ANOTHER OPINION POLL — this time from Ipsos for the Fairfax press — shows the federal Coalition storming ahead of Labor since its change of leadership last month; restored to its election-winning position of 2013 and with both the ALP and Bill Shorten crashing, the temptation is to interpret this as part of a general recovery in the Liberal Party’s stocks. Yet the government remains vulnerable, and would be unwise to become complacent.
With everyone else in politics, the media, the independent commentariat and those who observe politics watching opinion polls like a hawk at the moment, we might as well too — and viewed through this prism, the latest offering from the Fairfax press makes for some interesting reading indeed.
Shortly after Malcolm Turnbull became Prime Minister — and we’re not going to split hairs over either the merits or the method of the change today — I had a series of private conversations around political strategy with a number of Liberal Party insiders scattered across the country (and some of those are exceedingly well positioned adjacent to spheres of influence within the party) in which I suggested, on balance, that the smartest thing Turnbull could do was to immediately advise a double dissolution election and take the endorsement he had received from MPs to the people to seek a final seal of legitimacy.
By and large, the response was that I was wrong. Remember Gillard, they said. Look at the anger on the Liberal Right and consider the potential for malicious mischief, they said.
Different circumstances involving different people five years ago on the other side of the political fence are an unreliable indicator of what might happen here and now, and to some degree, the Ipsos poll being carried in The Age today offers little to alter my view.
With the best will in the world, an election held early next year in March or April, ahead of the budget (or even on schedule in September or October) may very well see the Turnbull government returned to office.
But the longer it’s left, the less certain it will become; and the longer Labor’s numbers — which have descended into the toilet in every major poll — remain depressed, the higher the likelihood the ALP will get rid of Bill Shorten and remove its greatest impediment to an election win.
The central point is not a belief Turnbull has gone off like a firecracker (so to speak) and will plunge to Earth as Kevin Rudd did when restored to the Prime Ministership; rather, I think that having wasted two years and an ocean of opportunity tolerating Tony Abbott’s indulgence of his Chief of Staff, spectacularly abysmal performances by a handful of key ministers and an advisory pool selected for compliance rather than performance whose overall political efficacy was non-existent, the Liberals are faced by an ALP that is only a decent leader away from an even start at any election campaign, and are hobbled by latent resentment and anger toward the government irrespective of whether “God” has now taken charge of it or not.
Let me be deadly clear: what I am saying should in no way be taken in jest.
But first things first: The Fairfax Ipsos poll records Labor’s vote crashing well past the embarrassing 33.4% it recorded against Abbott two years ago to now stand at just 30%, down 6% since its last national survey two months ago in the final days of Abbott’s leadership; it finds support for the Coalition at 45% (+7%), the
Communist Party Greens at 14% (-2%), and “Others” at 11% (+1%).
On a two-party preferred distribution of preferences based on flows at the 2013 election, this sees the Coalition (53%, up 7%) leading Labor (47%, down 7%).
The Ipsos finding mirrors the trends that have now been identified by every reputable opinion poll that has conducted research on voting intention since Turnbull replaced Abbott — and we’ll come back to that — but the numbers in the contest between Turnbull and Labor “leader” Bill Shorten are even more stark.
Ipsos finds 68% of its respondents approve of the born-again leadership of Turnbull, with just 17% disapproving; by contrast — and based on its August polling — it finds 32% (-7%) approve of Shorten’s performance as Labor “leader,” with 56% (+7%) disapproving.
On the “preferred PM” measure — and using the variance from Abbott’s final result on this count — Ipsos’ figures see Turnbull (67%, +28%) a country mile ahead of Shorten (21%, -24%) on the question of who voters rate as most likely to perform best as Prime Minister.
I think there are two things happening here, and whilst they appear to be moving in unison for now, the prospect that they may (and probably will) diverge ought to be a sobering one that places great restraint on any temptation within the Coalition camp toward triumphalism, complacency, or even hubris.
If we talk very broadly, every major poll conducted since the leadership change — Newspoll, Essential, Galaxy, ReachTel, and now Ipsos — has found Coalition support bounding out of the doldrums to draw level or ahead (to different degrees) of the ALP on the two-party measure. Even the notoriously fickle Morgan poll, with its historically wild movements out of nowhere and its tendency to favour Labor out of kilter with all the other polls, has identified the same movement (and with typical Morgan excess, its latest survey — putting the Coalition at 56% — is the most heavily pro-Liberal finding of the lot).
And again, talking broadly, every one of these polls has recorded spectacular approval numbers for Turnbull and a collapse in those for Shorten, who on the “preferred PM” measure — in all of them, irrespective of the Coalition support recorded — is now being routinely belted by the new Prime Minister.
