Ipsos, Newspoll: Turnbull Election Loss A Distinct Possibility

MUCH AS IT PAINS some in the “brains” trust of the Liberal Party, this column calls political life as it sees it, and is uninterested in rah-rah propaganda for its own sake; today, with new polls from Ipsos and Newspoll, the trend we’ve been charting — a collapse in the Turnbull government’s standing — persists, with those figures (and some gut instinct) suggesting the Coalition, whilst not yet dead in the water, may nonetheless just about be cooked.

Exactly eight months after the Queensland LNP won a state election — ending 14 years of ALP government in the biggest landslide in Australian political history — I raised in this column the prospect, despite the 12.2% swing required, that it would lose the following election in 2015: and despite the torrent of abuse that poured through my phone in the days immediately afterward, along with a steady dripfeed of stories filtering south about what a fuckwit I was, on 31 January last year the LNP did precisely as I had predicted. It lost a state election.

The problem in commenting on (and making predictions about) a business as infinitely changeable and subject to wildcat acts of treachery as politics is that inevitably, some calls will be right and some will be wrong; we’ve nailed far more than we’ve missed here over the past five years, and if some in my own party resent the fact I make tough calls on the Liberals as much as on our opponents, then so be it. After all, I’ve been excluded from the inner sanctum; it’s a bit rich to then complain that I don’t regurgitate what’s on the song sheet. You can’t have it both ways.

Regular readers will know that I wrote the Abbott government off as terminal not too long after its politically disastrous 2014 budget; had it been implemented (and the merits or otherwise of the Senate’s behaviour notwithstanding) it would have gone some way to redressing the balance sheet, but not as far as required. In any case, then-Treasurer Joe Hockey had produced a politically incendiary package that targeted swinging Coalition voters in marginal seats, and backed by a thoroughly dysfunctional political machine in almost every conceivable sense, was unsaleable.

And whilst flatly opposed to the ascension of Malcolm Turnbull (and having said so repeatedly up to and including the day before he became Prime Minister) I was nevertheless emphatic that if he went to a pre-Christmas election last year, the Coalition would translate a quick sugar hit in public support into a sizeable election victory…but that the longer Turnbull delayed, the more support he would lose, the more his unreconstructed failings from his first stint as Liberal leader would resurface, and the likelier it would grow that the government would be defeated.

Two days before he rolled Tony Abbott, I published an article that comprehensively set out my reservations about (and my opposition to) a Turnbull Prime Ministership, and having looked it out to link into today’s piece, the arguments against Turnbull back in September look positively prophetic.

My reason for opening with this coverage of old ground (and a little self-defence) is that I think the federal Coalition is wandering very close to the point now at which its election prospects will become terminal: just as they were terminal under Abbott, a temporary reprieve from which was (ironically) delivered by the Turnbull coup, they are becoming so again as all the risks and flaws I warned about (as did other conservative commentators across the country) spring sharply back into focus.

In short, a Turnbull election loss is now a distinct possibility; some would argue it is probable. We will come back to that in a bit.

But it is against this backdrop that two new polls surface this morning — Newspoll in The Australian and the Fairfax-Ipsos poll — and whilst they show the government remaining competitive (on 49% and 50% of the two-party vote respectively), the bottom line is that if replicated at an election, the Coalition would probably lose narrowly. Across the basket of reputable polls we monitor in this column, the average two-party figure for the Coalition remains locked below 49.5%: leaving it dependent on enough votes in a tiny handful of key seats to fall across the line.

First things first: readers can access the Newspoll tables and the Fairfax press’ coverage of the Ipsos poll here and here respectively; I’m only going to allude to the findings rather than replicate them in full, so if the details are of interest please feel free to click through.

There are some really dangerous (or downright stupid) assumptions being made that find wide acceptance as common wisdom as to why Turnbull can’t lose, and before we get to talking about issues, or — again — the unforgivable drift and dithering of Turnbull’s government, I want to explode a few of them.

  1. Labor’s primary vote is too low to win an election

At 33% in Ipsos and 36% in Newspoll, in ordinary circumstances it should be too low to win; Essential (for what it’s worth) has seen it fluctuate between 35% and 38% over the past month, and my own “guesstimate” of the trend figure puts it at about 35.5%.

