Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Embattled Abbott Thirty-Six Below The Wave

 Advance summary:

1. Polling figures released by two pollsters on Monday show Tony Abbott with the worst personal ratings of his career and among the worst of any federal Opposition Leader in Australian polling history.

2. Mainstream media have thus far failed to describe the Abbott leadership as "embattled", a word considered to have great power in describing a struggling political leadership.

3. Abbott is an "embattled" leader by definition, irrespective of his party holding a slender and apparently fast-diminishing lead over Labor and irrespective of whether or not he faces an imminent challenge.

4. The term "embattled" has been quite liberally used for most other leaders who have been in difficulty by comparison.


As previously mentioned I don't intend posting an essay about every federal poll that hits my screens, but on Monday we saw a new low-water mark in the seemingly inexorable popularity slide of the federal Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott.

(Apologies for devoting so many articles to him so early in this site's career, but the Abbott rating question is one I have been following with great interest for over a year now, and the last few months have been an especially important phase in the unfolding story.  You can see a nice graph of the long-term decline of the Abbott netsat - and the recent recovery of the Gillard one - along with lots of other goodies - here)

The latest decline started with Essential Report in which, against the backdrop of a further narrowing in the 2PP vote to 52:48, Abbott recorded his worst ever Essential Report net satisfaction rating (netsat) of -25.  Essential is a relatively gentle-to-the-stomach polling medication, partly because they employ rolling averages, and it's also notable that they only poll approval ratings monthly.  Still, this finding was consistent with many by other pollsters, especially as they also had PM Gillard with a netsat of -8, her least worst since May 2011.

There was worse news for Abbott in Essential's Preferred Prime Minister scores.  I normally ignore PPM, as it is an indicator that is generally biased in favour of the actual PM (all else being equal) and that has a poor predictive record even very close to elections, but one thing was significant.  29% (up ten points in four weeks) of Coalition supporters either didn't know which of Abbott and Gillard they preferred as Prime Minister, or else preferred Gillard to Abbott.  (The comparable figure for Gillard among Labor supporters was just 14%, which is marginally the highest it has been as well). 

Much worse was to come for Abbott in the evening's Newspoll, news of which broke just after 10 pm with Abbott on an approval rating of 27 and a disapproval rating of 63, for a netsat of -36 (down eight points in two weeks.)

This represents:

* Abbott's worst Newspoll approval rating ever.
* Abbott's worst Newspoll disapproval rating ever.
* Abbott's worst Newspoll netsat ever - and not by a small margin either (five points).
* The worst netsat for an Opposition Leader since the -39 recorded by Simon Crean in May 2003 (Crean was removed within six months).
* The worst Newspoll disapproval rating for an Opposition Leader since the 69 and 65 recorded by the soon-replaced Alexander Downer in December 1994, and the equal-seventh worst of all time.

Only four Opposition Leaders have recorded Newspoll disapproval scores of 63 or worse: Downer, Peacock in his second term, Hewson, and Howard in his first term.   The first three were gone within a few months - Peacock by losing an election and resigning - while Howard lasted a little longer.  Keating, of course, recorded disapproval rates as high as 68 as PM on his merry way to winning an election, but that was Keating for you.

This poll may be the beginning of a new and presumably terminal phase of awfulness for Tony Abbott's ratings.  For the past five months his rolling average netsat has been in a band from -24 to -28.  That's bad, but only routinely unpopular, comparable to others who have struggled.  Now this spectacularly awful result breaks him out of that band, and puts his rolling average into the -30s. 

The Coalition is, of course, still narrowly leading on two-party preferred (51-49 on this poll, with other recent polls by other pollsters generally polling similar or a bit better for them).  But this lead, as a rolling average, has come down by three points in two and a half months and is now very thin indeed.  This trend need not continue for much longer before the only argument left for retaining Abbott will be the lack of a replacement who is ready and who the party room is ready for. 


"embattled adjective 1. troubled by many difficulties" - Concise Oxford

It is thought that party leaderships are often terminal once the mainstream media start using the magic term "embattled" ("beleagured" works well too) to describe them.  It doesn't actually always hold, but frequent use of the term is a common part of a leadership feeding frenzy, and most leaders who receive it heavily do not survive.  The term need not imply that a leadership is necessarily circling the drain.  It just means there are multiple and serious problems affecting it. 

