Today’s Neilsen poll in the Sydney Morning Herald shows that Labor would win an election now if they sacked Julia Gillard as their leader and brought back Kevin Rudd. 44 percent of those polled prefer Rudd, while only 19 per cent support Gillard.
Seven out of ten Australians are unhappy with the manner in which Gillard achieved leadership, and there’s a widespread perception that Rudd was our “elected” and therefore legitimate PM, overthrown without public consultation and replaced by a leader who has never been popularly accepted as legitimate.
There’s a lesson in this for political parties in government. No matter how difficult your leader, if it’s his first term and if the public are unaware of or unbothered by his annoying managerial practices it is most unwise to unseat him overnight without first informing the voters that you have a problem with him, and testing the waters for indicators of possible reactions to change.
While in reality we all know we don’t elect our PMs, and that our political parties are entitled to change leaders whenever they feel they need to, the Rudd experience ought to have demonstrated to every politician that reality means little in the face of outraged public feeling. The public’s narrative is that faceless men took our PM before he’d even got through his first term, for no good reason, and replaced him with someone we didn’t choose. That someone would have had to be superlative in every way to be accepted by a disgruntled electorate, many of whom felt themselves to be disenfranchised by Rudd’s sacking.
It is never a good idea to create among the voters a sense of their being out of control of their fate. No amount of academic discussion about the Westminster system was ever going to address the emotional indignation many voters felt and continue to feel about having their “chosen” PM axed, without so much as a focus group first. While the move adhered to the black letter of the Westminster system, in terms of voter consciousness that clearly counts for almost naught.
What the ALP apparently forgot is that they are not a law unto themselves when in government. Sacking a leader of the opposition is a very different matter from sacking a PM. There’s a widespread public feeling that we have a far higher stake in the matter when the party is in government. While strictly speaking this isn’t the case, emotionally and psychologically it is. Australians apparently live in a state of cognitive dissonance in which on a rational level we know political parties are responsible for choosing their leaders, but emotionally voters feel and behave as if we are electing a president. While the reality is that only the PM’s electorate has any influence, reality isn’t the determinant. The fantasy that we choose our leader is far more powerful.
This fantasy was fed by the ALP’s campaign against John Howard and the Coalition. It was a presidential style campaign, with Rudd at its heart. They chose to run a campaign built on the presidential fantasy. They used Rudd to win government, and then they kicked the voters in the guts by chucking him out and claiming their right to do that under our Westminster system. They had it both ways. The public quite rightly felt duped and betrayed when we woke up to find Kevin 07 replaced by Gillard. We hadn’t signed up for Gillard. We’d signed up for Kevin 07 and no amount of telling us we don’t elect our PM was going to soothe our indignation and our sense of having been exploited by among others, a sizeable contingent of the unelected.
Gillard’s on-going refusal to reveal the circumstances surrounding her ascension only serves to stoke the public’s outrage at being treated like mushrooms by the PM and her party. If you take down a PM it’s everybody’s business. You aren’t just replacing a party leader, you’re replacing the country’s leader, especially if you’ve got there in the first place on the strength of that leader’s public appeal.
Rudd’s replacement would have had to be superhuman in every way to get the voters through their angst at losing “their” PM. Gillard didn’t stand a chance. The chalice was poisoned. What is staggering in retrospect is that those behind the coup apparently had no insight into the psychology of the electorate, and no understanding of the difference in the emotional attachment voters feel for a Prime Minister as opposed to an opposition leader. Thwarting voters’ irrational beliefs profoundly soured Gillard’s leadership potential. It’s astounding that nobody apparently took this x factor into account.
The lesson is: deprive people of their fantasies at your peril. As a good therapist knows, you dismantle treasured fantasies with great care, over time and in an atmosphere of mutual engagement. Pull out the rug in one authoritarian fell swoop and you’ll likely be dealing with rage, resentment, and loss of trust for a long time to come.
The Nielsen Poll also revealed that 54 per cent of Australians prefer on-shore processing of asylum seekers as opposed to 25 per cent still arguing for an off-shore solution. The Gillard government is out of step with the public on this issue as well. Regardless of this, the government is likely to attempt to amend the Migration Act to enable non- country specific off-shore processing of asylum claims, at the sole discretion of the Minister for Immigration.
- Rudd factor reveals disconnect (theage.com.au)
- Labor win if Rudd was leader (theage.com.au)
- Labor ‘heading for wipeout’ without Rudd (heraldsun.com.au)