Rotten politicians: funny thing about statistics
Coffee was never so bitter at the Lodge this morning.
The Faifax headline shouted, The three Australian PMs who were even more unpopular than Donald Trump. The popularity and unpopularity of US and Australian politicians is compared after one year in office. It will no doubt nettle reader Don to learn that his man Turnbull is more unpopular than Trump by one point. At least US leaders usually enjoy a honeymoon period before hate sets in. In Australia, however, that stretch of bliss can be short indeed, like not long after the polls close.
It’s the record Donald Trump could do without: the lowest approval rating of any US president during their first year in office.
Mr Trump’s historic unpopularity has stayed with him during 12 months of consistent controversy over Russian interference in the 2016 election, his administration’s contentious policies and the former reality TV star’s unorthodox leadership style.
The three Australian PMs who were even more unpopular than Donald Trump
US President Donald Trump again attacked a new book suggesting he lacks the fitness and stability for office, declaring, “Ronald Reagan had the same problem and handled it well. So will I.”
The President’s net approval rating – the percentage of people saying they have a favourable view of him minus those who have an unfavourable view – sits at -17, according to a RealClearPolitics polling average. This compares to +5 for Barack Obama, +70 for George Bush and +20 for Bill Clinton at the same point in their first terms.
But popularity ratings registered by three Australian prime ministers during their first 12 months in office have at various points been even lower than Mr Trump’s, a Fairfax Media comparison of opinion polling shows.
According to Newspoll data, Julia Gillard plunged to -34 at the end of her first year as PM, while Tony Abbott reached -31 nine months into the top job. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull just pipped Mr Trump 12 months in, reaching -18.
A comparison of Mr Turnbull’s and Mr Trump’s approval ratings over 2017 shows the Australian Prime Minister was consistently more unpopular than his US counterpart, sometimes considerably so. At his lowest point last year, Mr Trump dipped to -18.4. At around the same time, Mr Turnbull languished at -29.
The Prime Minister has fallen from dizzying heights. After being deposed as Liberal leader in 2009, Turnbull built up strong public popularity as he waited in the wings ahead of the September 2015 leadership challenge. But the complexities of the top job quickly took their toll, eroding a +38 approval rating reached shortly after coming to power. He now sits at -25.
Opposition Leader Bill Shorten sits on a similarly poor -24.
Simon Jackman, a political scientist and chief executive of the United States Studies Centre, said the recent spate of low prime ministerial approval ratings flowed from the Westminster system, hostile leadership challenges, and general political dissatisfaction taking hold across Western democracies.
“Part of the explanation with Gillard and Turnbull stems from the circumstances under which they became prime minister. It can’t help but set the context and they’ve both fought considerable unhappiness in their own parties,” Professor Jackman said.
He cautioned that the institutional differences between the Australian and American political systems – particularly the contrasting duties of the president and prime minister – must be taken into account when comparing approval ratings.
“The president – at least historically – rises above politics, acts as a uniter not a divider,” Professor Jackman said.
“In a Westminster system like Australia, being prime minister is much more adversarial. You’ve got question time, the bear pit of the politics. It’s a very different set of circumstances.”
Americans vote directly for their preferred presidential candidate, who only emerges victorious if he or she gets majority support in enough states. Votes are also cast for representatives in Congress, a separate arm of government. In Australia, voters elect local members and the party commanding a majority in Parliament forms government. The parliamentary leader of that party becomes prime minister.
However, the personal popularity of party leaders has become increasingly important in Australian politics. Kevin Rudd’s presidential-style “Kevin07” strategy helped propel Labor to victory over John Howard’s Coalition.
“If you look at the two-party-preferred numbers, what moves them the most are leadership changes,” Professor Jackman said.
When he made his pitch to take the leadership from Mr Abbott, Mr Turnbull noted the Coalition government had lost 30 Newspolls in a row.
As his own government approaches that milestone, the Prime Minister late last year conceded he regretted the comment.
“Only because it allowed people to focus on that rather than the substantive reasons,” he said recently, pointing to the need for economic leadership and governance.