With all polls showing a huge coalition lead over the Gillard Labor Government, commentators from the ABC and the Fairfax press are keen to focus on Tony Abbott’s personal standing in the polls.

The latest Nielsen Poll, conducted from 26 to 28 July, shows both Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott rating equally at 38% approval and 58% disapproval. However, Abbott is leading as preferred Prime Minister 48% to 43% and the coalition leads Labor 56% to 44% on the two party preferred vote. Given these figures, it is natural that leftist commentators would seek to divert attention by alleging that Abbott is somehow an electoral handicap to his side.

A little historical perspective should help correct some current myths. Back in 1971, we were governed by a somewhat divided coalition led by Billy McMahon, who had just replaced Gorton as Prime Minister. Facing him from the opposition benches was Gough Whitlam, who had been leading the Labor Party for four years.

In retrospect, Whitlam versus McMahon seems no contest. Whitlam is perceived as a towering albeit flawed leader, while McMahon is seen as an inconsequential figure for whom few have much regard.

However, a glance at the figures in the Morgan Gallup Poll published on September 30, 1971, shows that up to June 1971, McMahon was more popular than Whitlam. The June 1971 figures for McMahon as Prime Minister showed 53% approval, 16% disapproval and 31% undecided. The corresponding figures for Whitlam as Opposition leader were 38% approval, 36% disapproval and 26% undecided. Does this look a little familiar?

While McMahon’s ratings were to decline from 55% approval, 8% disapproval and 37% undecided in April 1971, to 35% approval, 38% disapproval and 27% undecided in September, that of the great Gough were also to decline over the same period, from 45% approval, 33% disapproval and 22% undecided to 38% approval, 39% disapproval and 23% undecided.

Some of the reported comments to the pollster in September 1971 might raise wry smiles today. Those who approved of McMahon’s performance made comments such as, “he’s making the best of a difficult job” or, “trying to do his best”. Those who disapproved were reported as saying that he was indecisive. Those who approved of Whitlam made comments such as, “he’s trying”, and, “doing a good job”. From the 39% who expressed disapproval of Whitlam came comments such as, “has too much to say”, and, “China visit a mistake”.

Clearly, McMahon’s loss of personal support was not translating into increased personal support for Gough Whitlam.

Only twelve months out from the 1972 elections, both Whitlam and McMahon were still both relatively unpopular. McMahon’s approval rating had risen from 35% in September to 37% in November whilst that of Whitlam had declined from 38% in September to 36% in November.

As late as November 13, 1971, the Morgan Poll pointed to an increased Coalition majority if an election had been held. The report described the ALP as drifting. At the very least, all this was a paradoxical prelude to the historic Whitlam victory in 1972.

Indeed, it would appear that there was only a serious swing to both Whitlam and the ALP during little more than a year before the election (Labor to Power, Australia’s 1972 Election, edited by Henry Mayer, pages 252 – 258). From July-August 1971 to March 1972, Labor Party support increased from 45% to 55% while coalition support declined from 47% to 38%. Whitlam only took a commanding lead in the polls after five years as leader of the Labor Opposition.

Given Gough Whitlam’s relative personal standing back in 1971, the current focus on Tony Abbott’s personal popularity, which appears to be based on ideological hostility rather than objective analysis, is of no account.

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