THE stupidest of many ill-advised statements by Malcolm Turnbull is the excuse of “30 losing Newspolls” he gave to justify knifing his predecessor; today’s is the seventh straight “losing” Newspoll, featuring awful numbers for the government on almost every line, and Turnbull’s abysmal ratings stuck where they dwelt for much of his first hapless stint as Liberal leader: in the toilet. It is early in the day, but this poll makes it clear. Turnbull is finished.
You know there is something very, very wrong when a Prime Minister whose personal approval rating increases by a solitary point — despite two-thirds of the respondents to a reputable poll declining to express approval — and leading a government on track for an electoral belting has a pack of sycophants in tow disseminating the message that he’s roaring back into contention because he “stood up” to Donald Trump: never mind the fact that the rest of the world almost unanimously recognises that the PM was badly humiliated, and in front of a global audience to boot.
Yes, Malcolm Turnbull’s approval rating in Newspoll increased this week, from 32% to 33%. Truly.
But sarcasm aside, the first Newspoll for 2017 (published in The Australian, which you can access here) might be easier for the Turnbull camp to spin its way out of if not for the fact that it lands squarely in the middle of ReachTel and Essential Media findings that have been posted over the last month; the headline finding that the Coalition trails Labor by eight points after preferences is now disturbingly consistent across all of the polls that have been in the field so far this year.
The fact Newspoll is generally the most accurate makes this result even worse.
And with the 4.4% swing to the ALP this poll represents from the July election — handing 20 seats to Labor if replicated at an election and with them, government with a majority of 24 seats — it is obvious that Malcolm Turnbull has a very big problem indeed.
There are some interesting messages coming out of this poll, and Turnbull isn’t the only one who ought to be contemplating his next move in life, but more on that shortly.
But at a time of year that is often the friendliest for governments — the silly season, when most people switch off politics, and re-emerge feeling pretty good about themselves and the state of the world* — it does rather appear that for the second year in a row, Turnbull has blown the easiest opportunity on offer to get a bit of momentum going before the business of government cranks back up to top gear.
Another travel expenses scandal, another disgraced minister, another reshuffle that may or may not turn out to have been astutely crafted (for once), the embarrassment of the leaks about the Trump call, the botched disclosure of Turnbull’s personal $1.75m donation to the Liberal Party: it’s getting to be a fairly tired old story, and there is every indication — and not just from the polls, if you talk to enough people on the street, well away from the surrealistic bubble politicians occupy — that the electorate has completely switched off from Malcolm Turnbull.
The personal approval numbers — for both Turnbull and opposition “leader” Bill Shorten — are abjectly pathetic, to the point anyone on either side who crows about them has a psychiatric problem; Turnbull elicited approval from 33% of Newspoll respondents; Shorten, 32%. It doesn’t really matter that Turnbull picked up a point, or that Shorten dropped a couple. There are no trends here aside from the fact voters generally want to throw the Turnbull government out of power. More than half of Newspoll’s respondents disapproved of both.
Similarly, the fact Turnbull continues to lead Shorten on the “preferred PM” measure — by 42% (+1%) to 30% (-2%) — has all the excitement about it of a mildew colony growing spores. A friend of mine (a fellow Carlton Football Club fanatic) has a habit at Carlton games, when we trail the opposition by 50 or 60 points, of sarcastically yelling “Charge!” when the team kicks a behind for a miserable extra point after missing a goal; the anecdote neatly reflects Turnbull’s “progress” on this measure in this survey: negligible to the point of useless.
But aside from the headline 54-46 finding — which is damning for a government re-elected seven months ago that hasn’t really actually done anything — it is on the primary vote findings in this Newspoll that the real story lies.
With the Coalition registering just 35% (-4% since December), the magnitude of the hole Turnbull has adroitly steered the government into over the past 15 months becomes starkly apparent. No government has ever won an election with 35% of the vote; even Julia Gillard in 2010 — at an election Labor technically lost — managed a sliver better than 37%.
Those votes appear to have gone to One Nation and the “Others” pile (which register 8% and 11% respectively) and, by virtue of Labor’s two-party figure increasing two points to 54%, it is clear that these nominally conservative voters are disinclined to back Turnbull on any basis: the now well-known phenomenon of right-wing electors preferring to banish the Coalition to opposition and endure a term of Labor in office rather than vote for Turnbull at all.
Yet the ALP vote, at 36%, has not increased in this poll, sitting just a solitary point above its level at last year’s election and two points above the belting it suffered at the hands of Tony Abbott in September 2013. Labor is simply not an attractive option for anyone beyond its bare core base.
There are three things that can readily be extrapolated from these figures: one, the support lost to the Coalition may or may not be retrievable, given the ALP has singularly failed to make direct inroads; two, that the problem emanates almost exclusively from Turnbull (and to a lesser extent, the non-performing ministers who hold their posts because they voted for him against Abbott, rather than fielding the best team the Coalition might offer); and three, if the ALP is serious about a return to office, it is going to have to get rid of Bill Shorten and replace him with somebody more attractive to the broader electorate.
