SOME think another 51-49 ALP lead is meaningless, but I disagree; today’s Newspoll for The Australian sees overall Coalition polling stuck near 49% — hardly winning — and ominously, Bill Shorten as popular as Malcolm Turnbull and closing in as preferred PM. Ineptitude under Tony Abbott has given way to scandal, mediocrity and bickering on Labor turf today. The Coalition has a story. Unless it tells it, Turnbull’s days are probably already numbered.
I think we’re now well beyond the point at which it became platitudinous to suggest that had Malcolm Turnbull taken the government to a December election, he — and it — would have been so resoundingly re-elected as to take seats off Labor and perhaps emerge with a majority in both Houses of Parliament; certainly, that argument is one I propounded at the time, and the irony is that with an election for both Houses of Parliament now in progress, the only certainty is that no such outcome will eventuate.
But if Turnbull leads the Coalition to defeat on 2 July, it is a proposition I will return to; and if Turnbull does in fact lose, he will be absolutely (and rightly) crucified from the top of the Liberal Party right down to its foundations, for the unexpected opportunity of a certain second term that looked like nothing more than fantasy less than nine months ago will have been carefully, and wilfully, squandered.
And right now, an election loss is looking more and more as if it is on the cards.
Enter Newspoll — in The Australian — which today finds the government’s standing on the two-party measure after preferences unchanged at 51-49 Labor’s way for the fourth consecutive fortnight; there are those (including many whose judgements I respect) who believe such a finding is a yawn, a statistically insignificant bit of nothingness, and a non-event.
But I beg to differ, for such an assessment ignores other factors at play.
For one thing, today’s result means that a basket of Coalition polling numbers across the suite of reputable surveys suggests an aggregate value of its standing is more like 49.5% to 50.5%, and whilst the latest Newspoll doesn’t alter that in any way, the point is that a) it puts the Coalition behind Labor, and b) that sub-50% aggregate is now looking — through the eyes of this Liberal Party member at least — disturbingly settled, if not already set in concrete.
For another, and as outrageously obscene as it is to note this, Labor’s so-called “leader” — Bill Shorten — is now as good as on par with the Prime Minister where his personal approval numbers are concerned: 38% (unch) of Newspoll respondents indicated they are satisfied with Turnbull’s performance; 37% (+4%) said the same of Shorten. 50% (+1%) were dissatisfied with Turnbull; 49% (-3%) were similarly unimpressed with Shorten. On the “net satisfaction” calculation, the two men are dead level on -12%, with Turnbull’s standing on this measure deteriorating a point and Shorten’s improving by seven. And on the “preferred PM” question, Turnbull (46%, -3%) continues to head Shorten (31%, +4%), but by a margin that is now better characterised as “clear” rather than “solid,” as opposed to the “overwhelming” 64-15 score he recorded in November last year.
The overall voting numbers might be unchanged, but the swirling undercurrents and subterranean whirlpools below the surface have all moved definitively (and beyond any margin of sampling error) in the cretinous Shorten’s favour.
And whilst bookies might still favour the Coalition to win, Newspoll’s punters now split 44-33 toward the government on the question of which side will emerge triumphant on 2 July: even this is a large reversal, from the 55-25 finding by Newspoll in March, which means a sizeable percentage of those it identifies as planning to vote against the Coalition also now believe Labor might win — whereas eight weeks ago, they didn’t.
Readers can check out the Newspoll tables here.
Regular readers know that until 15 September last year, I spent years campaigning vigorously to prevent Malcolm Turnbull from ever returning to the Liberal Party leadership.
That campaign — colourful as it may have been from time to time — was never personal and never intended to be construed as such irrespective of whatever conclusions some (including, perhaps, Malcolm himself) insisted on drawing from it. Certainly, having had a bit to do with him many years ago and having found him enormously likeable, it was impossible for it to be personal.
Rather, it was based on a hard assessment of the faults that saw him despatched as leader in barely over a year the first time around and a judgement — substantially validated in the past few months — that little, if anything, had changed.
Turnbull’s support (vocal or involuntarily mute) for a slew of issues with which I have no truck — a republic, gay marriage, emissions trading schemes et al — were simply the own goals that sealed it.
But the thunderous win recorded under Tony Abbott in 2013 should have set the Coalition up for at least two, if not three, terms in office; in some respects the seeds of Abbott’s demise were sown during the 2013 campaign, when he inadvisedly ruled out spending cuts to a raft of bloated, inefficient recurrent expenditure centres that severely limited his government’s capacity to do anything about pruning waste from them without seriously pissing the electorate off.
