FOR THE FIRST TIME in The Australian‘s Newspoll series, Labor “leader” Bill Shorten has been found sharply less popular than the man his party has spent years trying to destroy in Tony Abbott; the slide comes in the wake of unrest over the ALP leadership and revelations of union misconduct, and coincides with another incremental rise in Coalition support that puts it in striking distance of re-election after a reasonably received May budget.
There has been a lot of chatter around the traps in the past few days about polling from Ipsos and Morgan that shows Labor pulling further ahead of the Coalition which, for now, I am discounting; after all, Morgan — with its wild predictions of thumping Labor victories at elections either won by the Coalition or (in 2010) at least technically lost by Labor — is scarcely what I would call reliable. As for Ipsos, it was as guilty as its competitors last month of seriously misreading the public mood in the UK, understating support for the victorious Conservative Party by three points and predicting a hung Parliament that never eventuated.
In any case, Newspoll (and Galaxy, which is soon to take over the polling functions of Newspoll if it hasn’t already) has long been among the most reliable polls here in Australia. It is for this reason I want to talk about its latest findings this morning, although in a nod to detractors, I will add that ominous clouds loom on the horizon for the Abbott government and I will return to those shortly.
But after a couple of weeks during which Labor “leader” Bill Shorten must at times have wished the ground would open and swallow him, Newspoll has found that for the first time he is more unpopular than Prime Minister Tony Abbott, and rather sharply so: Shorten now commands the approval of just 28% (down 4% in a fortnight) of Newspoll’s respondents, as opposed to the Prime Minister on 34% (-3%); 54% (+4%) now disapprove of Shorten, compared to 56% (+3%) for Tony Abbott; and on the “preferred PM” measure, Abbott (41%, unch) maintains the lead he established over Shorten (38%, +1%) for the first time in almost a year earlier this month.
On the “net satisfaction” score it has become increasingly fashionable to monitor in Australia, Abbott sits at -22% as opposed to Shorten’s -26%; it is Shorten’s worst score on this measure ever, and the second consecutive Newspoll in which this brutal distillation of overall popularity has seen him lag Abbott — and by a slightly greater margin than last time.
This poll was taken before the brouhaha over whether or not the government paid people smugglers to return their boats to Indonesia: an issue I intended to post on last night, but was thwarted (my 2yo has infected me with the latest ague sweeping his day care centre, compounded by the fact I was up with him until well after 1am with him yesterday) and I crashed: we will return to the point tonight, unless the day’s events throw up something more pressing.
But we have spoken in this column often enough of late about the reckoning Shorten seems confronted by, as voters wake up to the fact he’s more or less useless as a candidate for the Prime Ministership — see here as a case in point — and the so-called revelations swirling out of the Royal Commission into the unions that has now engulfed Shorten’s old union, the AWU, are probably exerting downward pressure on his ratings (whether he has a case to answer or not) and had also been in the public domain before the field work for this poll was taken.
And with machinations behind closed doors by forces opposed to Shorten in the ALP — seeking to supplant him with his deputy, Tanya Plibersek — an open secret, it is quite plausible that the ructions that so far have been largely contained are nonetheless also feeding the drop in Labor’s (and Shorten’s) support.
It probably shouldn’t come as any great surprise that Newspoll finds the ALP lead over the Coalition, after preferences, cut again this fortnight to sit at just 51-49: now firmly in the zone in which the distribution of votes at an election could see Coalition support being sufficient to scrape home; and built off a primary vote that has crashed again to 34%, near its disastrous 2013 level, Labor’s 51% two-party figure is perhaps optimistic in that it is so heavily dependent on preference flows. The Coalition primary vote in this poll, for comparison, was 40%.
I think there is a big risk brewing for the Coalition, if it transpires the government has been paying people traffickers not to bring boatloads of asylum seekers to Australia; and whilst I will add to my thoughts in this regard later tonight, I think that kind of action in the name of “stopping the boats” far exceeds the tangible public support for the existing suite of hardline measures that are in place, and potentially crosses a political “red line:” if payments have been made, a full disclosure of the rationale and strategy underpinning it is crucial. To date, the signs have not been encouraging, for the story from the government (apart from a standard refusal to confirm or deny) is already proving variable.