Curiously, although Tony Abbott has been unpopular and gaffe-prone for ages, with his leadership now seemingly powerless to halt a polling trend back to the ALP, and with polling showing his own party's supporters prefer Malcolm Turnbull, the press gallery have given him a completely free pass on the use of the E-word in the last year and a half.  It is almost as if they are afraid to declare that he is struggling, in case Labor re-inserts foot in mouth and he wins the next election after all.

But if a net satisfaction level of -36, and the worst disapproval rating since the most embarrassing Opposition Leadership of all time (Downer's) are not enough to bring out the E-word, then what is?  

To track the history of this magic label, I did a combined search for "embattled Opposition Leader <insert name here>" on Newsbank including 25 newspapers, and Google.  As both sources are dominated by recent material, I only looked back to about 2000.

The expression "embattled Opposition Leader Tony Abbott" turns up just two press outings of sorts in my sample, by Mark Bode and Mark Kenny, both following the "sh*t happens" episode in February 2011.  At this time the Opposition was slightly ahead in the polls and Abbott was only slightly unpopular, though he was having a rough trot which would soon see his ratings decline.  There are no media search hits since.

By comparison:

* The Australian first employed "Embattled Opposition Leader Simon Crean" in August 2002 at which time the Opposition was practically equal with the Coalition in polling and Crean's netsat was -7.  It then popped up in several sources in November 2002 with the party trailing on 2PP by about 52:48 and Crean himself at about -11.  According to the Australian Crean had to "beware next Newspoll" especially since Labor voters preferred Kim Beazley.  By April the next year with Crean polling ratings almost as bad as Abbott's are now, the phrase was epidemic.

* Mark Latham became "embattled" almost as soon as he lost the 2004 election. A bit hard to argue with that really.

* "Embattled Opposition Leader Kim Beazley" debuted in the Herald Sun in July 2005.  At this time Labor was again almost level-pegging, and while Beazley's ratings were starting to become negative, they weren't too bad (-6).  There was another appearance in March 2006 with Beazley's personal ratings awful although his party was still on average not too far from 50-50.  (Indeed Labor's next two Newspolls after this were 53 and 52 two-party preferred.) After that nothing until Beazley's rolling was clearly imminent.

* "Embattled Opposition Leader Brendan Nelson" made its first appearance in February 2008 at a time when Nelson had been in the job just a few months and still had a positive netsat.  It became commonplace in March and April although Nelson's personal ratings weren't too bad.    Naturally, up against a honeymoon-period Rudd, he had appalling PPM and 2PP figures, but given how little chance his leadership was given before it was completely written off by all the press, it's little wonder Turnbull soon moved against him.

* "Embattled Opposition Leader Malcolm Turnbull" first showed in May 2009 even before the Ozcar affair, when Turnbull was polling reasonable ratings, although his party was still way behind on two-party preferred.  Once the damage from the Ozcar affair was clear the expression soon became standard and rightfully so, but there were a few other outings before then, mostly again on account of Turnbull's poor standing in the rather meaningless "beauty contest" PPM polls vs Rudd.

* "Embattled Prime Minister Julia Gillard" has made several dozen appearances, with those in the mainstream press occurring primarily from May 2011 to July 2012.

* Rudd naturally only copped the label a few times in the months preceding his rolling, while  Howard's few such mentions were all in 2007 bar a single rogue example in 2002.

In general, with the exception of Howard, the term "embattled" has been employed rather liberally when an leader is in even relatively minor trouble.

Yet for whatever reason, no matter what troubles befall the current Opposition Leader, there has been a strange reluctance by the mainstream press to call him what he very clearly is.



(Footnote: the somewhat eccentric title of this piece is partly derived from the line "ninety-six below the wave" in the song "Temple of Love" by the Sisters of Mercy.   There is great uncertainty about what if anything the lyric actually means, but there can be much less doubt that Abbott's own electoral temple of love is falling down.)

(NB 10pm Tuesday: A comment about the frequency of Essential polling of approval ratings has been corrected.)

(NB 8:30 pm Thursday: Having found a disapproval rating worse than 63 for Peacock (first term) in Morgan Gallup records, I have clarified that my comment on prior cases applies only to Newspolls. The Peacock case is very interesting and I will have something up dealing with it soon.) 


  1. You sound like the great Axiom Siberian Chess Tiger !

  2. I did realise I would start to sound like that if I banged on about this curious failing for too long.

    It seems so far they were not ready and I should instead have tried the "gateway drug" version, by arguing that it is time for media to talk about the possibility that if this continues, then they may soon use the word "embattled".

  3. There's no need to be cheeky , Kevin .