THE LATEST NEWSPOLL — published in The Australian today — offers no succour to Malcolm Turnbull and his government despite recording a tied result, which almost certainly masks an overall position that at best for the Coalition has stagnated; Turnbull continues to pay the price for a flat-footed and visionless campaign, and the surge in support for minor party candidates complicates the difficult task of prevailing on 2 July even further.
The timing of the latest Newspoll — coming one day after an extensive discussion of some of the issues that are driving momentum for Bill Shorten, and the apparently complete disinclination and/or inability to effectively puncture them in the Coalition bunker — is exquisite, and the result not entirely unexpected; the finding that Newspoll’s respondents are split evenly on the two-party measure is within the margin of error, heavily dependent on rounding and estimates of preference flows, and is in all likelihood a facade for the fact that the past four 51-49 results in Labor’s favour are unlikely to have changed all that much in the past fortnight — if at all.
First things first: readers can check out the coverage of Newspoll in The Australian today here and here, and the obvious point I would make is that its Canberra bureau chief, Phillip Hudson, is dead wrong when he says that not only can Labor not win an election with a primary vote of 35%, but that it needs to increase to at least (his italics) 39% to be in with a chance: the ALP under Gillard forced a hung Parliament (and formed government) in 2010 from a primary vote of 37.2%, and with the ongoing trend to a fracturing of the major parties’ primary votes, a vote gained through preference distribution is as good as one gained outright — even if it takes up to a fortnight longer to achieve the same effect.
I think if Labor scores 35% or 36% of the primary vote, in an ambivalent and disaffected public atmosphere where politics is concerned these days, it will probably win the election: the only variable will be whether it’s outright or in minority. But more on that a bit later.
This poll comes as almost all of the other reputable polls in the market are carrying leads of 51-49 or 52-48 in the ALP’s favour, and in that sense the aggregate across the lot of them probably sits bang on the 51-49 mark as best I can guesstimate; as I said yesterday, there are signs that Labor is consolidating its early leads — e’er slightly as may be — and I don’t see anything in this latest batch of Newspoll figures to contradict that.
With its respondents marking both parties down a point each on the primary vote, Newspoll finds the Coalition and Labor now sitting on 40% and 35% respectively; even though the
Communist Party Greens also drop a point in this survey, to 10%, and despite a few seat-by-seat deals in Victoria that may or may not be struck by Victorian Liberal president Michael Kroger, it is likely that 75% of these Greens votes will still flow to the ALP during preference distributions (and I’m marking that down from 80% last time) and if they do, that effectively puts the parties on 42.5% each.
Another five percentage points — 3% for Nick Xenophon’s NXT group, and 1% each for Clive Palmer’s dying rabble and for One Nation — are tied up in entities that are no friends of the Coalition: Xenophon, whilst credible, leans well left of the Coalition (even under Malcolm Turnbull); the Palmer Party’s vote went a tick better than 60% to Labor last time, and what’s left of it will probably do so again; and by declaring that Pauline Hanson is “not welcome in federal politics,” Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has probably guaranteed that Hanson will do what she did when she helped kill off a series of Liberal state governments in the early 2000s (or helped bury the NSW and Queensland opposition Coalition parties in 1999 and 2001 respectively), and put the Liberals last.
Just to be a bit generous to Malcolm, let’s call this a 60-40 split of these votes to Labor: and this brings the votes up to 44.5% for the Coalition, and 45.5% for the ALP.
But when it is remembered that the “Others” vote (which in this case includes 3% for Family First) generally splits 50/50 between the major parties, this back-of-envelope preference distribution results in a 50.5% share of the two-party measure for the ALP; and given Family First made no secret of its disgusted fury at the Senate voting changes legislated earlier in the year by Turnbull — going so far as to launch a ridiculous High Court challenge that was always doomed to fail on open-and-shut constitutional grounds — Labor’s 51% results over the past two months might even be unchanged.
To some degree, the standings of the two leaders is becoming less relevant in my view (if it ever really was) and to the extent it remains so, the more important set of numbers belongs to Turnbull, whose approval falls again this time around to 37% (-1%) and his disapproval rises by the same amount to 51%, making him almost as unpopular as he was when his colleagues tossed him out of the Liberal Party leadership six and a half years ago.
Yes, Bill Shorten’s numbers are worse — approval dropping four points to 33%, and disapproval rising three points to 52% — but he remains far less on the nose than he was six months ago, when his pathetic numbers almost triggered the Labor leadership coup we alerted readers to last November, and which to that point had been stayed only by Mal Brough’s explosion as a source of poor publicity for the government.
And as disliked as I’m sure Shorten is among a wide cross-section of the electorate, the recent precedent of Tony Abbott winning an election with worse personal ratings means that anyone who believes Shorten is the Besser brick that will pull the ALP below the surface of the water on 2 July is kidding themselves.
He should be. He deserves to be. But if Labor loses, it will arguably have little to do with Shorten.
On the “preferred Prime Minister” measure, Turnbull and Shorten both drop a point, to 45% and 30% respectively: hardly a vote of confidence in either of them, with the lead enjoyed by Turnbull remaining no more than the clear but not overwhelming advantage any incumbent PM might be entitled to expect at this point in the cycle.
Cutting through the bullshit and sifting through the odd good news day for the Coalition, the (rare) lapses of discipline and focus by Labor, and the sheer lifelessness of Turnbull’s campaign, my gut instincts tell me that at the halfway point of the campaign proper, it’s the Coalition that is in the fight of its life.