Yet with the Greens averaging 12% across all polls and the ALP guaranteed of 75-80% of these votes through preference flows, this lifts the “underlying” Labor position to 45%: from there, and with “Others” averaging 11% across all polls, the ALP need only attract 45% of those preferences to reach the 50% mark. As it usually scores 50-55% of these votes on preferences, the contention Labor can’t win with 35.5% of the vote on its own (if that proves the eventual figure at the ballot box) is simply untrue.

2. Malcolm Turnbull is the Coalition’s secret weapon

To achieve what, exactly? Ipsos is kinder to Turnbull than Newspoll, but the trend downwards is identical; even so, Newspoll — which is generally the most accurate survey of federal voting intention — shows Turnbull is not popular at all, with just 36% of its respondents (down another 2% in a fortnight) approving his performance, and 49% (+1%) disapproving. And in case anyone quibbles about margin of error, the resulting net approval score of -13% is a full 51-point turnaround in just five months: hardly the stuff of statistical blips.

Both of today’s polls show Turnbull with handy, but unconvincing, leads over Shorten as “preferred Prime Minister,” but in both cases those leads are diminished: Newspoll has it 47-28, whilst Ipsos (again kinder to Turnbull, but consistent with Newspoll on trend) finds it 54-27. It is rare for opposition leaders to win this measure, especially against first-term governments. That Shorten did so intermittently against Abbott speaks to the dysfunctional nature of Abbott’s political apparatus more than anything. Shorten’s numbers against Turnbull may be poorer, but they are not extraordinary in cyclical terms. Importantly for Labor, they represent a sharp upswing from their nadir prior to Christmas.

3. Bill Shorten is unelectable

Generally, I agree. Certainly, in my view, he is the least suitable candidate put forward for the Prime Ministership by any major party in decades, if not ever, although I’m not going to rehash those arguments today: there’s a wealth of articles dealing with Shorten and what should be his terminal defects readily accessible in the archives to the right.

But if we’re going to talk about “unelectable,” the Left spent three years screaming the same accusation against Abbott, going out of its way to smear and defame him to substantiate their charge. Nevertheless, Abbott won a thumping victory in 2013.

And if being “unelectable” is a bar to election victory, let’s consider a few other names. Steve Bracks. Bob Carr. Colin Barnett. Paul Keating. Jim Soorley. People forget that John Howard was “Mr 18%” and widely regarded (and lampooned) in the late 1980s as joke, or that Jeff Kennett lost two state elections (and, temporarily, his leadership of the Liberal Party) before storming to office in Victoria in 1992 and becoming a political titan. Admittedly, none of these men were as abjectly contemptible as Shorten.

Yet stranger things have happened.

4. Labor has no policies and is unfit to govern

Oppositions don’t win elections, governments lose them: and Shorten knows this all too well.

As I argued last week, Labor’s program boils down to two words — new taxes — and a lot of new taxes at that: some $102 billion of them over ten years.

And it’s certainly true that the last Labor government committed unprecedented acts of economic vandalism on the federal budget, compounding this by its antics in opposition in marshalling obstruction to virtually every attempt to undo the damage in the Senate.

The country can’t afford another Labor government if it behaves as the last one did, obsessed with power to the exclusion of responsibility, and obsessed with socialist frolics and the empowerment of union thugs to the total exclusion of the national interest.

But — and this is a sad reality — the Coalition doesn’t exactly ooze policies either; three months of dithering, obfuscating and inaction over tax and budget policy means that a budget in 15 days’ time is going to have to produce a rabbit from a hat.

And the Liberal Party — through its knifing of Abbott, the mediocrity the Turnbull regime has proven to be, and the malicious preselection battles being fought out to knife conservatives in order to shore Turnbull’s position up — has gone out of its way to demonstrate that “unfitness for office” is not an epithet that applies exclusively to the opposition.

 

I must apologise to readers for my silence once again since my article on Thursday; that piece — written whilst sitting on the tarmac at Melbourne Airport in an A320 for 90 minutes, waiting for my delayed flight to Brisbane to get underway — provides a glimmer of insight into what awaits Australia if, God forbid, Shorten should be Prime Minister when we all wake up on 3 July.

