It’s called ‘The Worm’. And every time Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd started talking, it went for a dive.
The Worm in question is a moving line. On commercial television in Australia, it tracked up and down along the lower part of the screen as, behind it, opposition leader Tony Abbott and Rudd went head-to-head in debate.
The Worm reflected the opinion of anyone using the TV station’s app, in real time, to express their ‘like’ or ‘dislike’ about what they were hearing. When more people rolled their thumbs on their smart-phones to the right (‘like’) than to the left (‘dislike’), the worm rose. If more rolled left than right, it fell. Whenever Rudd started talking, it dived.
Sometimes, he’d barely started talking. Sometimes he was saying he agreed with his opponent. It didn’t seem to matter. The commercial network’s viewers didn’t ‘like’ Rudd.
They weren’t listening to his message. They didn’t ‘like’ the messenger.
The first question to Rudd got to the heart of Labor’s problems: “Do you agree that during her last months as Prime Minister you destabilised Julia Gillard’s government”’?
It could have been answered yes or no. ‘No, I disagree.’ But no politician gives a simple yes or no.
And ‘no’ wouldn’t have been true, anyway. Of course Rudd was destabilising his predecessor: he knows that, every voter in Australia does. But Rudd didn’t say ‘yes’ either – he didn’t admit to destabilisation. He said he had had a different view for the right direction for his party he’d put that forward and - in a democratic election – he’d won the leadership of the party.
People didn’t like that answer. The Worm tumbled.
On policy issues too, the same happened.
Rudd’s proposal to move a big navy base from Sydney to Brisbane? The Worm tumbled.
Rudd explaining how his government had got Australia through the global financial crisis largely unscathed? The Worm charged downhill again.
Rudd saying how much his government did for small business? The Worm started burrowing.
One commercial TV station’s audience is not necessarily reflective of the electorate as a whole. But it does reflect broader disappointment with the current government. I spent the afternoon before the debate in Penrith – a key marginal seat in the election. I met plenty of people who said they’d vote for Abbott’s conservative Liberals. I met plenty who said they hadn’t made up their minds.
I met one person who told me they’d be voting Labor. One.
Labor can’t afford to lose people in Sydney’s Western suburbs in the numbers they clearly are.
The Worm needs to turn, and fast.