IN A SIGN of how brittle the teflon veneer on Malcolm Turnbull’s Prime Ministership is, today’s Newspoll in The Australian finds that whilst the Coalition retains its solid lead, Turnbull’s numbers have softened markedly; this — and a collapse in Bill Shorten’s remaining support as ALP “leader” — during a fractious, divisive and scandal-scented week for the Coalition suggests Shorten is more pivotal to the government’s fortunes than Turnbull is.
I’m beginning to think — not that I like the idea one jot — that if someone other than Bill Shorten were leading the ALP, then Australian voters would be serious about restoring Labor to office next year; viewed both through an objective prism of common sense and the more subjective conservative lens through which I am known to look, there is nothing to justify a Labor government and no valid reason for voters to elect one.
Yet that’s the point: electoral behaviour doesn’t have to be rational, or grounded in common sense, or even sane for that matter; there was no case to re-elect Paul Keating in 1993. Or Malcolm Fraser in 1980. Or Gough Whitlam in 1974. I could go on. But on all three occasions, voters gifted a final term to governments that were all but moribund.
There are plenty of instances of oppositions winning office without any merit-based claim as well; Victoria in 1999 and Queensland in January are the obvious ones, although there’s been a list of them in recent decades that features both political parties. My point is that voters do whatever they like, and the platitude that they are “always right” is only ever disproven when they reverse their unfathomable decisions themselves, and throw out the undeserving at the ballot box.
Today’s Newspoll, whilst on the surface excellent for the government, carries a salutary warning for Malcolm Turnbull, the Liberal Party, and the Coalition generally, and when Labor’s (and Shorten’s) numbers are unpacked a little, the true story inside the cover might end a little differently — depending on who ultimately pens the final chapter.
It delivers a headline result — at 53-47 after preferences — that comes in, once again, bang on the average of all the major opinion polls taken and published since Turnbull replaced Tony Abbott as Prime Minister, bookended by last week’s Essential Media survey at 51-49, and recent Morgan and Ipsos polls at 56-44.
Readers have heard me say many times that a single poll isn’t much use, but a basket of them, aggregated and averaged out, is usually very reliable indeed, and whilst I’ll take a 53-47 outcome on polling day, whenever that is — and if that turns out to be the result — the simple fact is that outliers like Ipsos and Morgan should be the centrepoint of the Coalition’s numbers right now rather than the rogue results they are.
The big electoral negative — Abbott — is gone (he only has himself to blame for that, be it through his foolish adherence to the wrong people for far too long, or their inability to deal with the pap being lobbed at them from Labor, the
Communist Party Greens, and Clive Palmer) and it is this fact (and probably this alone) that, as forecast in this column whenever the prospect of Turnbull taking over was raised, is responsible for the Coalition vaulting ahead of Labor once more.
But it faces an opposition completely bereft of meaningful policies (I’m not talking about the garbage Bill Shorten carries on with — that doesn’t cut any ice), “led” by a charlatan, a shyster, a populist snake oil salesman, and a pretty iffy character that voters are strongly and now consistently signalling they detest.
And the damage inflicted on the country by the last Labor government, whilst partially remedied by Abbott, remains largely untouched; the reason isn’t any lack of will on the Coalition’s part, of course, but the mindless obstruction and obfuscation in the Senate “led” by — you guessed it — William Richard Shorten himself.
Add in the detonating time bomb that is the Royal Commission into the unions, a vicious ALP branch stacking scandal in Victoria that may yet engulf Shorten in its web, and a few other bits and bobs, and the Coalition should be ten to fifteen points ahead of the ALP, not a mere six.
Part of what is increasingly wrong with the “stellar” numbers the government has recorded over the past couple of months is further illustrated by the abject (and frankly pathetic) ratings scored by Shorten this time; as “preferred Prime Minister,” Turnbull drops four points in this survey, to 60%. Yet Shorten still fell by another point on this measure himself — to just 14% — to turn in the equal worst performance of any Labor opposition leader in the history of Newspoll, repeating an identical shocker by Simon Crean 12 years ago.
The point is illustrated even further by the personal approval numbers of the two; Turnbull, again, has dropped eight points in a fortnight, to 52%; his disapproval figure has climbed by the same amount, to 30%.