I have in fact been preoccupied with other matters, and I have always made it plain that as this column is not a revenue-generating activity, other things that pay my bills must take precedence.

Time and other political events permitting, I will be publishing something during the week about Labor’s “grand strategy” during this term of Parliament, for I believe this has become increasingly clear over the past few months: and right now, one would have to say that it’s working.

Certainly, Labor’s political agenda — as fatuous and vacuous as it often is — is proving more fruitful at this point in the cycle than the Coalition’s, although as someone disinclined to buy into rah-rah propaganda and other self-congratulatory bullshit, I’ve long thought the defects in the way the Liberal Party has approached political strategy since roughly the midpoint of the final term of the Howard government have been obvious, although not as obvious to some as they should be, clearly.

Right now — after wasting a huge surge of electoral support, botching a series of ministerial appointments, eschewing hard conversations about the financial state Australia is really in and vacillating over what to do about it through tax reform — I think the Turnbull government is very, very close to the point its electoral position will become terminal.

It might not be showing up quite so starkly in the polls — yet — but since Christmas, every opinion poll in the country has contained at least one item of bad news for the government, if not several.

The Coalition’s primary vote is already down to the level at which Howard lost government in 2007; Labor support might be lower, but it has the Greens to guarantee it another 8-10% through preferences, which the Coalition does not.

Turnbull, personally, is every bit as unpopular as he was when booted from the Liberal leadership in 2009; he is little more popular than Shorten now, and faced with an opponent as cringeworthy and lamentable as Shorten is, that fact is an indictment.

Even Turnbull’s “preferred PM” numbers — the last sanctuary of the unpopular leader of an unpopular government — are drifting further and further downwards, and anyone who stakes the government’s re-election on a bet based on this particular index is delusional.

Today’s polls merely reinforce these observations.

The Coalition might not quite be dead in the water, but it has spent the year to date apparently determined to flirt with its political mortality, and to experiment with just how much water must be inhaled to induce drowning: its inability to make decisions, articulate policy or to sell its position convincingly is almost politically suicidal this close to a 2 July election its own handiwork has effectively locked it into.

Competitive as an averaged 49.4% across the full gamut of polls might appear on the two-party measure ten weeks from an election, the bigger question is whether the government is already cooked even if it isn’t running dead.

One of its signature tactical moves — a special sitting of Parliament, with plenty of inherent capacity to explode in Turnbull’s face — commences today, and concludes with an early budget on 3 May that possesses as much or more explosive potential.

In the next few weeks things will grow clearer, but for now — if you are wont to bet and looking for tips — I’m reticent to put my standard wager of a tenner on the Coalition just yet.

Oh, and for those who beg to differ, if Tony Abbott and his Prime Minister, Peta Credlin, were still leading the government today, it would be careening downhill toward certain defeat. Its policies may continue, but its political smarts in office were non-existent. On the latter point, Abbott and Turnbull might have more in common than they care to admit.

 

Ipsos Poll: Coalition Storms Ahead, But Can Honeymoon Last?

ANOTHER OPINION POLL — this time from Ipsos for the Fairfax press — shows the federal Coalition storming ahead of Labor since its change of leadership last month; restored to its election-winning position of 2013 and with both the ALP and Bill Shorten crashing, the temptation is to interpret this as part of a general recovery in the Liberal Party’s stocks. Yet the government remains vulnerable, and would be unwise to become complacent.

With everyone else in politics, the media, the independent commentariat and those who observe politics watching opinion polls like a hawk at the moment, we might as well too — and viewed through this prism, the latest offering from the Fairfax press makes for some interesting reading indeed.

Shortly after Malcolm Turnbull became Prime Minister — and we’re not going to split hairs over either the merits or the method of the change today — I had a series of private conversations around political strategy with a number of Liberal Party insiders scattered across the country (and some of those are exceedingly well positioned adjacent to spheres of influence within the party) in which I suggested, on balance, that the smartest thing Turnbull could do was to immediately advise a double dissolution election and take the endorsement he had received from MPs to the people to seek a final seal of legitimacy.

By and large, the response was that I was wrong. Remember Gillard, they said. Look at the anger on the Liberal Right and consider the potential for malicious mischief, they said.

