A SECOND CONSECUTIVE NEWSPOLL today showing the Coalition and Labor deadlocked at 50-50 tells just part of the story; with Coalition support in slow but constant decline since December, recent polling aggregates suggest the Turnbull government now lags the ALP. With confusion and conflicting directions over policy, strategy and electoral direction, the messianic appeal of Malcolm Turnbull — if it ever existed — appears to have vanished.
The last time we saw a Newspoll — two weeks ago — I was blunt about the malaise that has been afflicting the government of Malcolm Turnbull, and just as blunt about the need for it to get its collective finger out; last week, we gave close consideration to whether the Prime Minister could lose this year’s election, and with two additional polls that have appeared in the meantime, the prospect he might do precisely that appears to be growing likelier.
First things first: I’m not going to rattle through every indicator in the Newspoll published in The Australian today — readers can access those details here — but people with whom I have had offline conversations since publishing on Newspoll a fortnight ago have overwhelmingly insisted the 50-50 result recorded in that survey, after preferences, simply had to be a rogue result.
Readers will know I have called out rogue results many, many times over the past five years, and almost without exception, those calls have been correct: yet two weeks ago I did not believe or sense Newspoll was at all in error, and a repeat today of exactly the same numbers on most indices — primary vote, two-party vote, the “preferred PM” measure — suggest that at the very minimum, the result a fortnight ago was not rogue at all.
It may seem a little odd, given we rarely discuss the Essential poll in great detail, but today I am going to do just that in referencing the latest Newspoll figures; readers have heard me say dozens of times that a single poll in isolation is of little value, but a basket of them is enormously useful in identifying trends and cross-validating the findings of each of the polls that comprise it.
Rather than bleat on about today’s Newspoll — before we get to some analysis — I would like readers to check out the weekly findings published last week by Essential Research; this is a very different poll to most of the others we talk about insofar as it is a rolling survey: half of “this week’s” findings are actually the surveys conducted last week, whilst the research compiled this week will go on to form half of “next week’s” findings.
The idea is that by producing a rolling survey rather than a fresh one each week, bumps and dips and flutter are evened out to produce more reliable data. At least, that’s the theory.
But it does enable us to guesstimate, with a reasonable degree of accuracy, what Essential’s findings “this week” actually were, and its published findings last week of a 50-50 split between the Coalition and Labor followed two consecutive batches of 52-48 leads to the Coalition.
Whilst rounding might add or knock off a tenth of a percentage point or two, it means that for Essential to produce a 50-50 result last week, its actual weekly research had to include findings in the vicinity of a 52-48 lead for the ALP.
And what that means is that the trend in the past three or four lots of polling that has been produced has seen the 51-49 Coalition advantage I estimated last week slip even further, to the point a 49-51 deficit (and certainly no more than about 49.5% of the two-party vote) is where the Coalition actually now sits across the reputable polling data available.
So, conclusion #1: the post-leadership change lead the Coalition has enjoyed over the ALP is now gone.
(Update, 2.37pm: Essential has just released this week’s survey results, which you can access here: they are marginally better for Turnbull than we have been discussing, but still place the Coalition at 50-50 and still, on account of the rolling nature of the survey, hold the average trend figure for the Coalition below 50% of the two-party result).
It is a very great pity that Essential does not measure approval and disapproval of leadership figures every week, for here, too, the Coalition finds itself in trouble in Newspoll; Turnbull — whose net Newspoll rating peaked at a whopping 38 points in November — barely remains in positive territory now, with 44% of respondents giving him the heads-up and 41% disapproving. That 3% net rating is a 7% deterioration in a fortnight, and a massive 35% down in less than four months.
Opposition “leader” Bill Shorten, by contrast — who, just four months ago, was staring down the barrel of being forced to quit by his party — continues to retrieve ground in small steps, with 30% (+2%) of Newspoll’s respondents approving of the job he is doing, and 55% (-2%) giving the thumbs down: it mightn’t seem like much, and Shorten’s numbers are rising at less than half the rate Turnbull’s are falling. But his net approval of -25% has improved from -38% this year, and whilst a shrewd judgement suggests he will never be popular, another five or ten points in the turnaround would be sufficient for Labor to argue its “leader” is no longer a drain on the party’s vote.
Or its election prospects.
Conclusion #2: the wild knockout effect of an uber-popular leader, which some Liberal MPs were unwisely seduced by in September, is also gone. In fact, there is a very real risk that Turnbull will resume the status of an albatross around the Coalition’s neck that he constituted seven years ago in the wake of the Utegate scandal.
It’s not hard to see how this could have happened.
Since resuming the Liberal leadership, Malcolm has given every indication of being content to chug along, happy to simply be Prime Minister — a position to which he has aspired throughout his adult life — and for a time, people were prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt as the shaky, haphazard and clueless Abbott era came to an abrupt halt.
