Polls, A Pox On Everyone’s House, And The Devil You Know

WITH A SLEW of state elections now imminent — and the perennial issue of federal voting intentions percolating away on simmer — opinion poll findings over the past week fail to paint any kind of picture of the faith and trust in governments, oppositions, or in politics in general. It’s the classic case of “a pox on both your houses,” although there are more than two houses in the street these days. Even “the devil you know” is mostly despised.

I must apologise to readers for my silence over the past few days; I have been a bit distracted on several fronts, and when there has been time in which to post I’ve had things to do. I even missed the weekly opportunity last night for baiting the Left during #QandA which kind of says it all, really.

But I have been keeping an eye on things, and with a barrage of polling data over the past week — some of it federal, some of it pertaining to the eastern states — I honestly can’t remember the last time the polls painted such a universal, across-the-board picture of apathy, disillusion, and downright contempt for the political process.

For once, I’m not going to go through the drudge of listing out who’s up a point, down a point, scored a point or missed a point, and what brilliant conclusion can be drawn from all of this: quite frankly, it doesn’t matter where you sit — there are few winners (in the true sense) kicking around the political circuit, and very few players who can claim any kind of vindication from the kind of numbers that are being recorded.

Who would be a politician nowadays?

I think readers know that in the course of the past year, I have grown increasingly critical of the quality of advice elected representatives appear to be acting upon, but the problem is bigger than that; the entire game of risk-averse, stage-managed rubbish designed to offend as few as possible whilst scoring free hits where possible is moving us to the point where the political process is delivering nothing that anyone wants — or can even accept as good governance, if not necessarily popular.

In the tradition of that grand old truism of politics that is ignored at the peril of those who do so, trying to please everyone — and being all things to all people — ends up pleasing no-one.

Don’t misunderstand me — I’m not having some fortysomething moment of indulgent introspection. But there’s not much in any of the latest batch of numbers to make anyone smile, and for once I’m not going to pretend otherwise.

The 51-49 Labor lead Newspoll finds today for The Australian is an indictment; stripped of the rather optimistic preference flows that enable this ostensibly Earth-shattering result for the ALP, Bill “Big Boy” Shorten has, according to its findings, lifted Labor support by the dazzling degree of just 0.6% since the election last September, an occasion that saw Labor record its worst-ever vote in the modern era.

To do this — at a time Labor is gifted with an abominable federal budget that will achieve none of its stated aims of fiscal rectitude, but inflict all of the political pain associated with them on the Abbott government anyway — is an “achievement” of sorts; when it is also considered that the Coalition has stumbled a bit (as new governments of all persuasions are wont to do) and is faced with a greater assortment of parliamentary enemies than would ordinarily be the case, Labor’s inability to directly harvest the support being chiselled away from the Coalition is unprecedented.

The popular commentary this morning seems to be that Prime Minister Tony Abbott is hanging onto the ground the government has clawed back in the wake of the MH17 disaster and a mooted package of national security measures; I would simply say that in view of such things, the Coalition should be in front again by now.

The fact it isn’t keeps going back to that budget of tax rises, spending cuts that deliberately target middle Australia and the Coalition’s own electoral core, and the worst-sold budget delivered by any government in at least 20 years: there’s a rod on the government’s back that is entirely self-inflicted.

In a sense, it doesn’t matter what else Abbott announces; every time he and his ministers reiterate their determination to force the budget through the Senate, they reinforce the voter recoil the package sparked in the first place.

As we have discussed aplenty, even if the less palatable measures in the budget pass, they are likely to do so in a form so badly emasculated and distorted as to render them next to useless in redressing the budget bottom line. In other words, another “horror” budget will be required to finish the job that was spectacularly botched the first time. Good luck with that.

And as usual, neither of the leaders are popular; Bill Shorten — experiencing something of a resurgence in his appeal this week — musters just a 39% approval rating; little better than the 36% carded by the perennially unpopular Abbott, a man Labor has misspent five years telling anyone who will listen is too hated by the public to be entitled to be elected to anything. Which is ironic, considering 36% was all Shorten himself could manage in Newspoll’s last survey a fortnight ago.

And as negative as Tony Abbott might have been as opposition leader, he also presented on polling day with the framework for an agenda of sorts; Labor under Shorten doesn’t even have that much, with its only new policy (aside from reinstituting the carbon tax) being the abolition of the private health insurance rebate: a measure almost guaranteed to destroy the healthcare sector in Australia.