Different circumstances involving different people five years ago on the other side of the political fence are an unreliable indicator of what might happen here and now, and to some degree, the Ipsos poll being carried in The Age today offers little to alter my view.

With the best will in the world, an election held early next year in March or April, ahead of the budget (or even on schedule in September or October) may very well see the Turnbull government returned to office.

But the longer it’s left, the less certain it will become; and the longer Labor’s numbers — which have descended into the toilet in every major poll — remain depressed, the higher the likelihood the ALP will get rid of Bill Shorten and remove its greatest impediment to an election win.

The central point is not a belief Turnbull has gone off like a firecracker (so to speak) and will plunge to Earth as Kevin Rudd did when restored to the Prime Ministership; rather, I think that having wasted two years and an ocean of opportunity tolerating Tony Abbott’s indulgence of his Chief of Staff, spectacularly abysmal performances by a handful of key ministers and an advisory pool selected for compliance rather than performance whose overall political efficacy was non-existent, the Liberals are faced by an ALP that is only a decent leader away from an even start at any election campaign, and are hobbled by latent resentment and anger toward the government irrespective of whether “God” has now taken charge of it or not.

Let me be deadly clear: what I am saying should in no way be taken in jest.

But first things first: The Fairfax Ipsos poll records Labor’s vote crashing well past the embarrassing 33.4% it recorded against Abbott two years ago to now stand at just 30%, down 6% since its last national survey two months ago in the final days of Abbott’s leadership; it finds support for the Coalition at 45% (+7%), the Communist Party Greens at 14% (-2%), and “Others” at 11% (+1%).

On a two-party preferred distribution of preferences based on flows at the 2013 election, this sees the Coalition (53%, up 7%) leading Labor (47%, down 7%).

The Ipsos finding mirrors the trends that have now been identified by every reputable opinion poll that has conducted research on voting intention since Turnbull replaced Abbott — and we’ll come back to that — but the numbers in the contest between Turnbull and Labor “leader” Bill Shorten are even more stark.

Ipsos finds 68% of its respondents approve of the born-again leadership of Turnbull, with just 17% disapproving; by contrast — and based on its August polling — it finds 32% (-7%) approve of Shorten’s performance as Labor “leader,” with 56% (+7%) disapproving.

On the “preferred PM” measure — and using the variance from Abbott’s final result on this count — Ipsos’ figures see Turnbull (67%, +28%) a country mile ahead of Shorten (21%, -24%) on the question of who voters rate as most likely to perform best as Prime Minister.

I think there are two things happening here, and whilst they appear to be moving in unison for now, the prospect that they may (and probably will) diverge ought to be a sobering one that places great restraint on any temptation within the Coalition camp toward triumphalism, complacency, or even hubris.

If we talk very broadly, every major poll conducted since the leadership change — Newspoll, Essential, Galaxy, ReachTel, and now Ipsos — has found Coalition support bounding out of the doldrums to draw level or ahead (to different degrees) of the ALP on the two-party measure. Even the notoriously fickle Morgan poll, with its historically wild movements out of nowhere and its tendency to favour Labor out of kilter with all the other polls, has identified the same movement (and with typical Morgan excess, its latest survey — putting the Coalition at 56% — is the most heavily pro-Liberal finding of the lot).

And again, talking broadly, every one of these polls has recorded spectacular approval numbers for Turnbull and a collapse in those for Shorten, who on the “preferred PM” measure — in all of them, irrespective of the Coalition support recorded — is now being routinely belted by the new Prime Minister.

My point is that a pattern appears to be forming where questions of Malcolm Turnbull as a leader and Prime Minister are concerned: people like him — even those who didn’t or don’t support him and/or will never vote for him like him — and even after six weeks in the job and judged against a flurry of early polling, there seems no end in sight to stratospheric personal approval numbers or a crushing lead over Shorten as preferred Prime Minister, which I have described previously as amounting to a return to “normal” settings on that question for a new Prime Minister faced by a first-term opposition leader following a landslide election loss.

But on the voting intention side of things, the early signs of ambivalence are already evident.

Two Newspolls: the first found the Coalition ahead, 51-49; two weeks later, that poll recorded a dead heat, 50-50.

