50/50 Newspoll Cold Comfort For Turnbull, Coalition

THE LATEST NEWSPOLL — published in The Australian today — offers no succour to Malcolm Turnbull and his government despite recording a tied result, which almost certainly masks an overall position that at best for the Coalition has stagnated; Turnbull continues to pay the price for a flat-footed and visionless campaign, and the surge in support for minor party candidates complicates the difficult task of prevailing on 2 July even further.

The timing of the latest Newspoll — coming one day after an extensive discussion of some of the issues that are driving momentum for Bill Shorten, and the apparently complete disinclination and/or inability to effectively puncture them in the Coalition bunker — is exquisite, and the result not entirely unexpected; the finding that Newspoll’s respondents are split evenly on the two-party measure is within the margin of error, heavily dependent on rounding and estimates of preference flows, and is in all likelihood a facade for the fact that the past four 51-49 results in Labor’s favour are unlikely to have changed all that much in the past fortnight — if at all.

First things first: readers can check out the coverage of Newspoll in The Australian today here and here, and the obvious point I would make is that its Canberra bureau chief, Phillip Hudson, is dead wrong when he says that not only can Labor not win an election with a primary vote of 35%, but that it needs to increase to at least (his italics) 39% to be in with a chance: the ALP under Gillard forced a hung Parliament (and formed government) in 2010 from a primary vote of 37.2%, and with the ongoing trend to a fracturing of the major parties’ primary votes, a vote gained through preference distribution is as good as one gained outright — even if it takes up to a fortnight longer to achieve the same effect.

I think if Labor scores 35% or 36% of the primary vote, in an ambivalent and disaffected public atmosphere where politics is concerned these days, it will probably win the election: the only variable will be whether it’s outright or in minority. But more on that a bit later.

This poll comes as almost all of the other reputable polls in the market are carrying leads of 51-49 or 52-48 in the ALP’s favour, and in that sense the aggregate across the lot of them probably sits bang on the 51-49 mark as best I can guesstimate; as I said yesterday, there are signs that Labor is consolidating its early leads — e’er slightly as may be — and I don’t see anything in this latest batch of Newspoll figures to contradict that.

With its respondents marking both parties down a point each on the primary vote, Newspoll finds the Coalition and Labor now sitting on 40% and 35% respectively; even though the Communist Party Greens also drop a point in this survey, to 10%, and despite a few seat-by-seat deals in Victoria that may or may not be struck by Victorian Liberal president Michael Kroger, it is likely that 75% of these Greens votes will still flow to the ALP during preference distributions (and I’m marking that down from 80% last time) and if they do, that effectively puts the parties on 42.5% each.

Another five percentage points — 3% for Nick Xenophon’s NXT group, and 1% each for Clive Palmer’s dying rabble and for One Nation — are tied up in entities that are no friends of the Coalition: Xenophon, whilst credible, leans well left of the Coalition (even under Malcolm Turnbull); the Palmer Party’s vote went a tick better than 60% to Labor last time, and what’s left of it will probably do so again; and by declaring that Pauline Hanson is “not welcome in federal politics,” Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has probably guaranteed that Hanson will do what she did when she helped kill off a series of Liberal state governments in the early 2000s (or helped bury the NSW and Queensland opposition Coalition parties in 1999 and 2001 respectively), and put the Liberals last.

Just to be a bit generous to Malcolm, let’s call this a 60-40 split of these votes to Labor: and this brings the votes up to 44.5% for the Coalition, and 45.5% for the ALP.

But when it is remembered that the “Others” vote (which in this case includes 3% for Family First) generally splits 50/50 between the major parties, this back-of-envelope preference distribution results in a 50.5% share of the two-party measure for the ALP; and given Family First made no secret of its disgusted fury at the Senate voting changes legislated earlier in the year by Turnbull — going so far as to launch a ridiculous High Court challenge that was always doomed to fail on open-and-shut constitutional grounds — Labor’s 51% results over the past two months might even be unchanged.

To some degree, the standings of the two leaders is becoming less relevant in my view (if it ever really was) and to the extent it remains so, the more important set of numbers belongs to Turnbull, whose approval falls again this time around to 37% (-1%) and his disapproval rises by the same amount to 51%, making him almost as unpopular as he was when his colleagues tossed him out of the Liberal Party leadership six and a half years ago.

Yes, Bill Shorten’s numbers are worse — approval dropping four points to 33%, and disapproval rising three points to 52% — but he remains far less on the nose than he was six months ago, when his pathetic numbers almost triggered the Labor leadership coup we alerted readers to last November, and which to that point had been stayed only by Mal Brough’s explosion as a source of poor publicity for the government.