The only surprise in the Newspoll numbers is that the vote for “Others” — which includes Clive Palmer’s increasingly destructive little outfit — actually increased by two points, to 15%; Newspoll doesn’t strip the Palmer vote out into a separate column like some of the other polls do, so there’s always some ambiguity about this, but it’s a fair assumption that that additional support has gone straight to his party.

In turn, this is a measure of either the abject stupidity of voters or of their total disgust with the major parties, given the self-indulgent rant Palmer went off on last week and the damage he and the objectionable Jacqui Lambie seemed determined to inflict on Australia’s relations with China.

I would simply observe that people are not stupid, and assert that the ongoing support for Palmer — all 500 tons of him — has more to do with the electorate being treated as if it is stupid by the major parties than it does with any real appeal of the malicious cacophony that constitutes the Palmer position on anything.

Come down here to Melbourne, and a first-term Coalition is set to get it in the neck if the polls are any guide: Newspoll at the weekend found the ALP ahead, 55-45; last week, Galaxy called the likely result at 52-48 the same way. The discrepancy — for what it’s worth — seems to be that Newspoll has understated the National Party vote at just 3%, whereas Galaxy recorded it at a more realistic 5%. At the previous state election in 2010, the Nationals polled 6.8%.

If ever there was a government that deserved a second term, it’s Denis Napthine’s here in Victoria; boasting the only state budget in the country that retains the AAA rating Labor types are so fond of, the Coalition in 2010 replaced an aged Labor administration that hid its inability to handle the state’s finances behind a series of infrastructure deals that almost restored the state’s debt position to the levels that existed before Jeff Kennett took the axe to them in 1992.

Just three months ago Napthine’s Treasurer, Michael O’Brien, delivered a budget that was roundly and warmly received with great fanfare and acclaim. But one week later, the Abbott government’s federal effort knocked the stuffing out of the Victorian government’s budget sell, and I agree with other commentators that if Napthine is beaten in November, the blame can and should be sheeted home directly to his federal counterparts. This column has been impartial and unreserved in its criticism of the budget delivered by the federal Coalition. And its fallout — as long as Abbott and Treasurer Joe Hockey persist with it — knows no bounds.

Of course, here in Victoria there have been other factors at play; the unfortunate but necessary move to switch Premiers 18 months ago isn’t the kind of thing any government would seek to do arbitrarily (the NSW ALP notwithstanding). Notorious ex-Liberal MP Geoff Shaw, who seems set to be expelled from state Parliament when it reconvenes — and deservedly so — has seen to it that for almost two years, the atmosphere around Spring Street has been one of entrenched crisis. And the “leaked tape” scandal that broke in June has scarcely helped either, although that one might well rebound on the ALP and could yet help cost it a state election win.

Yet even so, Napthine — who remains more popular than most of the other state Premiers — has attacked the job of governing with vigour, and it’s a sad reflection on the fact that this dedicated servant of the state of Victoria, trying to get on with making things in the Garden State better for as many people as he can, is perennially thwarted by factors beyond his direct influence.

And it’s a sad state of affairs that a puerile, adolescent oaf like Daniel Andrews is even a shot at becoming Premier. Not that the voters like him; no poll has ever found him to be preferred as Premier, and no poll has ever recorded higher approval for Andrews than his Liberal counterpart. Even now, as it finds Labor up 55-45 in Victoria, Newspoll records just 32% of Victorian voters approving of Andrews, with 41% disapproving, and even that’s probably more than he deserves.

Head up to Sydney yesterday, and the rather triumphant headline in the Daily Telegraph was that the newly installed Liberal Premier, Mike Baird, was set to win a second term for the Coalition when it goes to the polls next March.

Dig a bit deeper, and the same poll — this time, from Galaxy — finds a swing against the state Coalition of almost 10%. Yes, the 2011 state election in NSW and the 64.7% result the Coalition recorded were watersheds. But even so, 10% — if it were to occur in March — is hardly a vote of confidence.

It isn’t difficult to see why; the scourge of corruption, non-compliance and/or official misconduct has claimed a number of Coalition scalps in NSW, including that of former Premier Barry O’Farrell, as the same ICAC machinations that seemed set to keep Labor in opposition for a decade also turned the blowtorch on the government.

My view on such things — that they should be pursued without fear or favour — is undiminished by the embarrassment this has caused the NSW Liberals. But the price of such idiocy is a loss of public support, and what should have been a lay-down misere for the Coalition in NSW in March is increasingly looking like a 1991-style near death experience for the government.

