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30 August 2014
by Peter Brent


THE Abbott government is one year old next week. According to Niki Savva, Monday’s cabinet meeting saw a “consensus, as summed up by the Prime Minister ... that the government was in a good position and had probably done as well as the Howard government had in its first year (which, by the way, was shattered by travel rorts)”. Doing “well” is a slippery, subjective concept, but that government 17 years ago was certainly travelling better in the opinion polls and was much better-regarded in the electorate. It had brought down the most most-embraced budget in nine years, one that boasts the third-highest “good for the economy” rating since Newspoll began measuring them in 1986. The Abbott government has delivered the second-least popular, after the Keating government’s detested 1993 try-on.

(And in March 1997 “travelgate” was yet to explode; that came several months later.) Still, life was easier back then. The first Howard government had 37 out of 76 Senate spots - just two short of a majority - the Democrats seven, there were two Greens, and Brian Harradine, and Mal Colston had quit the ALP in August 1996. That was an easier work environment.
And it is generally conceded that, largely due to media and technological changes, governing is more difficult these days.

But John Howard enjoyed another advantage that Tony Abbott does not. It was delivered by Newspoll. Newspoll, as you know, is now and was then the poll most watched by the Australian political class. Its sometimes random fluctuations are obsessed over like no others’.
Since around the mid-1980s the ALP has benefited increasingly from preferences of minor parties, meaning its primary vote situation against the Coalition has improved after preferences. The 1987 federal election was the first ever at which the winner of the primary vote lost the two-party-preferred one. (The second time this happened was in 2010. It’s also possible 1954 meets this criterion.)
But for some reason until around a decade ago the then Newspoll boss Sol Lebovic chose not to measure, or try to estimate, two-party-preferred voting intentions outside election campaigns. Only primary vote support was published.

When interpreted at face value, this understated Labor’s competitiveness.
Make no mistake, the Howard government rampaged over the Kim Beazley-led opposition during its first year, but it was not quite to the extent Newspoll seemed to suggest. This graph shows Newspoll primary votes, the dotted lines, over that first year, with my estimate of two-party-preferred.

The gap between the unbroken lines while large, is not as big as that between the dotted ones.
It’s fair to say the overstating of Howard’s supremacy was minimal. The Coalition was still a mile ahead. But imagine Newspoll still did that today. This graph shows voting intentions for the Abbott government’s first year.

If Australia’s most influential pollster were still reporting the dotted lines instead of the unbroken ones, the current government would be perceived to be generally ahead, by for example a very big 6 points in the most recent survey.
OK, everyone is more educated about the importance of preferences are these days, mostly because they are more important than they were then. Around four out of five Greens votes flow to Labor; back in 1997 they were registering perhaps 2 per cent support while now it’s often in double digits.
The period after the 2001 election was when that the gap between Newspoll’s (and so this paper’s) reporting of its findings and reality was at its highest. The two-party-preferred opinion poll contest usually hovered around 50-50.
This graph shows the first year of the Howard-Simon Crean contest.

As you can see, through 2002 my two-party-preferred estimates had the Labor opposition ahead about as often as the Coalition, until the Bali bombs which pushed government support out for a while.
Yet because primary support was reported in this paper, Crean was marked down very unfairly.
I wrote about this, in another paper, in early 2003. Apparently Crean’s office was also making representations to the Australian. In 2003 Newspoll began publishing two-party-preferred figures.
But sadly for Simon, they understated Labor support. Mark Latham replaced him in December 2003, and the next year Newspoll’s preference calculation changed, this time overstating Labor support.
Latham was a lucky guy; I wrote here about that a couple of years ago.
Being seen to be doing well will not necessarily assist a party at the ballot box, but it does help leaders retain their jobs.

Crean was a pretty crap leader, but, a bit like Mark Twain’s opinion of Wagner’s music, he wasn’t as bad as he seemed. A weird political class preoccupation with satisfaction/approval ratings and better/preferred prime minister also contributed to his demise (and to Kim Beazley’s three years later).

The flipside was helping to facilitate the view of Howard as electorally invincible.
If anyone was dudded by that it was Peter Costello.
Peter and Simon have that in common.