LEST ANY DOUBT remain over the government’s luck in winning the July election, Newspoll finds Labor leading the Coalition, 52-48; as PM Malcolm Turnbull’s fortunes continue to slide and those of opposition “leader” Bill Shorten somehow edge higher, all indicators since 2 July suggest Turnbull’s “win” was a mere punctuation point on a downward spiral. Should it continue, the Liberal leadership will soon enough be a speculative proposition.
Ten days out from the 2 July election, a reasonably senior figure in Liberal Party circles rang me to gauge my views on the likely outcome of election; with characteristic bluntness, I told him I thought we were fucked — and added that if Bill Shorten could get the ALP to 72 seats or better, it was almost impossible to see how Labor could be prevented from forming a government.
Happily, the ALP fell three seats short of the target I nominated, probably (and perversely) because its so-called Mediscare campaign was the point an over-confident and just-too-clever Shorten overreached badly, scaring just enough punters out of switching sides in the final week to deliver up the narrowest majority election win* in Australian political history.
Once polling day was out of the way, two articles in this column dealt with the situation into which Turnbull had strode: the first, suggesting the Coalition would have been better off in opposition than minority was of course quickly overtaken by the tiny outright majority his government scored, but the second — based on the premise that Turnbull’s victory would be one to regret — remains very much a telling one.
And frankly, the Liberal Party would probably be better off in opposition, rebuilding under a new leader, and waiting for Hurricane Shorten to renew the carnage that is Labor’s appalling Rudd-Gillard era track record of economic and social leadership.
Today’s Newspoll in The Australian finds the ALP leading the government 52-48 after preferences; an increase in its share of the two-party vote of 2%, this equates to a swing to Labor of 2.4% since polling day that if replicated at an election would deliver up an extra 12 seats to the ALP for a total of 81, and a 12-seat overall majority in the House of Representatives.
Just in case anyone thinks I’m jumping straight to conclusions based on one poll, it should be noted that the weekly surveys conducted by Essential Research have shown Labor at a 52-48 lead ever since the election; ReachTel has been a sliver kinder to the government (albeit still showing it trailing 51-49 in its last findings) and with three months now basically gone since polling day, it does rather look as if people have settled in their judgement that whatever else they might think of the election, its outcome and what has since transpired, they don’t want Malcolm Turnbull.
I’m not going to run through every little detail of today’s poll, suffice to observe that the Coalition primary vote of 38% (42.1% on polling day) is its lowest share recorded by Newspoll since Tony Abbott was replaced; Abbott actually fared better in his final Newspoll, with 39%, for an overall result little different to this one.
It was a run of 30 consecutive losing Newspolls, Turnbull said, that justified a change of leadership in the Liberal Party.
Which, if I’m sarcastic about it, was just as well, because Turnbull’s true personal approval numbers sure as hell couldn’t justify it: Newspoll’s recent pre- and post-election findings well and truly prove that Turnbull’s standing in the electorate has returned to the abysmal levels at which it stood at the end of his first stint as Liberal leader seven years ago, with just 32% (-2%) of respondents saying they approved of his performance, and 55% (+2%) disapproving.
Tony Abbott, in retrospect and by contrast, looks only marginally less popular: and on a good day, even as support for him within his party evaporated, he actually fared better than Turnbull’s numbers now.
It is true Bill Shorten is now (fractionally) more popular — albeit through the clenched teeth of voters — than Turnbull, with 36% of respondents approving his performance and 51% disapproving, with both of those numbers moving one point in the right direction; and it is true that Turnbull remains “preferred PM” among Newspoll respondents (for now at least), with 44% of them nominating the Prime Minister as opposed to 33% for Shorten.
Yet even Kevin Rudd remained preferred Prime Minister over both Turnbull and Abbott prior to his own dumping as PM in mid-June 2010, so there goes the veracity of that fig leaf as any kind of justification for Turnbull to cling to.
