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.
- 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.