But the problem with this approach is that unless it is followed up (and rapidly, given the circumstances of Turnbull’s ascension and the fact it coincided with the commencement of the final year of the Coalition’s first term) with a solid, clear and comprehensive suite of policies that not only differentiate the new government from its predecessor, but which appeal more to the angry voters the leadership switch was intended to mollify, a very real risk of harsh electoral judgement is invited through inaction.
The policy ideas, to put it most kindly, have appeared, floated by, and disappeared; scandals, both foreseeable and unexpected, have materialised; the same inability to communicate with voters that marked Tony Abbott’s tenure remains barely reformed; and even the flat-footed approach to political strategy and tactics that dug the Abbott government into a hole in the first place appears breathtakingly intact.
Who’s for a double dissolution to pass stalled policies without first racking up repeated defeats of all the key items that are a priority to pass? Turnbull’s government seems determined to countenance just this scenario, moving inexorably as it is toward elections for both Houses on 2 July. But its legislation to restore the Australian Building and Construction Commission is now said to be unlikely to be re-engineered as a trigger, and one of those that already exists (the abolition of the Clean Energy Finance Corporation) already has a constitutional question mark over it.
That leaves just the Registered Organisations laws that would force unions to the same degree of accountability as the business community — nothing to be sniffed at — as the sole pretext for such a poll, although with its rhetoric about $30bn in stalled budget savings, Turnbull’s government is treading dangerous political ground: these measures date from the shocking Hockey budget of 2014 that proved so repellant to voters. Fighting an election on that budget now, with Turnbull’s and the government’s stocks in near-freefall, would be a breathtakingly courageous (or wantonly suicidal) step.
But above all of these factors, it has become clear that Turnbull took office without a plan; the accusation that he stands for nothing — if a little unkind — is beginning to resonate. At best, it seems nobody in the Turnbull camp was ready to proceed with governing if their move against Abbott succeeded. And of course, ill winds (ministerial scandals, contrary interventions from Abbott on the backbench, the book by Niki Savva released yesterday) are easily enough to blow a rudderless ship off course.
And to compound all of this, Turnbull has very little room to manoeuvre anyway.
There is a pre-election budget coming up from which Treasurer Scott Morrison has already ruled out any sweeteners or other electoral largesse; the traditional bait offered to voters in an election year will not be threaded onto the hook if Morrison is true to his word.
Faced with the problem inherited from Labor of haemorrhaging government finances that was never effectively addressed by his predecessor, Turnbull has already ruled out all of the most efficient and/or productive revenue-side reforms that might push the budget back onto a sustainable footing.
Chillingly, those issues that Turnbull so spectacularly mishandled when Liberal leader in 2008 and 2009 — climate change and gay marriage — are yet to find definitively renewed positions from the government, although on the latter count, vacillating between the plebiscite promised by Abbott and potentially dumping it in favour of a Senate vote, the portents are ominous.
And out in the great blue yonder — that endless abyss of the political unknown — the scope for something, literally anything, to leap out of the murk and punch the Coalition on the nose remains all too real. Just look at the scandals Turnbull has already had to deal with, for a start.
It all comes back to the central thesis this column has argued since Turnbull became Prime Minister: get to the polls, and quickly, for any bounce was likely to be illusory, and almost certain to vanish just as quickly as it appeared.
This has now become fact, and Turnbull — never particularly popular at any point in his first outing as Liberal leader, and very unpopular indeed for most of it — is now reverting to type, and taking the Coalition’s stocks down with him.
Newspoll and Essential have registered this phenomenon and it is ongoing, not presenting as a blip: that is the real story from today’s poll, and from the others that have preceded it in the past couple of weeks.
Last week, Turnbull did a deal with he
Communist Party Greens to secure passage through the Senate of sorely needed electoral reforms in exchange for not holding a federal election until after June.
With the very real political imperative to get to the polls as quickly as possible that is now impossible to deny or argue against, this might just prove in hindsight to have been the fatal misjudgement in what has been a constant stream of miscalculations from the government — and Turnbull himself — this year.
Very soon, the need to get to an election quickly to secure a fresh mandate might become the need to get to an election ASAP to limit the electoral carnage. Once we start having that discussion, the Liberal leadership transition last year will have become pointless.
It is not too late to retrieve the situation but Turnbull and his colleagues — as I argued candidly, if inelegantly, last week — must now get their fingers out.
The time to act is now. If they fail to do so, the electoral price could be steep. And as unfit as Shorten may be to ever serve as Prime Minister, less popular individuals have won federal elections in recent times: and won them very handsomely to boot.
Tony Abbott would have the franchise — and the last laugh — on that front.