As leadership becomes more and more central to the way politics in this country is reported, the observation simply must be made that far from the exciting, broadly popular and (dare I say it) innovative leader Turnbull promised to be last year, it has become clear that he remains in fact the jaundiced, failed and rejected specimen he had become by the time he was dumped in favour of Abbott late in 2009.
The voters — who initially flirted with flocking to him in droves — have worked Turnbull out; the army of Lefties who claimed to intend to vote Liberal to support him is nowhere to be seen (as predicted). In fact, the only time Turnbull was ever going to win an election convincingly was five minutes after sinking the knife between Abbott’s shoulder blades, and in this sense the political ineptitude and stupidity of not calling a December election, as insistently called for in this column at the time, is now breathtakingly clear for all to see.
I still believe that Tony Abbott, whom I supported for many years until his refusal to dispatch Peta Credlin from his office, would have lost the most recent election.
But even had it done so under Turnbull, the ALP would now be accruing electoral demerit points under its obscenity of a leader. Instead, the Coalition now shows every sign of embarking on a three-year torturefest that can only end in a thumping defeat.
In this sense, I attracted considerable opprobrium late last year for breaking a story that suggested Bill Shorten was set to quit the ALP leadership, as his own flaws and the fallout from the union Royal Commission rendered him seemingly unelectable; of course, the Federal Police raid on the home of Turnbull minister Mal Brough signalled a get-out-of-jail-free card for Shorten, and he survived: with more than a little subsequent help from the supposedly bold new government Turnbull appeared determined to steer into rocky waters.
But the plot was definitely on — and has been widely reported since — and just as Shorten was a dead man walking late last year, so too he may become again.
Labor doesn’t need the mythical 40% primary vote to win an election, thanks to preferential voting, and even with its winning position today it still doesn’t have it, mustering 38% in this Newspoll.
But there are already those who muse behind the closed, tribal ALP door that if they replace Shorten with a more substantial and less cynically opportunistic figure, victory in 2019 will become that much more achievable.
And they are probably right.
For Turnbull, the danger now is that it won’t matter what his government achieves, or how much of the wafer-thin agenda it took to the election it manages to legislate; Malcolm Turnbull is a lame duck and a damaged leader, devoid of credibility, and the voters know it. His political opponents know it. A growing number of his MPs know it. The risk is that, just like Julia Gillard, any “achievements” he can boast merely drive the nails deeper into his own political coffin.
Personally, I think that whilst the polls will bounce around — and they will, especially if the fatuous Shorten gets the political comeuppance he deserves, and his colleagues begin manoeuvring to get rid of him — Turnbull’s trajectory will continue downwards, and he will take the government and the Liberal Party down with it.
At some point, the Liberal leadership — despite public protestations to the contrary from all and sundry — is going to become a live commodity; at some point, Liberal MPs (or those with any brains, at any rate) will realise that the albatross around their necks is a dead weight with which they should never have saddled themselves, and at that point, the Coalition’s last real leadership prospect — Christian Porter — is going to become much better known to ordinary voters.
But whichever way you cut it, Turnbull’s election “win” in July is likely to be costly, and — without putting too fine a point on it — is likely to be a source of regret for the Coalition in the years to come.
The Liberal Party’s fine tradition of sound, astute governance is not in good hands, and could well suffer enormous damage by virtue of the fraught political circumstances in which it currently operates — just as I said in this column on 8 July.
Today’s Newspoll is just the start of a very frightening storyline. What Turnbull’s minions do about it — if anything, at least to the extent it might matter whilst the PM remains in his post — is a classic case of “believe it when you see it.”
I’m tipping that you won’t.
*Pedants will argue that the 62-60 result achieved by Bob Menzies in 1961 was an equivalent outcome, but Turnbull’s 76 of 150 seats is proportionately a wafer thinner than the Menzies win in 1961. In any case, Menzies continued to govern with a friendly Senate: something Turnbull, whatever alliances his team may strike, cannot rely on. Thus, the continuing Menzies government was a stronger one than the outfit currently charged with the government of Australia.