Satisfaction just aint what it used to be for the government. Once upon a time the net satisfaction for the government (which is the PMs satisfaction level minus his dissatisfaction level as determined by Newpoll) used to be a driving force behind the primary vote –but alas, something happened after the 2001 election that completely spoiled the party… so to speak.
But we’ll get back to that. As this argument is marginally complicated, we’ll need some background.
Let us look firstly at the net satisfaction ratings for both governments and oppositions going back to December 1985.These net satisfaction ratings are simply the PM and Opposition leader satisfaction levels minus their dissatisfaction levels as determined by Newspoll.
Interesting little graph in itself that explains an awful lot of electoral behaviour if you take the time to have a bit of a think about all of the things it could represent.
What really stands out to me is how the public were mostly dissatisfied with both governments and oppositions until the 1996 election (the elections are marked with vertical lines).The norm was for big blocks of blue and red to coexist together on the negative side.We weren’t satisfied with our governments, and our oppositions didn’t do much for us either.
After the ‘96 election though, things changed. Apart from a bit of Simon Crean, some Beazley MkII and Howard when he got into is whole 1997/98 One Nation fiasco, we’ve generally been satisfied with both our governments and our oppositions – a stark contrast to the the first 10 or so years of that graph.
This can be highlighted even further if we take the relative satisfaction levels of the government compared to the opposition. This relative satisfaction is the net government satisfaction from above minus the net opposition satisfaction level from above:
What this highlights is which side of the parliamentary chamber we thought was doing the better relative job at a given time, even if we were dissatisfied with both sides. When those blue blocks are below zero, we were more satisfied with the Opposition. When they’re above the line we were more satisfied with Government. The taller the lines, the larger the difference in our relative satisfaction levels.
From this, it might be easy to draw comparisons between the period leading up to the 1996 election and today in terms of the way satisfaction levels are playing out.
But do not be fooled! Let’s not wank ourselves silly by going down the easy route of historical comparison. That might well keep the thinking down to a minimum – which is what we’ve all come to love and admire so much about our treeware commentariat in the Canberra press gallery, but it also completely misses what is actually going on.
If you look at the red and blue figure – the differences between 1996 and 2007 are so enormous they don’t need to be pointed out.
So keeping all of that in your thought orbit, let’s now go to how that relative satisfaction plays out in terms of the primary government vote:
The striking part of this graph is how the relative satisfaction level of the government has historically moved with the governments primary vote. The primary vote was delivered to the government proportional to the size of their relative satisfaction level. Now getting back to what we were originally saying – something has broken down since the 2001 election.
The red line (the government primary vote) has become decoupled with the blue line (the relative government satisfaction) since early 2002. Being satisfied more with the Prime Minster compared to the Opposition leader no longer delivers the goods for the government.
But on top of this interesting, nay unique phenomenon we also have another interesting, nay unique phenomenon playing out. This time, with the relationship between the Oppositions net satisfaction level and their primary vote:
Since the 2001 election, the Oppositions satisfaction levels have started to become recoupled to their primary vote, and since the 2005 budget have become intimately linked. That’s the first time its happened to the Opposition in 25 years of Newspoll and is why comparisons between 1996 and 2007 aren’t worth much. Something more important and much more profound is going on.
The Rudd ALP are experiencing a net satisfaction/primary vote relationship that governments have always experienced, and the Howard Coalition is experiencing a net satisfaction/primary vote relationship that has usually been reserved for oppositions.
The Opposition is being treated by the public like a government in terms of their satisfaction dynamics while the government is being treated like an Opposition. That does not bode well for Howard which gets us back to that very first graph:
The level of net satisfaction with the PM and his government that is now required to deliver a given primary vote has increased by between 4-7 points. The government now requires a much higher level of satisfaction to give them a primary vote that historically they achieved with much lower levels of satisfaction.
Apart from the turbulent period after the 91 recession, the PM and the government having as many people satisfied with them as dissatisfied used to deliver a primary vote of about 43% Now it delivers a primary vote of 36-38%. That gap between the red and blue lines after the 2001 election signifies a structural change in the relationship – and the government knows it.
It actually explains EXACTLY why they have been doing what they’ve been doing over the last few months, because it’s a deliberate strategy and the only one they’ve really got left to use.
Governments carry the burden of being judged as governments, where their satisfaction levels derive from what they actually do and what they actually implement, their policy choices and the way those choices affect the country.
But now, after having their satisfaction levels decoupled from their primary vote, the satisfaction levels they need to boost their primary vote back to an election winning position are so enormous they are virtually unattainable. They need to get their net satisfaction ratings back into the mid 30s to approach the 44% primary vote level they need to win the election. After 11 years and all that baggage – that isn’t going to happen.
Their only alternative is to buy the satisfaction levels they need in key marginal seats (in an attempt to artificially boost their net satisfaction ratings above the average in those seats) and to drive the Rudd ALP satisfaction ratings into the ground (because the opposition now has their net satisfaction ratings recoupled to their primary vote).All the while doing everything they can to stop their satisfaction ratings from slipping any further.
But that requires huge amounts of marginal seat pork barrelling, a huge advertising blitz and a massive negative election campaign the likes of which we simply haven’t ever seen before in Australia.
Does that all sound familiar?
The government is doing exactly this, because it is the only thing they can do – it is the only shot they have. They too have figured out the nature of the unpleasant reality they find themselves in.
Which gets us to the last point: Those pundits calling for the government to “get back to governing” as a way to win back the electorates favour have missed the point. Getting back to governing might lift the satisfaction ratings a bit, but that is simply not enough because the satisfaction ratings for the government have become decoupled from their primary vote. The government would lose in that scenario – lose nobly but still lose.
Nope, this election is about clawing out the eyes of Rudd and the ALP to hit their primary vote via their satisfaction levels, it’s about preventing their own satisfaction levels from declining further with advertising blitz after advertising blitz and its about raining pork into the marginals. What its not about for the government is policy, because the government cant win with policy. The only policy that the government will float will relate to either pork, or an attempt at neutralising an ALP policy.
This election will get very very ugly. And the problem for the government is that their only shot at winning carries a high risk of turning the public away in droves because it has to be ugly.