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When rallying around the flag translates into something more authentic

Opinion

The Prime Minister’s stratospheric polling numbers might not be a mirage, but they could rapidly turn into one if he succumbs to old weaknesses, writes Dennis Atkins.

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The dramatic bump in Scott Morrison’s performance and satisfaction ratings seen this week is neither surprising nor the whole story. The history of opinion polls is replete with examples of what’s called the “rally-round-the-flag” effect when the public quickly accepts there is a need for government action and cheers when people like what they see.

It’s seen at times of war and in response to natural disasters with the current COVID-19 crisis sitting most neatly into the environmentally based basket. It might not be an earthquake, firestorm or cyclone but it is nature-based with the how and why remaining a mystery.

People “rally-round-the-flag” when there is an identifiable, commonly felt threat – clear qualities of the virus that’s been sweeping the world since very late last year. So Morrison’s moonshot jump in net satisfaction – a record plus 38 per cent – is not unexpected in terms of the trajectory although the quantum is truly dramatic.

This Newspoll finding was backed in today’s Essential Survey which recorded a sharp rise of 18 per cent in Morrison’s approval.

To put it in some context, after action on guns following Port Arthur, John Howard’s net satisfaction was up 24 points and following his hard line on the MV Tampa his rating lept 20 per cent overall. Until this week, these were the biggest poll-to-poll turnarounds seen in Australia.

The preferred (or better) prime minister question usually doesn’t shift as much as satisfaction numbers – which can have a “pop chart” flavour – but again Morrison set a new record for a move by a PM against the same Opposition leader, a 20 point increase.

These numbers are impressive however they’re viewed but we shouldn’t get carried away. After all it was just two months ago when we saw Morrison’s preferred PM number slump by 10 points and his net satisfaction go from minus 3 in early December to minus 22 by Australia Day.

What public opinion gives (Morrison was positive 15 just after the election last year), it can quickly take away. As we see this week it can just as quickly give back that support. They don’t say public opinion is fickle for nothing.

Of course, public opinion is more than fickle. It is usually based on observed events – as Paul Keating used to say, “voters never get things wrong” (debate that if you wish).

For Morrison to maintain his good ratings he will need to keep doing what he’s done in recent weeks – demonstrate some authenticity, act without being bound by ideology or prejudice and show he can be flexible as the times demand.

Morrison will also need to shake off some long-held unattractive habits and traits such as stubbornness, a default preference for secrecy and a sometimes-too-robust case of self-belief.

As to whether a rally-round-the-flag bounce lasts or translates to subsequent electoral success, the jury is out, as it is with every aspect of these world spinning events. However, history suggests the impact is not necessarily long lasting and more often than not elections do not turn on the rally-inspired events.

Of course, timing is important. In 2001, Howard benefited from a bounce that came from his strong action in turning back the MV Tampa, toughness reinforced by the quickly following aftermath of the September 11 terror attacks and the invasion of Afghanistan.

However, other instances tell a different story. Former US President George H. W. Bush saw his rating shoot past 80 per cent after he pushed back the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait but he went on to lose the subsequent election to Bill Clinton because he fumbled economic policy.

Bush’s son, George W., had a bounce from his decision to invade Iraq in 2003 but soon after his inauguration for a second term in 2005, his ratings fell sharply because the loss of American troops in that conflict quickly surpassed 1500 (US military casualties in Iraq is now more than 4500).

Voters do calculate a kind of cost and benefit equation when big events and responses occur which is worth remembering as the impacts of economic shutdown and social isolation drag on.

In terms of how global leaders are being rated for their handling of the COVID-19 crisis, almost all have been given high marks with Morrison sitting in the top group according to a graph produced by the US politics and other trends website fivethirtyeight.com. He is the fourth-best performer behind Britain’s Boris Johnson, Germany’s Angela Merkel and Canada’s Justin Trudeau.

Much has been made of Donald Trump’s ratings, which the US President boasts about from the White House podium. In reality, he is well back in the pack, sitting in just-positive territory at about 48-51 per cent approval. Almost all US state governors are rating 20 to 30 points above Trump’s numbers.

Trump can take some solace from the fact he’s not being marked as badly as Japan’s Shinzo Abe, France’s Emmanuel Macron and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, who is the international wooden spoon holder.

All this serves to remind us polls are only ever a snapshot taken at a moment – something always noted by pollsters but forgotten by too many commentators – and trends are more important than one survey. Trends are measured over at least three or four surveys, so in this fast-moving crisis, we can’t even say we’ve got a trend yet.

Meanwhile, Morrison can be happy where he sits in this Holy Week, 2020.

 

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