There had been a catch-all, as I noted before and after the election — that if the books proved to be in worse shape upon inspection than the condition Labor declared them in when it lost the election (and they were) — then the Coalition might have to do some things “it didn’t want to do.” But this proved too delicate a distinction to draw, and in the full heat of a predictably vicious (but entirely unscrupulous and unprincipled) ALP onslaught, the government simply withered with nary a yelp.
In fact, the utter inability of the Abbott government to sell anything — literally, anything — or to inspire confidence that it would even be capable of articulating the intention to purchase sex at a brothel quickly became the most immediate hallmark of that government, and it is a matter of record that the dysfunctional apparatus set up by Chief of Staff Peta Credlin to execute parliamentary management, political strategy and tactics, mass communication and any kind of salesmanship at all is the target at which this column’s aim was firmly and unswervingly directed from shortly after the politically calamitous 2014 budget until Abbott was dumped late last year.
The more things change, of course, the more they stay the same.
Abbott might be gone, but the allegedly messianic arrival of Turnbull was meant to send a wave of competence and acumen crashing through the ranks of the government: the termination of Credlin’s services and a cleanout at the Liberal federal secretariat showed early promise, but any objective assessment would conclude that this faint ray of light was in fact a false dawn.
Turnbull the master communicator was going to restore the government’s “narrative” and repair the fractured relationship with the electorate: instead, he has waffled, and talked gibberish, and put ideas on the table as “policy” directions only to whisk them away again in record time: not once, not twice, but repeatedly.
The voting public is entitled to be unsure as to what Turnbull stands for.
Perhaps constrained by Prime Ministerial directives (like the one killing off GST reform just as it was unbelievably starting to gain traction and support) or perhaps because he isn’t up to the high billing many (including me) have given him, Treasurer Scott Morrison delivered a budget three weeks ago that was like an Aero bar — you know, when bubbles of nothing make it really something — and with the state the national budget is in and the paucity of any kind of money other than the borrowed variety available to throw around, that really shouldn’t have been much of a surprise.
But the effort to sell even that came to an abrupt halt the following morning, as Turnbull engaged in an on-air argument with ABC Radio’s Jon Faine in Melbourne, and with that crashing end to any momentum the budget might have generated, so too did the government’s best (and perhaps last) chance to seize control of the agenda and swing the electorate back into its favour.
The scandals that have plagued Turnbull as Prime Minister have largely been entirely foreseeable and avoidable fiascos that emanated from two botched reshuffles, which — whilst containing a handful of excellent appointments in each case — also saw the appointment of likely unmitigated liabilities (all of which have detonated in Turnbull’s face) as well as some crony-style payback positions for leadership votes that are impossible to justify on merit.
And as ever, the more things change, the more they stay the same: I had hoped that gutting the Prime Minister’s Office and starting again — despite my distinct unease about the political viability of its new occupant — might at least have had the spillover consequence of getting some people into the media/communications/strategy roles who could cut through the bullshit and oxygenate a message that would resonate with voters: it didn’t have to be popular, and if it was genuinely honest and fashioned in good faith, it wouldn’t have been.
But it might have been respected.
Anyone who listens to a syllable of the ALP’s blather about there being no debt problem in this country — or that there isn’t a problem with spending, or that the current government is a high-taxing, high spending government that should be crucified for its excesses — really should think again.
Of course this government is high-taxing and high-spending: Labor carefully and methodically legislated both rising taxes and rising expenditure before its eviction from office in an unapologetic attempt to sabotage the budget to make it unmanageable by the Liberal Party. Labor’s obstruction in the Senate — aided and abetted by
Communists Greens and other filth from the Palmer United Party — were the second component of this orchestrated campaign to ensure a Coalition government imploded within a single term.
It has almost worked — and whether aware or not of the trap it has fallen into, or even conscious of the monumental political failure that has compounded the damage Labor’s pre-2013 handiwork has inflicted on it — the Coalition, now less than six weeks from polling day, is blundering around trying to out-Labor Labor, and faced with polls already clearly suggesting likely (albeit, for now at least, narrow) defeat.
Labor promises tens of billions of dollars in extra spending on Health and Education; we’ll deliver more, too, says Turnbull, but it won’t be as much. The argument is lost at that point: there isn’t money to fund Labor’s bribes without borrowing it, and Shorten knows it. But by competing with Labor instead of making its core case, the government has ceded those issues to the opposition.
Labor says it will hit high-income superannuants; so will we, says Turnbull — and we’ll do it more savagely than Labor can. Argument lost: the merits of the Coalition “plan” notwithstanding, it has validated the broad thrust of the Labor “case.”
On and on it has gone. Tax for multinationals. Shorten says he’ll cut the cost of GP visits by between $14 and $25 — impossible, short of shovelling tens of billions out in direct cash payments, which he isn’t promising — and the Coalition still can’t tear this vacuous bribe to pieces.
