Rudd, Gillard or Abbott … do leaders really matter in Australian election campaigns?

If Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott continue to lead their parties at the upcoming federal election, we should see a focus on policy, not personality politics. AAP/Alan Porritt

Leadership speculation grips Canberra again. With opinion polls pointing to a landslide Coalition victory in September, there are reports that Labor MPs may look to oust prime minister Julia Gillard in favour of Kevin Rudd to lessen the damage of that almost certain election defeat.

But if Rudd does indeed have a second coming as prime minister and lead Labor to this year’s election, will it have any effect at all on the party’s performance? With Rudd as leader, can the ALP avoid electoral wipeout?

It is commonplace today to view Australian election campaigns as akin to a US presidential campaign. All the focus is now placed on the party leader and his or her capacity for delivery of a stunt and/or sound bite for the nightly news. Rudd’s “Kevin 07” campaign comes to mind as the most obvious recent illustration of the phenomenon that began with Whitlam’s 1972 “It’s time” campaign.

Given voters jaundiced assessment of both Gillard and opposition leader Tony Abbott - as demonstrated in the surveys below - it appears unlikely both camps’ 2013 campaigns will see anything like the focus on “the leader” we’ve become accustomed to in politics worldwide.

Instead, we should see a focus on policy, not personal, politics.

In all likelihood, this is a political blessing and should Abbott lead the Coalition to victory – and no-one is betting otherwise – he may at least be aware he is Prime Minister, not President of Australia, and accordingly run a “cabinet government”, something he seems to have “promised” so far to do.

The stark reality – at least revealed by the Australian Election Study survey conducted shortly after the last election and reflected in the truly terrible “net satisfaction ratings” Newspoll records – is that voters judge Gillard and Abbott rather poorly as leaders, at least in comparison with past leaders.

Over the past two decades voters have been asked by the Australian Election Study survey to assess how much they “like” or “dislike” their leaders across a scale where zero is “strongly dislike”; five is neutral and ten is “strongly like”. The graph below charts the average scores on Australian political leaders’ likeability between 1990 and 2010, where above five represents a “positive” assessment.

Australian Election Study surveys, 1990-2010

Breaking custom, the 2010 survey included a leader other than the prime minister or opposition leader, namely Rudd, the recently deposed prime minister. While his ranking fell from his outstanding 2007 likeability, it is clear just how grave – electorally speaking - was the error of judgment of Gillard and those “faceless men” who supported her successful challenge to Rudd in June 2010.

Gillard manages to register a positive likeability among women voters with a score of 5.3 but men are not so impressed scoring a negative likeability at 4.5 – the prime minister ends up at 4.8, close to Keating in 1993. This result reflects the “gender gap” I’ve discussed previously. Abbott fares much worse ranking alongside the unpopular prime minister Paul Keating but ahead of the hapless Andrew Peacock who led a divided Liberal Party in 1990.

Where a score of one represents “extremely well”; two is “quite well”; three is “not too well”; and four is “not well at all”; survey respondents are probed from another angle about leadership qualities.

Here is a list of words and phrases people use to describe party leaders. Thinking about [leader’s name], in your opinion how well does each of these describe him/her: extremely well, quite well, not too well or not well at all?

Australian Election Study surveys, 1993-2010

What might one conclude from these assessments in relation to ongoing leadership speculation and the coming election campaign?

The above table’s stand out feature is, again, how favourably Rudd ranks across all questions. He beats John Howard in 2007 on all but the “strong leadership” question, and is significantly ahead of Gillard and Abbott in all categories. Compared to all leaders since 1993 he rates strongly.

Overall, if the election is between Gillard and Abbott, these surveys point toward a campaign focused on key issues rather than so overwhelmingly on leadership. We can be thankful for that if it means less confected “spin”, less bombastic rhetoric and more effort to explain the virtues of policy and flaws in one’s opponent’s policy.

‘Kevin 07’ put the spotlight solely on Kevin Rudd, making the 2007 federal election a very presidential-style election campaign. AAP/Paul Miller

I say this cautiously, as clearly Abbott needs to present a more positive persona than the one we have observed since the last election. He comes off the back foot in this regard, having projected an aggressive disposition which - not surprisingly - is noted by about half the electorate in one reputable poll.

If she leads the ALP to the election, Gillard has little option but to talk policy. No doubt trying to “scare” voters, these discussions will centre around a host of themes regarding what an Abbott government may pursue. Yet it figures that voters crave something positive from their leaders, and herein lies the current government’s Achilles heel.

Abbott has more scope to plough a positive set of messages. Should the Coalition prevail he will govern as a prime minister, and not a presidential-style leader. One suspects that is more likely outcome if the Coalition does not win in a landslide.