AS UNIVERSALLY EXPECTED, the Abbott government has taken a hefty hit in major opinion polls conducted since Tuesday’s federal budget, with leads after preferences to the ALP of as much as 12%; even so, both Newspoll and Nielsen carry mixed messages, with below the line findings that place qualifications on their headline results. These are bad numbers for the government, yet with no irony at all might have been far worse.
As I said in my article yesterday afternoon, the Left will revel in the numbers this week’s opinion polls record, perhaps justifiably so; yet when an election is eventually held the odds must favour the re-election of the Abbott government, and this contention remains very much the case.
That said, findings published overnight by Newspoll, appearing in today’s edition of The Australian, along with material from Nielsen — both of which correlate with figures released a day earlier by Galaxy — are extremely bad for the Coalition whichever way they are sifted and presented, and whilst they do not signal the death knell of the government, they inarguably declare that Treasurer Joe Hockey’s first budget has been very poorly received indeed.
There are three things I will say upfront: one, and broadly speaking, Bill Shorten is likelier to have been found to be more popular this week than he ever will be again in his political career. Two, despite its leads after preferences, the Labor primary vote in all surveys should be far stronger for it to represent anything truly meaningful. And three, just as respondents to these polls are reacting against measures that clearly affect them adversely, there are indicators that suggest today’s stated voting intention may not translate into tomorrow’s vote.
Newspoll finds Labor ahead after preferences, by 55% (+2% since last fortnight) to 45%; on primary votes, this breaks to 38% (+4%) for the ALP, 36% (-2%) for the Coalition, 11% (-3%) for the Greens and 15% (+1%) for “Others.”
In other words, fully one-third of that 55% two-party lead is totally dependent on attracting preferences from other parties; preferences from the Communist Party Greens might well be a given in 75-80% of cases, but beyond that it becomes a much tougher ask. As a rough rule of thumb, the “Others” typically split 50-50 at elections, so the glitch in the headline finding of 55% Labor support after preferences is a glaring one.
It’s a similar story with findings from a Nielsen poll, which found primary support for the Coalition at 35% (-5% from its poll a month ago) and 40% (+6%) for the ALP; it also found the Greens sitting on 14% (-3%), the Palmer United Party on 6% (-2%), and “Others” on 5%, for a two-party lead to Labor of 56-44. Preferences in Nielsen’s research increase the overall ALP outcome by almost half as much again as its primary vote, and whilst anything is possible such a scenario sits at the upper outer reaches of anything that could be regarded as plausible.
For comparison, a Galaxy poll released late on Saturday night had Labor at 53% (+1%) after preferences to the Coalition’s 47% (-1%); it found primary Coalition support at 38% (-1%), Labor 38% (+1%), Greens 10% (-1%), the Palmer United Party 8% (+2%) and “Others” on 6% (-1%).
The point I would make is that whilst Labor support has certainly risen across the board (in contrast to the round of polls leading up to the budget) there is no decisive shift of support directly to the ALP that suggests an election win is locked in, or at the very least an outcome motivating the sentiment being expressed by respondents of the respective surveys. Its 40% in Newspoll is Labor’s best federal primary vote, anywhere, in years. The fact it is not mirrored elsewhere at a time of favourable political circumstances should be very worrying for the ALP indeed.
During the last term of Parliament, the Coalition primary vote in these surveys typically fluctuated between about 45% and 50%, and usually at the upper end of the range, and whilst the ALP has the “Green factor” hiving off a considerable portion of the Left-leaning vote, a similar phenomenon seems to have appeared in recent times with the emergence of parties linked to Clive Palmer and Bob Katter Jr.
And a primary vote of 37.8% in 2010 was only strong enough to win Julia Gillard government in minority; of course every election is different, but the fact is that even with the sizeable overall movements these polls are picking up, Labor’s actual support is no better on average than it was in 2010 or for much of the period it spent in opposition during the Howard years.
I’m not trying to piss on Labor’s parade, mind; the point is that in context and as these polls are shaped by political circumstance, the reality beneath the headline result is far less rosy for Labor than it will no doubt seek to claim.
This point is borne out to some extent by some of the questions each of the surveys asked its respondents about the budget.
For instance, Newspoll asked whether the ALP would have produced a better budget: only 39% thought it would, with 46% saying Labor would have done no better. This was despite 69% of its respondents saying it would leave them worse off personally.
Nielsen found that 33% of its respondents thought the budget was fair; 63% thought it was unfair. Yet its respondents split 50-37 in favour of the so-called “deficit tax,” and 49-46 in favour of the abolition of the carbon tax. (They also split 30-66 against raising the GST — a measure not included in the budget at all).
And Galaxy — 11% of whose respondents said the budget would leave them better off, and 75% saying they would be worse off — nonetheless split 41-46 on the question of whether they felt the budget would be good or bad for the economy, with “bad” attaining only a narrow plurality over “good” despite Labor’s doom and gloom rhetoric in recent weeks.