Three Essential polls (or at least, three that count, given one week’s findings are combined with the next in a rolling survey): two and three weeks ago respectively, it found 52-48 for the Coalition (after, indeed, a huge spike after the leadership change from a 52-48 Labor lead) but last week, that had slipped to 51-49 — and given half last week’s Essential “result” was actually the fieldwork done the week before, a 51-49 outcome last week actually had to be a 50-50 finding in the field to pull down a 52-48 finding a week earlier.

ReachTel is yet to record a lead for the Coalition under Turnbull at all.

And if we forget about opinion polls altogether for a moment, nobody can seriously deny that with the exception of the election of a Liberal government in Tasmania 18 months ago, the overall political movement around the country has been almost all Labor’s way ever since the Abbott government was first elected.

Irrespective of the reasons (and yes, we all know the filthy tricks the ALP and the unions use to hoodwink people), Labor has reclaimed office in Victoria and Queensland after a single term in opposition in both — the latter after a swing of almost 14% from the wipeout it suffered three years earlier — and despite nevertheless losing, scored a two-party swing in NSW this year of almost 10%; anecdotal evidence is that it is making great headway against an entrenched Liberal government in WA, and that despite trailing 49-51 in latest polling would nevertheless score a 3% swing to the 13-year-old Labor government in SA if an election were held there now, resulting in a comfortable majority win on that state’s notoriously rigged boundaries.

As we all know, Labor led the Coalition in every major federal opinion poll for 18 months until about six weeks ago, in some cases by wide margins.

And it remains to be seen whether the trend across the polls continues, but it does now rather look as if Turnbull’s stellar personal numbers are holding, or even rising further, whilst the big hit in voting intention already gives every indication of very slowly beginning to recede.

In arguing for an immediate election when Turnbull replaced Abbott, one point that stood out for me was that Gillard — the great example, in so many ways, of what not to do — was, despite some kudos over two-and-a-half years as a minister and a chequered record in shadow Cabinet in opposition, still a relative unknown when she became Prime Minister even after 12 years in Parliament and every possible advantage to fast-track her having been accorded to her.

By contrast, the “Turnbull’s an unknown quantity” argument was rubbish: he might be new as PM, but he’s been around, and highly visible, for decades: as a lawyer in the Spycatcher case. As the head of the republican movement. From his days in enterprise at OzEmail and at Goldman Sachs. On account of his profile working for the Packer empire. And with 11 years in Parliament, three as a minister under John Howard, and one stint as leader already under his belt. As what the News Corp journalists refer to as the “co-host” of the ABC’s #QandA programme.

No, unlike Gillard, nobody in Australia is under any illusions whatsoever as to who Malcolm is.

Putting aside both my political opposition to Malcolm and my genuine regard for him personally, I think the hostility and bile that appears to have abated since the downfall of Abbott is still there: it may be concealed for now by good poll numbers and euphoria in non-Labor circles, but it’s still there, and as we’ve briefly seen, the country has shown that in its current mood it is not averse to electing Labor governments — whether it likes them or not.

One of the things I think has been missed (or at least horribly underplayed) is Shorten’s, and Labor’s, poll collapse: yes, this was always to be expected, and in that sense the “sugar hit” Liberals were banking on emerged right on cue as the first post-coup polling was published.

But what has to some degree been overlooked is the fact that sugar hit coincided with weeks of ceaselessly dreadful testimony emanating from the Royal Commission into the unions that Shorten was every bit as complicit in attempts to neuter or shut down as any of the other bozos over at Labor or Trades Hall, who are panicking and desperate to keep their arses out of the sling.

Additional corroboration of allegations of fake invoices and other ostensibly fraudulent measures to enrich unions whilst simultaneously trading away legislated worker entitlements, whether ultimately found to conclusively implicate Shorten in any wrongdoing or not, will nevertheless rebound on him with full force anyway. That’s how it works. It might not be right and it might not be “fair,” but people en masse jump to conclusions based on the whiff of scandal, and do not readily forgive or forget even if exoneration follows. That — whether you like it or not — is human nature, however much some try to deny it or to rationalise it away with sermons about being innocent until proven otherwise.

(It is, not to put too fine a point on it, exactly the reason Labor under Gillard invested so much energy smearing Abbott as a violent misogynist).

