical about-face, there seems little chance that Indonesia will accept these people unless they disembark voluntarily.
And there’s even less chance of that. This is a diabolically complex problem for Kevin Rudd. Forcing them off the boat would be a PR and (not to mention) humanitarian disaster. Yet the status quo is no alternative either. “Infinite patience’’ probably only goes so far.
In a couple of days, Mr Rudd heads to India and then to APEC in Singapore. It’s hard to imagine him leaving the country while this drags on - especially to attend an essentially unrelated meeting.
The only cover is that other regional leaders, including Indonesia’s SBY, will be there so expect the coverage to focus heavily on sideline talks dominated by the refugee challenge.
That said, the only visible path to a quick resolution is for Australia to back-down and bring the 78 refusniks to Christmas Island. There, they would join hundreds of their compatriots who now, thanks to the implosion of Sri Lanka, make up more than half of the CI asylum seeker population.
Amid this crisis, and the increased flow of boats into our territorial waters, the Government’s poll lead has suddenly and dramatically evaporated. Last weekend’s Newspoll showed a crushing 48 to 34 percentage point lead a fortnight before has tightened to 41 all.
Using what might turn out to have been generous pro-Labor preference flows from the 2007 poll, this is an effective lead of just 2 percentage points, 52/48.
Naturally, the two things - the news-dominating asylum seeker issue, and the collapse in Labor support - were immediately conflated.
And just as naturally, observers recognised that if this issue continues to defy political management, the next election is not the foregone conclusion it was assumed to be. Up for grabs are the all-important Howard battlers - those formerly blue collar / aspirational voters in the outer-suburbs who switched to Howard in 1996 and stayed for a decade.
If this week’s Newspoll has identified a permanent change, it will be in this group. And if so, strategists on both sides know these voters can decide the fate of numerous mortgage-belt marginal seats.
The question is then, is this a permanent change or does it just look that way because we’re all too close to it?
Remember 2007, when the aforementioned John Howard tried every trick in the book including a sudden interest in indigenous people and a massive backdown on WorkChoices?
When money was sloshed around to voters like alcopops in Schoolies week? The polls stubbornly refused to budge. Minor recoveries came and went just as quickly.
Afterwards, everyone from John Howard down, admitted that well before the axe finally fell in November, they knew their goose was cooked and there’d been diddly-squat they could do about it.
Scrolling forward to today, what is the lesson? Poll analyst, Andrew Catsaras, has an interesting take on this.
This week, he turned his mind to aggregating the major polls into three month periods and then coming up with an average number for each. Since May last year, he said, there had been 54 polls by Newspoll, AC Neilsen, and Galaxy with a total of 66,000 people interviewed.
He broke those down into 6 groups of 9 polls each representing a roughly three month period. What he found will surprise many people. Labor’s primary vote remained steady at 45 per cent and the Coalition remained steady at 38.
That is, through the global financial crisis, a leadership contest leading to a change in the Opposition, the utegate scandal, two federal budgets, and $55 billion worth of extraordinary stimulus, the electorate remained impassive.
Perhaps it is as Andrew Catsaras said, “while observers may believe the political landscape has been rocky, uneven and as perilous as the Himalayas, from the voters’ point of view, it’s been as flat as the Nullarbor’‘.
All eyes are on the next Newspoll just the same.
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