WITH NATIONAL SECURITY again central to the national political discussion, courtesy of ISIS and the heightened threat of terrorist attacks on Australian soil — and in the ongoing aftermath of the MH17 disaster in July — the Prime Minister and the Coalition have recorded significant improvements in their position in today’s Newspoll; despite narrowly trailing the ALP, the question is whether the gains are illusory, or can be held and built upon.
It’s been some little time since we’ve picked apart an opinion poll in this column; not because I don’t like the messages emanating from them — federal polls we’ve missed have moved for as well as against the Coalition, and the last polling-based article I published a month ago was an omnibus piece that reflected poorly on all parties — but because there has been a fair bit going on. Even now, there were several other issues I’ve spent an hour deciding which to focus on this morning (and at least one of these might surface in an additional piece later in the day).
But for all that, the 51-49 lead Newspoll — appearing in The Australian today — records simply takes us back to the exact margin it found that last time I wrote about polling, and whilst I’m going to refer to movements from the survey I missed a fortnight ago, at least today there’s something significant enough to warrant talking about it (ahead of more from Scotland, or the fallout from last week’s referendum in Westminster, or more on Islamic State, or Peter Slipper and the penultimate act in the drama of his legal woes).
It is conventional wisdom, in Australia, that national security issues are — alongside strong and competent economic management — the political trump suit of the Liberal Party; with these things very much occupying a central focus in national (and international) affairs in recent times, it comes as little surprise that today’s Newspoll finds a significant movement toward the Coalition in the sentiments of its respondents.
Still trailing Labor after preferences, it is clear the Coalition still has some work to do in retrieving the winning position arguably squandered by its handling of the federal budget. Yet should the focus on security, terrorism and associated issues persist, the surprise would take form if later Newspolls failed to find the Coalition back in front.
Today, Newspoll finds primary vote support for the Coalition rising two points in a fortnight to 41%; it sees the ALP drop a point to 34%, with the
Communist Party Greens at 11% (-3%) and “Others” (including the Palmer United Party) rising two points, to 14%.
After preferences, this produces the headline 51-49 Labor lead — a movement of one point to the Coalition — on the two-party measure. This in itself raises the question of whether the methodology is a little out, or whether Palmer-inclined respondents are nominating preferences favouring Labor (which most commentators, in me, believe is the case).
The old stock-standard 75-25 allocation of Greens support to the ALP and a 50-50 split of “Others” would actually see the Coalition at 50.5% on these numbers, and this gives further weight to the view that Clive Palmer’s rhetoric about the Abbott government owing its position on the Treasury benches to his party’s preferences is rubbish.
(Palmer is an instrument of the ALP in virtually every sense bar his explicitly stated intentions, whether he likes it or not).
Even so, Labor’s primary vote support is now less than a percentage point higher than it was at the landslide defeat it suffered last year, and whilst 51% of the vote might win an election depending on where the votes actually fell, it would be foolhardy for the ALP to bank on it.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott sees his own standing improve significantly in this survey, and this reinforces the Coalition’s ownership of national security given the excellent leadership he has shown — a point acknowledged (if grudgingly in some quarters) across most of the commentariat.
Abbott’s approval rating among Newspoll respondents rises by six points in this survey to 41%, with disapproval falling two points to 52%; it may or may not be significant that the PM’s support has risen mostly from undecided respondents forming a view, but either way, it sees Abbott at his best personal standing this year.
Opposition “leader” Bill Shorten benefits too, but only a little; his approval number rises two points to 38%, with disapproval remaining stagnant at 43%. I have said previously that Shorten’s standing is really no better than Abbott’s despite his lofty estimation of himself, and this proves it; it would be unkind to say that the lift in his numbers here is merely attributable to his explicit backing of Abbott’s position on Islamic State and the Ukraine/Russia/MH17 fiasco.
And on the “preferred Prime Minister” measure, Abbott (41%, +4%) now leads Shorten (37%, unch).
Readers can access the Newspoll tables here.
If we accept the Newspoll picture is an accurate reflection of the national mood — and we will find out soon enough, as the other polls publish findings that either corroborate or dispute it — then for once, it is an evolving product of constantly changing issues whose nett effect remains unclear.
Over the past month, national security has undoubtedly resumed its place at the core of political debate, with the atrocities in the Middle East supplemented with a real and emerging threat of terrorist attacks in Australia: the dramatic arrests last week, and the highly explicit nature of the plots they foiled, underline this.
And the issue of Russia and Ukraine, whilst not as prominent as it was a month ago, nonetheless percolates away in the background; it needs to be remembered that Russian President Vladimir Putin not so long ago made a barely veiled threat to respond to any use of force by “outsiders” with nuclear arms, and whilst nobody really takes such a threat seriously (at least not for now), the extent to which it might be a slow burn factor in the government’s favour is unknown.
We have seen the Palmer United Party give its best impersonation of an anarchist movement, with its leader ripping into the Chinese government, and his halfwit deputy advocating a nuclear strike against it (among other own goals from the foot of Jacqui Lambie, which remains otherwise permanently parked in her mouth). There is no way of knowing whether, and how greatly, these incidents have affected Newspoll’s overall findings.
A similarly unquantifiable factor at odds with Labor’s prospects comes in the form of the Heydon commission into the trade union movement; as we discussed last week, Labor “leader” Bill Shorten is now finding himself adversely named in evidence given at the commission’s sessions, and what impact — if any — this is beginning to exert on Labor’s poll standing cannot be ascertained at this point with any confidence.
I actually find it surprising (like I did a month ago, when Abbott’s handling of the MH17 atrocity won international plaudits for his leadership) that the Coalition isn’t ahead of Labor yet: not in Newspoll, or in any of the reputable surveys carried out by other polling companies.
But there are two intangibles of diametrically opposed factors that will be the most interesting to watch.
The first, of course, is whether the Coalition retains the momentum this poll records, and whether it translates into further gains and/or spills over into the other polls; the Howard government effectively doubled its electoral lifespan by way of a snap shift in voter sentiment in its favour in August and September 2001, as the MV Tampa brought border security to the fore as an election issue, and as terrorists wreaked so much carnage in the USA on 11 September of that year.
Movement to the Coalition now, properly managed and harnessed, could at the very least seal the next election for Abbott, even if it remains two years away; and the prospect of building sustained political and electoral success on the back of national security credentials in the way Howard did will be exercising the minds of government strategists.
The other intangible is the obvious one: Joe Hockey’s abominably conceived budget, which is safe to say simply wasn’t sold to the public: this has been pushed into the background by the flow of events in recent weeks.
Yet if any single factor is capable of derailing the Abbott government’s political recovery, that budget is the one; and were it to do so a second time this year, the arguments for abandoning it in favour of a fresh attempt next year — and for moving Hockey out of the Treasury portfolio at the same time — would become almost irresistible.
Irresistible, that is, if government strategists recognise the problem which — based on the government’s overall efforts with its budget that continue even now — it seems highly unlikely that they do.