In the context of our discussion, it means Labor has been hit with the negative of a Liberal leadership switch to a man identified in most polls as the most popular politician in Australia, and then belted again by the septic runoff from the Royal Commission hearings that makes Shorten, his party and its thuggy masters at Trades Hall all resemble the pre-treatment contents of a sewer.

And as if the twin hits of the Turnbull ascension and the Royal Commission revelations aren’t enough, Shorten has apparently determined to flirt with fate even further by responding with the announcement of “policies” that simply distilled equate to tax, tax and more tax, in addition to the pre-existing announcement he and his colleagues dare not utter again: to abolish the private health insurance rebate, which would decimate healthcare in Australia if ever implemented.

My best estimate of the average Coalition two-party vote across the latest round of polls is somewhere near 51.5%, or fractionally higher. Given the opposition it is faced with and considering the removal of the electoral liability the Abbott regime had indisputably become, I think the Coalition should be sitting between 55% and 60% — even in the atmosphere of a new leadership sugar hit.

But it isn’t.

Some of the reasons why the Coalition hasn’t climbed higher than it has are its (and Turnbull’s) own fault; we looked at some of them last week.

But deep down — and even though the Ipsos numbers would spell heavy defeat for Labor if repeated at the polling booth — I think the damage caused to residual Coalition support by the Abbott-Credlin-Loughnane government, not-so-ably supported by the likes of Kevin Andrews and Joe Hockey and Ian Macfarlane, is probably proving more enduring than anyone imagined.

Or, if they were honest, than Coalition strategists might fear.

That Shorten is an insipid, dishonest, untrustworthy, slimy imbecile is beyond dispute.

Yet he stood to profit from the distaste he and his intellectually bankrupt cohorts had spent many years creating and fanning where Abbott was concerned, and with Abbott now gone from centre stage, Shorten is being seen by voters for what he really is: a nothing. A charlatan. A joke. And a downright dangerous one at that.

It is no wonder that where personal approval ratings are concerned, Turnbull is trouncing him.

Yet were the ALP to find the bottle to jettison Shorten (and we know the mutterers are muttering inside the ALP tent, but either can’t find the votes required to get rid of him or can’t count) and replace him with someone more credible, then Turnbull could find himself in a world of trouble.

People may be interested again in what the Liberal Party has to say now there’s a new leader at the helm, but it would be unwise to regard the lift in its voting intention numbers as anything other than very soft.

If a Chris Bowen (or even a Plibersek or an Albanese) could abandon his vulgar penchant for parroting the vacuous slogans so typical of a Shorten or a Rudd, and fashion an alternative with sensible policies that have mass appeal rather than pandering to Greens lunatics and union thugs, then the next election would end up being a real fight.

It ought to be unthinkable based on the miserable and disastrous record of the ALP in office between 2007 and 2013, but I believe people are far more open to electing a Labor government than current polls perhaps suggest at first glance.

And if (I stress, hypothetically, if) Shorten were forced to resign as a result of the mess being aired at the Royal Commission, the ALP — far from being damaged by the involuntary departure of its “leader” — would instead grasp the opportunity to retrieve the election win it seemed on track to score until very recently.

In those circumstances, the Labor beast would quite literally fight like hell to drive the Liberals from power, the fact of Turnbull’s messianic leadership notwithstanding.

The longer the government takes to go to the polls, the greater the likelihood that just such a scenario will materialise.

I must emphasise, once again, that my personal views on any or all of the individuals we have discussed in no way colour my remarks this morning: today’s article is purely analytical in intent.

But having missed the opportunity to make the announcement of an election date his first act as Prime Minister, Turnbull now embodies a modified version of that old real estate adage about the best time to get into the property market: the only time better than today for Turnbull to call an election is yesterday.

For now, the Coalition leads Labor in every poll, and in a couple quite handsomely.

But the lead isn’t very much, and when the honeymoon comes to an end, so might the government’s best chance of scoring a clear election win. Shorten will only take Labor to a smashing election defeat if Turnbull engineers an election now. It is inconceivable the ALP will allow him to remain in place for a further 12 months.

For the Liberals, the cost of delay — however nobly framed about serving a full term — could very well be an early return to the opposition benches.