Politics is not just polls

Wednesday, 11 July 2007 

The Australian’s Dennis Shanahan has received some flak over his comments that the latest 56/44 Newspoll marks a turnaround for the government. While acknowledging the two party preferred is unchanged, Shanahan, using a strange ‘sizzling sausage’ analogy (curiously also used by Downer the day before, did they go to the same BBQ?), argues that the recovery in preferred PM ranking is significant. Usually such a gloss on what are awful polls for the government should be taken no more than that expected from a newspaper aiming to be the preferred choice of the business traveller, but this time he may have a point.

Not for the reason given by Newspoll’s CEO, who repeats the same mistake of others who have mis-read this year, namely seeing this election as a re-run of the past. But rather because although voting intentions have not changed since the last Newspoll in mid-June, the political environment has.

The NT intervention has altered the dynamic of this campaign. It has given a sense of purpose to the government and stopped Labor’s increasingly effective strategy of tapping into voter cynicism about Howard’s lack of agenda. Labor was translating this by talking about Howard being a ‘clever’ politician who had only one purpose, to stay in power. This is why the rise in Howard’s preferred PM ranking, not necessarily significant in itself, may be so in this case as it shows Howard has gone some way to addressing this issue.

Howard has yet to translate that gain into a shift in voting. He is struggling to work out how to use the NT intervention against Labor, which is why he is vacillating over whether to recall parliament for a special sitting on the issue. Labor has followed very closely behind the government to prevent this although The Australian editorial has correctly picked up one issue where Labor could run into trouble, if it maintains its support of the land rights lobby.

However, even if Howard does do this, it does not necessarily mean voters will switch support. Australian voters are unlikely to decide the government based on their position on indigenous affairs. Some issues can be politically important without being the ones voters think about at the polling station. In 2004, voters minds may have been on Latham’s lack of trustworthiness on interest rates on election day, but that trust had started to be undermined months earlier on the more significant issue of the US alliance.

And here we get to Howard’s real problem. Just as the NT intervention may be an issue that changes the dynamic of the campaign without directly changing voter intention, another more important event is happening thousands of miles away, which has not been given full significance in the Australian press. If the revolt of US Republicans over Bush’s Iraq strategy starts to gather momentum in the next few months it will create an excruciating dilemma for a government that only last week was claiming such a position would support terrorism. It would offset any gains from the NT intervention, create the potential for fragmentation in the Liberals and probably spell the end of this government.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Wednesday, 11 July 2007.

Filed under Tactics

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