My point is that a pattern appears to be forming where questions of Malcolm Turnbull as a leader and Prime Minister are concerned: people like him — even those who didn’t or don’t support him and/or will never vote for him like him — and even after six weeks in the job and judged against a flurry of early polling, there seems no end in sight to stratospheric personal approval numbers or a crushing lead over Shorten as preferred Prime Minister, which I have described previously as amounting to a return to “normal” settings on that question for a new Prime Minister faced by a first-term opposition leader following a landslide election loss.
But on the voting intention side of things, the early signs of ambivalence are already evident.
Two Newspolls: the first found the Coalition ahead, 51-49; two weeks later, that poll recorded a dead heat, 50-50.
Three Essential polls (or at least, three that count, given one week’s findings are combined with the next in a rolling survey): two and three weeks ago respectively, it found 52-48 for the Coalition (after, indeed, a huge spike after the leadership change from a 52-48 Labor lead) but last week, that had slipped to 51-49 — and given half last week’s Essential “result” was actually the fieldwork done the week before, a 51-49 outcome last week actually had to be a 50-50 finding in the field to pull down a 52-48 finding a week earlier.
ReachTel is yet to record a lead for the Coalition under Turnbull at all.
And if we forget about opinion polls altogether for a moment, nobody can seriously deny that with the exception of the election of a Liberal government in Tasmania 18 months ago, the overall political movement around the country has been almost all Labor’s way ever since the Abbott government was first elected.
Irrespective of the reasons (and yes, we all know the filthy tricks the ALP and the unions use to hoodwink people), Labor has reclaimed office in Victoria and Queensland after a single term in opposition in both — the latter after a swing of almost 14% from the wipeout it suffered three years earlier — and despite nevertheless losing, scored a two-party swing in NSW this year of almost 10%; anecdotal evidence is that it is making great headway against an entrenched Liberal government in WA, and that despite trailing 49-51 in latest polling would nevertheless score a 3% swing to the 13-year-old Labor government in SA if an election were held there now, resulting in a comfortable majority win on that state’s notoriously rigged boundaries.
As we all know, Labor led the Coalition in every major federal opinion poll for 18 months until about six weeks ago, in some cases by wide margins.
And it remains to be seen whether the trend across the polls continues, but it does now rather look as if Turnbull’s stellar personal numbers are holding, or even rising further, whilst the big hit in voting intention already gives every indication of very slowly beginning to recede.
In arguing for an immediate election when Turnbull replaced Abbott, one point that stood out for me was that Gillard — the great example, in so many ways, of what not to do — was, despite some kudos over two-and-a-half years as a minister and a chequered record in shadow Cabinet in opposition, still a relative unknown when she became Prime Minister even after 12 years in Parliament and every possible advantage to fast-track her having been accorded to her.
By contrast, the “Turnbull’s an unknown quantity” argument was rubbish: he might be new as PM, but he’s been around, and highly visible, for decades: as a lawyer in the Spycatcher case. As the head of the republican movement. From his days in enterprise at OzEmail and at Goldman Sachs. On account of his profile working for the Packer empire. And with 11 years in Parliament, three as a minister under John Howard, and one stint as leader already under his belt. As what the News Corp journalists refer to as the “co-host” of the ABC’s #QandA programme.
No, unlike Gillard, nobody in Australia is under any illusions whatsoever as to who Malcolm is.
Putting aside both my political opposition to Malcolm and my genuine regard for him personally, I think the hostility and bile that appears to have abated since the downfall of Abbott is still there: it may be concealed for now by good poll numbers and euphoria in non-Labor circles, but it’s still there, and as we’ve briefly seen, the country has shown that in its current mood it is not averse to electing Labor governments — whether it likes them or not.
One of the things I think has been missed (or at least horribly underplayed) is Shorten’s, and Labor’s, poll collapse: yes, this was always to be expected, and in that sense the “sugar hit” Liberals were banking on emerged right on cue as the first post-coup polling was published.
But what has to some degree been overlooked is the fact that sugar hit coincided with weeks of ceaselessly dreadful testimony emanating from the Royal Commission into the unions that Shorten was every bit as complicit in attempts to neuter or shut down as any of the other bozos over at Labor or Trades Hall, who are panicking and desperate to keep their arses out of the sling.