But Shorten — far from benefiting from the signs of correction in Turnbull’s bloated results, also fell: by three points to a record low (for him and for any opposition leader since Crean) of just 23%; his disapproval number rose four points to a personal worst of 61%. Shorten is now every bit as unpopular as Tony Abbott ever was, and the difference between the pair is that Abbott at least tried (and failed) to tackle the mess Labor made of things under Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, whilst Shorten has paraded around as if he’s King of the country, mouthing empty pronouncements and slogans, and trying to hoodwink people that Australia remains the land of milk and honey where money is endless, can be strewn around like confetti, and debt doesn’t exist.
Yet the government remains just six points ahead of Labor after preferences; there’s no need to go through the primary vote figures (barely changed from a fortnight ago as they are) but those who wish to view them may do so here.
For everything that is wrong with Shorten, the ALP, the sleight of hand masquerading as its policy suite, and the legacy of its sheer incompetence in office, the poor week experienced by Turnbull and the government seems comprised of comparatively trivial problems indeed.
But the fracas over Special Minister of State Mal Brough isn’t going to go away; and irrespective of whether Brough survives or not — and irrespective of whether he actually did anything wrong, or not — the incident has registered a direct hit with voters. It would be foolish for Brough and Turnbull to think otherwise.
The uproar over failed Abbott-era minister Ian Macfarlane defecting from the Liberals to the Nationals — covered in this column here and here — has been willing, and tempers (including my own) have exploded over this unforgivable act of treachery. In essence, it’s an internal Coalition matter, and whilst I acknowledge the reader who yesterday expressed dislike of the odd four-lettered word appearing in my articles, I have to report contemporaneously that feedback I’ve heard from inside the LNP is that the two choices Macfarlane will be given by its state executive are to “stand as a Liberal and shut the fuck up, or just fuck off and we’ll get someone else (to stand in Groom).” They are, to be sure, the only appropriate options to give him. But the incident hasn’t helped Turnbull.
And the big swing against the Liberals in Saturday’s by-election in Joe Hockey’s old seat of North Sydney (with no Labor candidate in the field) probably reflects Brough, Macfarlane, the distaste of the electorate for needless by-elections relatively close to a general election, possibly some residual anti-Turnbull, pro-Abbott sentiment, and perhaps a degree of “referred pain” for the Liberals over council amalgamations by the Baird government in NSW. It was a wake-up call in itself to the government that misbehaviour will not be tolerated. Yet as I said earlier, the Coalition’s sins — especially under Turnbull — pale into comparison when judged against Labor’s past and present ones.
All of these factors have likely coloured, to varying degrees, the shifts in Turnbull’s numbers — even if the headline two-party number remains unchanged.
Which brings me back to the point I made at the outset: a Labor leadership change might be the only obstacle to the electorate dumping the Coalition and heading back into the disastrous embrace of the ALP and the Greens.
I have no problem believing that Turnbull is more popular than Abbott, and certainly no trouble believing him more popular than Shorten: almost every other elected representative in Canberra is.
But by the same token, I have repeatedly warned over the past few years that opinion ratings claiming 70% of voters approve of Turnbull and would vote for him should be leading the Liberal Party should be ignored: and now, those bloated numbers are beginning to head south — as expected.
I remain steadfast in my view that the single biggest strategic error Turnbull has made to date was not calling a December election for this coming weekend when he had the chance; despite protestations to the contrary, Labor was not and is not ready, and it would have been the one chance the Coalition had to milk the stratospheric early numbers Turnbull produced for all they were worth.
That opportunity is now gone.
I’m not saying he will lose next year’s election unconditionally, and even a change of leader across the aisle might not be enough to stop the government being re-elected.
But if the unelectable Shorten is jettisoned (and I believe moves to do exactly that were only halted when the Brough matter exploded back into public view a week or so ago), then all bets are off.
If 53-47 is as good as it gets for the government, we’ve already seen the depths it plumbed under a leader who ended up its greatest liability.
If the ALP removes its own festering albatross from around its neck during the silly season or early next year, then one hell of a contest might ensue.
It’s a subject for another time — although we’ve touched on it here often enough — but I have long thought the Left has outperformed the Right in Australia on raw politics, setting political debate at the local level, and making itself the default choice for voters when any sign of trouble erupts among or around its opponents.
All that is wrong with the Left is exponentially worse than all that is wrong with the Right. Another Labor government could potentially wreck this country. But if the Coalition at its zenith can only manage to be six points in front as it heads into stormier weather, the missed opportunity of a December election might yet prove to have been a fatal mistake.