Further risks for the Coalition are emanating from the office of the Treasurer, where — despite the better polling for the government since the budget — Joe Hockey has somehow managed to get a favourable budget dismissed from the public eyeline within a few weeks, whereas Shorten, for all his faults, managed to keep last year’s abomination afloat like a Bondi cigar for nearly a year.
Hockey’s comments on house affordability, whilst unremarkable if taken literally and listened to in full, belie a disregard or even an ignorance for how they were always going to be portrayed in the media and by the government’s political opponents.
And the latest fiasco — centred on the public money Hockey has been claiming to stay in a house in Canberra owned by his wife when Parliament sits — signals a sort open to all sides of the political spectrum that needs to be snuffed out once and for all: if MPs and/or their spouses own real estate in the capital, there is no excuse for them claiming allowances designed primarily to cover the costs involved in hotel accommodation.
Hockey is by no means Robinson Crusoe for claiming the allowance to stay in his wife’s house. But he is going to be made to carry the can for it, and this distasteful example of excess in an otherwise reasonable regime of MP remuneration needs to be excised as quickly as possible.
It is no accident, either, that the latter controversy over Hockey can be directly related to the former, or that his use of allowances to stay in his wife’s house reinforces the cavalier bent with which his opponents seek to smear his remarks on housing affordability.
Yet for all of that, a gradual shuffle back toward the government is in my view an accurate read of the electoral mood as at today’s date: and whilst the Fairfax press might have enjoyed posting weekend headlines about voters “deserting” the Coalition on the back of its Ipsos poll, I think anyone agitating for a change of government would be an idiot if they took the Ipsos findings as gospel.
Morgan’s either, for that matter.
And this is why the real story from Newspoll — as it would be from the other polls, were they indeed accurate — is that whichever way you cut it, voters are now wiping their hands of Bill Shorten.
Readers are well aware of my criticisms of a government formed by my own party, and I should reiterate the point that with federal director Brian Loughnane, Prime Ministerial Chief of Staff Peta Credlin, and Treasurer Joe Jockey all remaining in place — replete with the faulty structures in the Prime Minister’s Office that were largely responsible for the government’s nose dive last year not only remaining intact, but augmented by failed Tasmanian and Victorian state director Damien Mantach being recruited to their ranks to save him from a justified sacking in Melbourne after presiding over a state election debacle — the potential for trouble, by the government’s own hand, is never too far away from the surface.
But the real story from today’s poll is that Bill Shorten — a nihilist whose relevance to astute and competent governance in Australia is non-existent — is now cutting through as the oxygen thief and snake oil salesman this column has always believed that he is.
Shorten isn’t a genuine leader’s sphincter, and whilst it might not win an election with a defter hand at the tiller, the ALP ship is now at grave risk of running aground on the jagged rocks of electoral devastation.
There will be those who accuse me of rank partisanship; my remarks about the Abbott government should disabuse them of that notion.
But any belief that Shorten will ever be elected Prime Minister — or that the long-term trend of decline in Labor’s stocks under his “leadership” is reversible — is a dangerous delusion at best.
Tanya Plibersek might be a rank pinko, rancid socialist, and a member of the hypocritical “handbag hit squad” that seeks to prosecute “misogyny” when it is alleged to originate from Tony Abbott but ignore it everywhere else, but she at least stands for something: which is more than you can say for Shorten.
If the 2013 election was a disaster for Labor, its likely showing under Shorten increasingly promises to be nothing short of apocalyptic: and whilst the polls might not be so explicit about it now, all the signs are there.
Labor’s biggest liability — and the Coalition’s greatest asset — is Bill Shorten. The ALP will ignore this reality to its enduring detriment, and to its savage electoral cost.