Additional corroboration of allegations of fake invoices and other ostensibly fraudulent measures to enrich unions whilst simultaneously trading away legislated worker entitlements, whether ultimately found to conclusively implicate Shorten in any wrongdoing or not, will nevertheless rebound on him with full force anyway. That’s how it works. It might not be right and it might not be “fair,” but people en masse jump to conclusions based on the whiff of scandal, and do not readily forgive or forget even if exoneration follows. That — whether you like it or not — is human nature, however much some try to deny it or to rationalise it away with sermons about being innocent until proven otherwise.
(It is, not to put too fine a point on it, exactly the reason Labor under Gillard invested so much energy smearing Abbott as a violent misogynist).
In the context of our discussion, it means Labor has been hit with the negative of a Liberal leadership switch to a man identified in most polls as the most popular politician in Australia, and then belted again by the septic runoff from the Royal Commission hearings that makes Shorten, his party and its thuggy masters at Trades Hall all resemble the pre-treatment contents of a sewer.
And as if the twin hits of the Turnbull ascension and the Royal Commission revelations aren’t enough, Shorten has apparently determined to flirt with fate even further by responding with the announcement of “policies” that simply distilled equate to tax, tax and more tax, in addition to the pre-existing announcement he and his colleagues dare not utter again: to abolish the private health insurance rebate, which would decimate healthcare in Australia if ever implemented.
My best estimate of the average Coalition two-party vote across the latest round of polls is somewhere near 51.5%, or fractionally higher. Given the opposition it is faced with and considering the removal of the electoral liability the Abbott regime had indisputably become, I think the Coalition should be sitting between 55% and 60% — even in the atmosphere of a new leadership sugar hit.
But it isn’t.
Some of the reasons why the Coalition hasn’t climbed higher than it has are its (and Turnbull’s) own fault; we looked at some of them last week.
But deep down — and even though the Ipsos numbers would spell heavy defeat for Labor if repeated at the polling booth — I think the damage caused to residual Coalition support by the Abbott-Credlin-Loughnane government, not-so-ably supported by the likes of Kevin Andrews and Joe Hockey and Ian Macfarlane, is probably proving more enduring than anyone imagined.
Or, if they were honest, than Coalition strategists might fear.
That Shorten is an insipid, dishonest, untrustworthy, slimy imbecile is beyond dispute.
Yet he stood to profit from the distaste he and his intellectually bankrupt cohorts had spent many years creating and fanning where Abbott was concerned, and with Abbott now gone from centre stage, Shorten is being seen by voters for what he really is: a nothing. A charlatan. A joke. And a downright dangerous one at that.
It is no wonder that where personal approval ratings are concerned, Turnbull is trouncing him.
Yet were the ALP to find the bottle to jettison Shorten (and we know the mutterers are muttering inside the ALP tent, but either can’t find the votes required to get rid of him or can’t count) and replace him with someone more credible, then Turnbull could find himself in a world of trouble.
People may be interested again in what the Liberal Party has to say now there’s a new leader at the helm, but it would be unwise to regard the lift in its voting intention numbers as anything other than very soft.
If a Chris Bowen (or even a Plibersek or an Albanese) could abandon his vulgar penchant for parroting the vacuous slogans so typical of a Shorten or a Rudd, and fashion an alternative with sensible policies that have mass appeal rather than pandering to Greens lunatics and union thugs, then the next election would end up being a real fight.
It ought to be unthinkable based on the miserable and disastrous record of the ALP in office between 2007 and 2013, but I believe people are far more open to electing a Labor government than current polls perhaps suggest at first glance.
And if (I stress, hypothetically, if) Shorten were forced to resign as a result of the mess being aired at the Royal Commission, the ALP — far from being damaged by the involuntary departure of its “leader” — would instead grasp the opportunity to retrieve the election win it seemed on track to score until very recently.
In those circumstances, the Labor beast would quite literally fight like hell to drive the Liberals from power, the fact of Turnbull’s messianic leadership notwithstanding.
The longer the government takes to go to the polls, the greater the likelihood that just such a scenario will materialise.
I must emphasise, once again, that my personal views on any or all of the individuals we have discussed in no way colour my remarks this morning: today’s article is purely analytical in intent.
But having missed the opportunity to make the announcement of an election date his first act as Prime Minister, Turnbull now embodies a modified version of that old real estate adage about the best time to get into the property market: the only time better than today for Turnbull to call an election is yesterday.
For now, the Coalition leads Labor in every poll, and in a couple quite handsomely.
But the lead isn’t very much, and when the honeymoon comes to an end, so might the government’s best chance of scoring a clear election win. Shorten will only take Labor to a smashing election defeat if Turnbull engineers an election now. It is inconceivable the ALP will allow him to remain in place for a further 12 months.
For the Liberals, the cost of delay — however nobly framed about serving a full term — could very well be an early return to the opposition benches.