To watch it and listen to it, however, you could be forgiven for thinking the election was six months ago. Apart from Turnbull’s increasingly shrill exhortations for a “decisive result” to avoid a hung Parliament, the government’s campaign exudes all the excitement of an overdose of Mogadon.
The trend picked up by Newspoll of a spike in voting intention for minor parties and Independents isn’t a new phenomenon, and it isn’t all that unusual any more; three of the past six federal elections have seen the major parties fail to collectively record more than 80% of the primary vote, and if it happens again this time, I’d be suggesting this pattern was becoming the norm rather than getting excited about it and suggesting this was some shock new departure in Australian politics.
Yet having said that, the kind of vacuously populist, economically irresponsible, deliberately misleading and downright dishonest campaigns waged by the ALP these days are one very big contributor to the fragmentation of the major party vote; the turgid, insipid, visionless and timid offerings lately turned in by the Liberal Party are another.
The old adage that voters are not stupid, and are articulate and intelligent enough to process serious and detailed policy and reform packages, is only partly correct: some people who vote in Australian elections are very stupid indeed, and I’m not talking about the partisan preferences of those whose views are of the Left. But the fact dumb, gullible voters amplify and assist in getting brainless scare campaigns to resonate more widely is no excuse for treating the rest of the electorate like incoherent dolts as well by telling them nothing of consequence.
And with both parties straying across the dividing line between each other’s traditional philosophical positions, it can be no surprise that minor parties are springing up all over the place. Readers know that I disagree violently with the notion of candidates or parties being elected with a sliver of the vote, and in this sense the Senate is an undemocratic and unrepresentative outrage in my view. But that outrage wouldn’t exist to criticise if the major parties were representative of the values they are meant to embody: and right now, jointly and severally, they are nothing of the kind.
Against this backdrop, it is generally the challenger who can expect to be favoured, rather than the proverbial “devil you know.”
This is why — with nothing concrete emanating from the Liberal Party that suggests it is capable of knocking the insidious and vapid “policy” offerings of the ALP over, with four weeks to go — I am increasingly certain Labor may indeed form a government whenever the counting of votes is finalised during the week after next month’s election.
(Despite my trenchant historical critiques of Turnbull as a leader, it is an outcome that would disgust me: the damage such a government would wreak is incalculable beyond the near-certainty that it would be economically and socially cataclysmic. But that’s another story).
The polls have now been consistent — and surprisingly uniform — for months now; the only movement that has been a constant, detected in all of them (albeit to varying degrees), has been the unfaltering downward drift of Turnbull’s personal approval numbers. It was entirely foreseeable to anyone who paid the slightest notice to Turnbull’s performance as leader in 2008-09 and to the horrific personal ratings it deservedly generated. If the government loses the coming election, moderate Liberals will have much to answer for.
A quick look around the electorates held (and likely to be retained) by Greens and Independents offers no comfort to the Coalition; Andrew Wilkie, Adam Bandt and any breakthrough Xenophon candidate in the lower house can all be expected to back Shorten in the event of any hung Parliament.
If Cathy McGowan holds on in Indi, I wouldn’t be relying on her if I were Turnbull either; if Barnaby Joyce is beaten in New England by the imbecilic Tony Windsor, the problem grows even worse for the Coalition.
The only hung Parliament I can see Turnbull prevailing in is one where the Coalition wins 75 seats and is propped up by Bob Katter — unless, of course, the National Party has already won his seat as part of that 75-seat haul. If that happens, then God knows what the outcome might be.
And if the Greens knock a couple of sitting ALP MPs out, the equation remains unchanged; Richard di Natale and Adam Bandt would not support a Coalition government if hell froze and charcoal sprouted, or even if a flock of pigs took flight in a sunrise in western skies. The only difference is that the Left’s bloc in the House might have a couple more Greens MPs and a couple less from Labor. It might make the horse trading between the two interesting, but it won’t change a thing.
As it stands, and as The Australian notes, a 50/50 result, if applied uniformly at an election, would see Labor win 14 seats from the Coalition: that reduces the government to 76 seats, and the barest of majorities. If my sense the 50/50 Newspoll result is a bit overcooked for the Coalition is correct, or if patchy voting trends rob the Coalition of another seat or two over and above those 14, the outcome is pretty obvious.
My sense is that if Labor can get to 71-72 seats on its own, the assortment of Greens and other crossbenchers will be enough to put it into government. Whether it wins in its own right or achieves the lesser milestone of forcing a hung Parliament, Bill Shorten becomes Prime Minister either way. The only way Turnbull can be re-elected is by snaring 76 of the 150 lower house seats outright for the Coalition — a task all polls suggest is becoming an increasingly difficult objective.
You really have to wonder just what the point of paying Coalition staffers is if this is the best situation they can engineer against a party that should be at least another couple of terms away from contemplating a return to office after the debacle of the Rudd-Gillard years, and against an opponent in Shorten who has been so thoroughly discredited, repeatedly, that it’s almost offensive to see him still standing politically. It’s as bad as that.
But as I have been saying for some time now, unless the message from the Coalition changes drastically — and its delivery is reworked altogether — then 2 July looms as a bad day for the Coalition, and an even worse day for the country.
If Turnbull wants to be Prime Minister as badly as the effort to seize the office in the first place might have suggested, it’s time to get the skates on.