Perversely, the best thing the NSW Liberals have going for them is Labor leader John Robertson, whose Sussex Street connections and union pedigree alone should be enough to render him unelectable; when it’s remembered that this is also a man who admits to self-adjudicating that a $3 million bribe he was offered shouldn’t be referred to ICAC or to Police simply because he said “no” to it, it’s not hard to see why Labor in NSW is unlikely to leap the Coalition citadel in a single bound.

But up in Queensland, Labor may be readying to do precisely that; another first-term Liberal LNP government elected with close to two-thirds of the two-party vote, the trend line in the LNP’s polling over the past 18 months has been a virtually straight line: downwards. It has been too consistent to either ignore or dismiss.

Now sitting on just 52% of the vote, according to the most recent Galaxy poll, the Newman government is already in the statistical grey zone that could see it lose office depending on where the votes fall; the electoral boundaries in Queensland are skewed in favour of Labor by somewhere between 2% and 4% as it is, and it needs to be remembered that 53.7% of the two-party vote in 1995 still returned a Labor government on polling day, albeit by a single seat, and notwithstanding the fact that a disputed return saw a seat change hands at a by-election that led to a minority Coalition government.

But even here, the story is depressingly familiar; a deeply unpopular Premier shadowed by an opposition leader in Annastacia Palaszczuk who is, in round terms, every bit as unpopular as Newman is; Newman seems certain to lose the marginal seat he clings to, whilst a has-been (who never really was) sits in an 80-20 Liberal electorate in Moggill and refuses to budge.

Nobody — even some of the LNP people I talk to in Queensland — suggests for a minute that Newman hasn’t roughed a lot of people up over the past couple of years.

But in this case, a government that has been mostly competent and governed well seems set to suffer heavy losses, if not defeat altogether, and if the latter scenario emerges, then God knows what will happen in Queensland. Labor spent 20 years virtually bankrupting what should be one of the strongest states in the country. For the LNP to squander the massive majority it scored in 2012 and perhaps lose at its first bid for re-election are prospects for which it will have nobody to blame except itself (and for once, that includes Clive Palmer, too).

Up and down the country, the story is the same.

Unpopular first-term conservative governments — whose problems are diverse and the causes of them varied — all facing either defeat or such a hefty kicking as to virtually destroy their authority. In Victoria’s case, the net loss of a single seat would be enough to do it.

And in every case, unpopular oppositions — led by questionable figures like Robertson, unimaginative plodders like Palaszczuk, or dickheads like Andrews — are lining up to fall into office by default; should any or all of them do so, they promise to usher in yet another era of insipid Labor government that will deliver as much as it promises, which at the present time is very little.

It cannot be otherwise: conservative governments, faced with the unruly destructive antics of Labor in opposition, have demonstrated that putting ideas and tough medicine on the menu in the name of the greater good can and will be turned into electoral Kryptonite; if any or all of these governments fall, one of the legacies will be that political parties of all colours will be extremely reticent about rolling out agendas of policy that take any other form than the populist.

And that leads to the real message from all of these polls.

The Abbott government in particular has shown that by trying to please everyone, promising all things to all people and attempting to offend as few people as possible, the end result is that everyone ends up being pissed off: I’ve voted Liberal consistently for nearly 25 years and will continue to do so, but there are plenty of rusted-on conservative voters who are annoyed at the direction the Abbott government has seemed determined to take.

Instead of cutting government spending and eliminating waste, the government has increased taxes in a brazen attempt to have its cake and eat it too: the electoral bribes of the Gillard era are mostly reprieved, with Gonski and the NDIS (and their combined $30 billion annual hit on the federal budget) left undisturbed.

Those cuts in government spending the federal budget does attempt have been efficiently used by all of the forces ranged against the government to howl it down under the auspices of “unfairness.”

In the meantime, the anti-party forces of Clive Palmer prosper, as voters rebel against the major parties who offer nothing, like Labor, or nothing they want to hear, like the Coalition.

And all the while, even “the devil you know” seems as despised by voters as the devil they don’t, with the difference between the two so minor as to be absolutely inconsequential.

That’s the lay of the land this week; politics is everyone’s cup of tea, to put it sarcastically.

In reality, it’s a case of “a pox on all your houses,” as far as voters are concerned. I don’t know what you do to break such a perfect storm of public distaste. But even for those readers whose allegiances lie with the Labor Party, it should be terrifyingly obvious that changes of government are not the way to achieve it.