Recently, Phil Senior noted in The Courier-Mail that for Labor to win the next federal election Kim Beazley needed to be ahead in the preferred prime minister stakes. This misses the point entirely.
Opposition leaders find it nearly impossible to lead in the preferred leader polls. It is the party vote that counts.
Preferred prime minister or premier polls historically have been a poor form guide for Australian elections. Published party polls regularly have shown the federal Opposition neck-and-neck with the Government, despite leadership destabilisation following Mark Latham's implosion after the last election.
The latest Newspoll puts the Government ahead by only 51 to 49 per cent on two party preferred. This comes after a Budget windfall. AC Neilson gave the Opposition the edge. These polls have a reasonable track record of predicting election outcomes. The next federal election will be close, even if Prime Minister John Howard (or Peter Costello for that matter) outpolls Beazley in the preferred prime minister stakes.
Recent state political histories support such a hypothesis. Victorious state Labor leaders Bob Carr (18 per cent) in NSW, Steve Bracks (19 per cent) in Victoria, Mike Rann (14 per cent) in South Australia and WA's Geoff Gallop (19 per cent) all lagged badly behind their opponents, each registering preferred premier ratings in the teens. Yet in each instance, as Opposition leader, they ultimately won the election. Rann aside, the remaining three have all gone on to win two or more elections.
Conversely, in replacing Kerry Chikarovski with the callow John Brogden as leader just 12 months out from the March 2003 NSW state election, the Liberal Party made a serious mistake. The Coalition was drawing closer to Labor in the party polls, even though Chikarovski's preferred premier rating languished in the teens.
In Victoria, the Liberals made the same mistake replacing Denis Napthine with Robert Doyle just before their embarrassing showing in 2002. In both cases the decision to install new leaders was essentially a waste of four years, as Brogden and Doyle struggle to build a public profile with the added burden of being election losers.
Even then Opposition leader Colin Barnett in Western Australia was on his way to winning the recent state election despite terrible preferred premier ratings. If he hadn't introduced an unfunded over-the-top canal proposal most commentators believe he would have won the election.
By not panicking about preferred leadership polls when in opposition, Labor is now in power in every state and territory.
But maybe things are different federally?
Not at all. On a rare occasion where the federal opposition leader led the prime minister for a sustained period, when John Hewson was preferred leader to Paul Keating before the 1993 election, results again showed the irrelevance of the preferred leader poll, with Hewson going on to lose the "unlosable election".
Leadership is about achieving goals and this is difficult from opposition when the only goal that matters is winning the next election. That is why the two-party preferred poll is the one that counts.
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