Had Mal Brough — a Turnbull appointment that quickly proved very foolish indeed, given the lightning speed with which federal Police raided his house after his return to the ministry — remained on the backbench, it is likely Shorten would have been junked by Labor in late 2015; bereft of credibility and reeling from the Royal Commission into the union movement, ALP hardheads were readying to dump him if he didn’t go quietly. But the Brough raid gave Shorten breathing room, and he survived.
Just as a week can be a long time in politics, it often turns on a dime; and had Brough not been promoted as a reward for his work putting the numbers together for Turnbull’s leadership challenge, or had Turnbull done as this column advised and called a December 2015 election, then the Coalition’s thumping 2013 majority would likely still be intact today — and the government equipped with a lot more insurance against the parlous situation it now contemplates.
I have said many times, including in this column, that a leadership change at the ALP should be interpreted as a sign it is serious about winning an election, and confident it is able to do so. In this sense, there is little for Shorten to be satisfied with in these numbers even though they show Labor comfortably ahead on the two-party measure.
But that’s the point: and however the 54% ALP number is arrived at — low primary vote notwithstanding — it is impossible to crunch these numbers and get any other outcome from them but a crushing election defeat for the Coalition.
I’d never vote for it, but the last thing the Coalition would want is to allow an ALP duumvirate of Tanya Plibersek as leader and Chris Bowen as deputy to get ensconced with a soaring lead in the polls before doing something about its own dire predicament: by that stage, a Labor win would be almost inevitable irrespective of what the Liberals belatedly did about Turnbull.
And this is why a change in the Liberal leadership is likely in the top half of 2017: by Easter or at latest before the budget is what I have been hearing.
The Liberals have been here before with Turnbull: in 2009, in the aftermath of his injudicious “Utegate” own goal, which raised permanent questions of his political nous and judgement. Malcolm’s personal numbers are now no better than they were following that event. The Coalition’s two-party number, having hit 53% soon after he rolled Abbott and at the time he should have called an election but didn’t, has traversed a gentle but almost ceaseless downward path ever since.
During his first stint as Liberal leader, the Coalition’s average two-party result was a 44-56 deficit. On today’s numbers, which are a deadly reconfirmation of that downward slide, Turnbull has almost returned the Coalition to the sorry state in which he left it more than seven years ago.
The frustrating thing — as I have published numerous times, including in several articles so far this year — is that the solutions to the government’s problems, whilst difficult to implement, are blindingly obvious: proper conservative policy, sounder strategy and tactics, and far more effective communications. It is clear that the Coalition in its present guise does not possess the requisite smarts on any of these measures. Today’s Newspoll is proof of it, corroborating to vicious effect other polls that have recorded almost identical findings.
I think we have reached the point that it doesn’t really matter what Turnbull says or does now: out in Voterland, nobody is listening. People couldn’t care less. The Liberal Party needs a new leader. It might be early in the day, with two years or so until an election is due, but the bell is tolling. Turnbull is doomed.
I might not be one of Malcolm Turnbull’s greatest (political) admirers, as readers well know; but as I said to one rusted-on Turnbull insider a week or so ago, I don’t actually want to see the Liberal Party pushed out of government, either.
The only way that outcome can be avoided is by a change of leadership: the transaction risks and costs now easily outweigh the political risks of leaving Turnbull in his post.
But with question marks hanging over almost all of the feasible contenders to replace him, and a karma bus with Turnbull’s name on it seemingly packed and ready to hit the road, the party simply cannot afford to make another mistake if it goes down that track, and whilst I have declined at this stage to endorse anyone to replace Turnbull, whoever it is that steps up to the challenge is going to have their work cut out if the Coalition’s electoral position is to be retrieved.
Today’s Newspoll is highly unlikely to trigger any kind of leadership challenge when MPs return to Canberra this week.
But it almost certainly represents the point at which the ambit muttering that has been going on and the disparate groups resolving to “do something” about the Liberal leadership are galvanised into more concerted activity aimed at getting rid of their dud leader.
And it might prove to be the trigger for Cory Bernardi to walk out of the Liberal Party to set up his new “conservative” party, if that is what he actually intends to do…who knows on that front? But were it to happen, then the government would probably be dead in the water anyway.
The stupidest thing any political leader can do is to give his or her opponents a poll-driven yardstick with which to beat the living shit out of them if they flounder; Turnbull did precisely that 17 months ago when he nominated a consecutive sequence of “30 losing Newspolls” as his pretext for shafting Tony Abbott.
Today is Malcolm’s very own “losing” Newspoll #7. In a row. If there is one thing that is certain, he won’t get to 30 — or anything remotely approaching it.
Turnbull is finished. Anyone with a different reading of today’s Newspoll numbers should enrol in a remedial English class.
*The “state of the world” is an expression…with an eye to the new occupant at 1,600 Pennsylvania Drive, it is not intended to be taken literally today…