THE FINAL NEWSPOLL for 2014 makes sobering reading for anyone within the federal government, committed to the notion of centre-right conservative government in Australia, or opposed to a resumption in office by the ALP; the voting intentions are awful, Tony Abbott’s numbers worse, and this poll brings nasty festive season surprises at a time bad headlines are not in short supply. Come the new year, Abbott will need to get his skates on.
It has been some time since I have dissected an opinion poll in this column: not because I’m avoiding poor numbers for the government, but simply because I honestly believe it’s a given that everyone knows the Coalition is faring very badly, and that that reality is becoming entrenched. In fact, I have alluded to it, depressingly enough, with increasing regularity in recent times.
Yet the final Newspoll for the year in today’s issue of The Australian carries with it a couple of nasty surprises that if anything deepen the electoral trouble the Abbott government seems to be in, and for all the accusations of disloyalty to the Liberal Party I have fielded (mostly via my mobile phone) for calling things as I see them, it validates the conviction that my judgement of the bind the Coalition is on balance rather more sound than those who accuse me of treachery.
In truth, I’d never do anything that would help facilitate the election of a Labor government. Ever. But to get out of a hole it is necessary to first acknowledge being in one to begin with: and this is something that simply isn’t happening in government circles, not publicly nor — to the best of my knowledge — behind closed doors.
And the spectre of being the first one-term federal government since Jim Scullin’s ALP was booted out during the Great Depression in 1931 looms ever closer.
Newspoll is the opinion poll of choice among the Canberra political set with good reason; come election time it is — almost unswervingly — the most reliable and usually accurate barometer of voter sentiment, and the fact it has in the past couple of months fallen into line with the other reputable opinion polls is cause enough for concern in itself.
Its headline finding this fortnight that Labor leads the Coalition by a 54-46 margin after preferences — mirroring the average of Essential, and Morgan, and Galaxy, and ReachTel — is, in isolation, not especially significant, save for the fact such a result amounts to a 7.5% swing against the Coalition that, if replicated uniformly at an election, would see the ALP win 34 extra seats for a total of 89 of the 150 in the House of Representatives, and with them Labor’s strongest election win since the Hawke government came to power in 1983: and its second-biggest win ever (after, for the aficionados, 1943).
But what should concern Coalition strategists is the fact that for the second time in a month (across two of three Newspolls) the Coalition, with 38% of the primary vote, now trails Labor (39%) on this critical measure despite having maintained its lead during the year, and despite being behind on the two-party measure since the inept May budget derailed its standing. (The
Communist Party Greens, with 12%, see their support continue to sit at 2010 levels, with “Others” on 11% — and of that, Clive Palmer’s disintegrating outfit registers just 1%).
Until now, it has been popular (including here) to point to Labor support at anywhere between 33% and 35% and ridicule its “lead” as built on the same or similar voter backing as the embarrassing 33.4% the ALP scored at last year’s election. Now, Labor support has crept up on the Coalition to the point it exceeds the 37% won by Julia Gillard in 2010 that underpinned a narrow election loss.
A similarly sobering phenomenon has crept up on the Liberals by way of the leaders’ personal approval numbers.
With 33% approving and 58% disapproving of him, Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s approval figures are nothing new; they aren’t even the worst he has recorded, and results like this were no bar to him winning last year’s election in a landslide.
But they do show that Abbott has singularly failed to consolidate his position in the eyes of the public, and the storyline many commentators (including myself) foresaw — that freed of the daily pitch battles with Kevin Rudd and the grimy, gender-laced fight with Julia Gillard — Abbott would grow in public estimation as Prime Minister, and gradually win more people over. The fact he hasn’t is an indictment on the way his government has operated.
So, too, is the fact Labor “leader” Bill Shorten — with 37% approving his performance and 43% not — remains more popular than Abbott; only just, of course, and it is reasonable to infer that were it not for 20% of Newspoll respondents remaining indecisive over his performance, his numbers would be just about as bad as Abbott’s.
But the nation’s most reputable poll finds the obsequiously populist Shorten to have been consistently more popular than Abbott all year: and for a man with no policies whatsoever aside from the wholesale abolition of the Private Health Insurance Rebate — a move that would cripple the public health system at a stroke, and which seems to have been quietly dropped in recent times — the idea that someone who stands for absolutely nothing could be more highly feted than the elected Prime Minister of Australia is a damning one indeed.
To ice the cake, Shorten (44%) is preferred as Prime Minister to Abbott (37%) in another key finding he has now led Abbott on for months, after having crept up on this measure during the year too.
My standard disclaimer about not reading too much into a single poll notwithstanding, this is a terrible set of numbers for the government.
It comes in the wake of Abbott’s so-called “barnacle removal” operation of quietly ditching and/or modifying poorly received policies in an attempt to clear the decks of political negatives; the changes to the $7 Medicare co-payment are the most obvious example — there are others — and has been met with a switch in Shorten’s shrill rantings from going on and on about a “GP tax” to lambasting Abbott over the instability exhibited by a change of direction.
It mirrors Shorten’s response to moves to modify Abbott’s “signature” paid parental leave policy; having clamoured for this initiative to be means-tested and reduced in scope, and the savings ploughed into expanded child care measures — and having got these changes, too, in the “barnacle removal” process — Shorten now pillories Abbott for breaking “yet another” election promise.
And it comes in the wake of the explosive fracas over the influence of Peta Credlin on the Abbott government; we have discussed this issue at length in the past week. Now, of course, it has arguably fed into the Abbott government’s poll numbers, and predictably enough, the pro-Labor cheer squad in the biased Fairfax press has leapt on it gleefully, promoting the feud through the anti-women prism Abbott stupidly introduced into national conversations in the ill-advised and poorly considered defence of his adviser.
The small matter that Julie Bishop — in any ballot to replace Abbott as leader — would be embraced by most sections of the Liberal Party as an alternative, especially the Right, seems unimportant. In fact, the only wing of the party that might vacillate is the Turnbull-inclined moderate Left, which is ironic indeed given the ABC and the Fairfax press have been the most vocal in their support of him as well.
The point, without labouring it, is that Abbott and his inner circle have much to contemplate over the silly season.
I think the detonation of the resentment and pent-up anger over Credlin and her office in the past week heralds the arrival of a turning point for the government, and these figures seem to reflect that.
The Coalition government that is run on a command-and-control structure that would make the likes of Brezhnev and Andropov look positively moderate by comparison is further compromised by a lacklustre front bench that needs rejuvenation whilst an embarrassment of riches sits un-promoted on its backbench, wedded to a budget that should never have been delivered and is in no way representative of a conservative government, and whilst political strategy and tactics — to say nothing of effective salesmanship and marketing to the electorate, of which there is none — produce daily and weekly political disasters for the government that it seems unable or unwilling to effectively resolve.
The odds on this government losing office in a little over 18 months’ time are shortening.
If Abbott is to prevail, the Christmas break and silly season must be spent re-evaluating, recalibrating and relaunching the overall thrust and strategy of his government.
He will have to get his skates on. Labor is not the only opponent he faces. Despite talk of not emulating ALP leadership instability, some elements of the Coalition will not meekly go down without a fight, or at least a change of leadership, if the present alignment of circumstances persists. And his office, which runs every aspect of his administration but is apparently accountable for none of it on the grounds of a “sexist” attack, will either have to be drastically overhauled or gutted and rebuilt from scratch.
Come the new year, Tony Abbott is going to have to start running for his political life.