For these polls to give Labor real succour, they ought to be so overwhelmingly one-sided as to enable us to close off the betting and start paying out. They are nothing of the sort. And whilst it is very clear the government has a hell of a lot of work to do, it is equally clear the ALP remains well short of the compelling movement it will need to stand a serious chance of winning the next election.
Ironically — given they’re probably the most meaningless aspect of these polls — the best numbers for Labor come on the personal approval measures. Yet the caution on these is perhaps even stronger than the flimsy nature of the voting intention figures: Shorten is not a popular or particularly well-liked leader, and the big gains he has achieved this week are likely to prove illusory at best.
Newspoll has Shorten (44%, +6%) leading Abbott (34%, -6%) as preferred Prime Minister; over at Nielsen, it’s Shorten on 51% (+7%) over Abbott on 40% (-5%). The movements record both a swing against the government and reflect the obvious hostility of respondents across all the surveys to the budget. Yet they pit two relatively unpopular men against each other, and like virtually every similar finding since Shorten became ALP “leader” late last year, neither man has scored a runaway win over the other on any of these personal preference measures.
Similarly, Shorten records some improvement on the personal approval front, with Newspoll finding 42% of its respondents (+7%) approve of his handling of the opposition leader’s role, and 39% (-2%) don’t; at Nielsen, 47% (+4%) approved of him and 39% (-2%) didn’t. Yet again, these are hardly Earth-shattering numbers coming off an extremely low base, and reflect the fact Shorten is a fundamentally unpopular individual receiving the rub-off effects of the sentiment being expressed against the budget.
And Abbott? With disapproval in both polls now topping 60% and his approval numbers only barely in the 30s, it’s a case of “enough said.” Yet it must be remembered that Abbott has made a career as leader out of surviving these kinds of approval ratings. He won an election with them last year in a canter.
A lengthy post, yes, but there are three sets of numbers — plus dedicated questions on the budget — to sift through. What can we take out of them?
At the risk of being blase, there is nothing in any of this that shouldn’t have been expected.
Yet just as the government shouldn’t panic today, neither should the opposition crow: the results are bad for the government, but not dire; they are good for the Labor Party, but not convincing or solid.
One thing that occurred to me after my post yesterday is that the ALP has basically front-loaded its attack; in going hell-for-broke on the budget before it was even delivered based on the aspects of it that were leaked, it could be that it’s turned what might have otherwise been a slow burn into a single shot that may yet misfire. As I said yesterday afternoon, if the government can legislate the bulk of its measures and the sky doesn’t subsequently fall in, this budget mightn’t even be an issue when the next election rolls around — arguments over broken promises from the Coalition or not.
It is still very much the case that the government has followed the textbook: get into office, “discover” things are far worse than its predecessor claimed, drop the bomb of a horror budget and ride the storm out knowing there is ample time to turn public opinion back in its favour before it next faces the people.
This strategy has worked too many times in recent political history — 1983 and 1996 specifically — for Coalition strategists not to tread a similar path with some confidence. Labor failed to do so in 2007 (and tacitly acknowledged the strength of the budget it inherited) and was almost booted out after a single term in office.
In the longer run, these polls are meaningless, although we have to take the time to pull them apart.
Readers know I believe there are measures in the budget that should not have been included and which are certain losers of Coalition votes, but notwithstanding my criticisms there is an awful lot more that will influence the next election and the degree — if any — to which the budget shapes its outcome.
How much of Hockey’s budget even gets implemented is a very big question mark as at today’s date; how much is dropped, blocked, modified beyond recognition or enacted all promises to create ripples and knock-on effects whose outcomes — and consequences — cannot be foreseen.
And the budget aside, the electoral cards still remain very much in the Coalition’s hands.
After all, it faces a Labor Party booted from office in a landslide eight months ago; “led” by an odious and unpopular individual, that same Labor Party shows no inclination to either acknowledge the errors it made in office or even to be honest with the electorate when its own dishonest way of doing things was such a contributor to its fall from grace.
Abbott — to the extent a case can be made about broken promises — at least has the mess he inherited from the ALP to point to as an excuse. The ALP doesn’t even have that.
And smouldering away in the background are the Royal Commissions into Pink Batts and corruption in the union movement; various criminal investigations that may well see a throng of senior ALP figures charged and, potentially, jailed; and the Labor Party making noises about reform and inclusion and democratisation at the same time it refuses to dilute the level of union control of its conferences, which risks alienating even more of its rank and file than it already has when the betrayal it is wilfully committing becomes apparent.
Let’s call this for what it is: the best week of polling Labor has enjoyed in five years, and a bloodied nose for the government.
And yes, the budget process will have cost the Coalition some of its political capital, and its effort is in no way an emulation of either the fabled Costello budget of 1996 or the stellar level of acceptance it met with in the electorate.
But nobody — on either side — should get carried away by any of this. To do so is premature, baseless, and a dangerous political miscalculation to make.