Labor promises an LGBTIQ commissioner — a provocative and socially inflammatory abuse of power to pander to minorities if ever there was — yet the Coalition response is mute. Whatever benefits it might have derived from changing leaders, any form of improved communications capability was not among them.
And now, as Francis Urquhart might say — plan until you’re blue in the face and events just happen — events are indeed intervening to make the government’s job that much harder.
Like the raid on ALP offices last week over leaks from the NBN Co, which should have reflected squarely on the ALP but instead, through tactical superiority and the missteps of the Coalition, made Turnbull the only target to sustain any damage.
Like the “news” this morning that slain mobster Joseph Acquaro “unwittingly” lunched with Turnbull almost a decade ago: for this story to filter out now, someone has been sitting on it until its release could inflict maximum political damage. There is no suggestion Turnbull did anything improper, or that he was even aware of the dubious company into which he had stumbled. But as anyone who knows the ALP playbook knows all too well, by the time Labor is finished with this issue, you might as well just cuff Turnbull and cart him away. The machine the government is up against is that bad and that insidious. But the Coalition, in likelihood, will fail to lay a glove on it.
Unlike the business community that wanted the Howard government’s WorkChoices laws and then deserted it in 2007 — refusing to put up money for a campaign to tackle the union onslaught against what were fairly moderate and sensible laws, once the rough edges had been smoothed out — the property industry appears to have come to Turnbull’s aid on one front, running a campaign against Shorten’s proposal to end negative gearing on all but newly built residential properties and to halve the capital gains discount. This dangerous Labor initiative is based on a report that admitted it ignored many of the policy’s possible consequences, understated average incomes to produce more “rich” people in the investment community to take aim at, and could well induce a recession if ever implemented. And the Coalition’s running on what could be a pivotal issue?
It may be too late, but the key to this government’s success — and any aspiration (or delusion) it once harboured to emulate the stellar performance of the Howard years — was actually shelved by Joe Hockey in early 2014: the report from its own Commission of Audit into the government’s finances, undertaken after the change of government in 2013.
Nobody should be under any illusion that unless the federal budget is repaired (and quickly: that is, within the next five to seven years), Australia’s envied standing as a “rich” country will give way to an economic management reputation more akin to the likes of Italy, or Spain, or eventually Greece.
Those “low” debt levels Wayne Swan used to gloat about as debt passed zero, then 5% to GDP, then 10%, then 15% are now at 35% and not looking so trivial any more; debt sits at half a trillion dollars where it was zero less than a decade ago, and Labor’s legislated increases to recurrent expenditure — which it has stubbornly refused to permit the ongoing government to reduce in any way, shape, or form through its Senate antics — will merely continue to fuel the problem until it explodes.
I don’t want to be melodramatic about it, and I haven’t even mentioned the Abbott loyalists deserting the Coalition. But if there had been an election this Saturday gone, I think Shorten would have won it: and it isn’t just Newspoll that makes me think that.
It might already be too late: a sudden flurry of talk about debt and deficits might now appear to voters as panic, and not least because in their hamfisted and conflicting treatment of this issue (there is an emergency, there isn’t an emergency, we have to tighten belts, but here’s a small business tax write-off bonanza) Abbott and Hockey trashed the credibility of the actual pretext for the Coalition’s 2013 election win in the first place.
But unless those charged with such things in government circles find a way to construct a dialogue about just how parlous Australia’s financial position really is — and it is parlous, irrespective of what any politician from any party tries to tell you to the contrary — then the election in July is probably already lost.
After all, am insipid chorus of me too-ism is no substitute for the raw appeal to unthinking and/or gleefully self-interested types of Shorten’s tsunami of money, painless spending increases, and his all-things-to-all-people approach to seizing power at literally any cost: even his $102bn in tax hikes, which have already been discredited as worth about $30bn less than that, inspire only apathy from those to whom they don’t (or won’t) apply.
This election actually matters: it is an election about what shape Australia is in as it heads deeper into the 21st century, in uncertain economic times and amid an increasingly insecure (and in some cases, hostile) international climate. In one sense, neither side is an ideal fit to deal with the real issues that are at stake.
But some experiment in illiberal social policy and a further massive, debt-fuelled lurch to the Keynesian Left is the very last thing Australia either needs, or can afford: and the onus rests squarely upon the Liberal “brains” trust to construct the messages that actually matter — and to see that just for once in the life of this inept, accident-prone incarnation of Liberal governance, those messages not only cut through, but make Newspoll numbers like today’s a thing of the past.
As ever, my door is open and the standing offer of help remains, but even when making such basic errors, those in the bunker always know better than everyone else — especially those who can see what they are doing is wrong, and have the temerity to call them out on their mistake.