And as disliked as I’m sure Shorten is among a wide cross-section of the electorate, the recent precedent of Tony Abbott winning an election with worse personal ratings means that anyone who believes Shorten is the Besser brick that will pull the ALP below the surface of the water on 2 July is kidding themselves.

He should be. He deserves to be. But if Labor loses, it will arguably have little to do with Shorten.

On the “preferred Prime Minister” measure, Turnbull and Shorten both drop a point, to 45% and 30% respectively: hardly a vote of confidence in either of them, with the lead enjoyed by Turnbull remaining no more than the clear but not overwhelming advantage any incumbent PM might be entitled to expect at this point in the cycle.

Cutting through the bullshit and sifting through the odd good news day for the Coalition, the (rare) lapses of discipline and focus by Labor, and the sheer lifelessness of Turnbull’s campaign, my gut instincts tell me that at the halfway point of the campaign proper, it’s the Coalition that is in the fight of its life.

To watch it and listen to it, however, you could be forgiven for thinking the election was six months ago. Apart from Turnbull’s increasingly shrill exhortations for a “decisive result” to avoid a hung Parliament, the government’s campaign exudes all the excitement of an overdose of Mogadon.

The trend picked up by Newspoll of a spike in voting intention for minor parties and Independents isn’t a new phenomenon, and it isn’t all that unusual any more; three of the past six federal elections have seen the major parties fail to collectively record more than 80% of the primary vote, and if it happens again this time, I’d be suggesting this pattern was becoming the norm rather than getting excited about it and suggesting this was some shock new departure in Australian politics.

Yet having said that, the kind of vacuously populist, economically irresponsible, deliberately misleading and downright dishonest campaigns waged by the ALP these days are one very big contributor to the fragmentation of the major party vote; the turgid, insipid, visionless and timid offerings lately turned in by the Liberal Party are another.

The old adage that voters are not stupid, and are articulate and intelligent enough to process serious and detailed policy and reform packages, is only partly correct: some people who vote in Australian elections are very stupid indeed, and I’m not talking about the partisan preferences of those whose views are of the Left. But the fact dumb, gullible voters amplify and assist in getting brainless scare campaigns to resonate more widely is no excuse for treating the rest of the electorate like incoherent dolts as well by telling them nothing of consequence.

And with both parties straying across the dividing line between each other’s traditional philosophical positions, it can be no surprise that minor parties are springing up all over the place. Readers know that I disagree violently with the notion of candidates or parties being elected with a sliver of the vote, and in this sense the Senate is an undemocratic and unrepresentative outrage in my view. But that outrage wouldn’t exist to criticise if the major parties were representative of the values they are meant to embody: and right now, jointly and severally, they are nothing of the kind.

Against this backdrop, it is generally the challenger who can expect to be favoured, rather than the proverbial “devil you know.”

This is why — with nothing concrete emanating from the Liberal Party that suggests it is capable of knocking the insidious and vapid “policy” offerings of the ALP over, with four weeks to go — I am increasingly certain Labor may indeed form a government whenever the counting of votes is finalised during the week after next month’s election.

(Despite my trenchant historical critiques of Turnbull as a leader, it is an outcome that would disgust me: the damage such a government would wreak is incalculable beyond the near-certainty that it would be economically and socially cataclysmic. But that’s another story).

The polls have now been consistent — and surprisingly uniform — for months now; the only movement that has been a constant, detected in all of them (albeit to varying degrees), has been the unfaltering downward drift of Turnbull’s personal approval numbers. It was entirely foreseeable to anyone who paid the slightest notice to Turnbull’s performance as leader in 2008-09 and to the horrific personal ratings it deservedly generated. If the government loses the coming election, moderate Liberals will have much to answer for.

A quick look around the electorates held (and likely to be retained) by Greens and Independents offers no comfort to the Coalition; Andrew Wilkie, Adam Bandt and any breakthrough Xenophon candidate in the lower house can all be expected to back Shorten in the event of any hung Parliament.

If Cathy McGowan holds on in Indi, I wouldn’t be relying on her if I were Turnbull either; if Barnaby Joyce is beaten in New England by the imbecilic Tony Windsor, the problem grows even worse for the Coalition.

The only hung Parliament I can see Turnbull prevailing in is one where the Coalition wins 75 seats and is propped up by Bob Katter — unless, of course, the National Party has already won his seat as part of that 75-seat haul. If that happens, then God knows what the outcome might be.

And if the Greens knock a couple of sitting ALP MPs out, the equation remains unchanged; Richard di Natale and Adam Bandt would not support a Coalition government if hell froze and charcoal sprouted, or even if a flock of pigs took flight in a sunrise in western skies. The only difference is that the Left’s bloc in the House might have a couple more Greens MPs and a couple less from Labor. It might make the horse trading between the two interesting, but it won’t change a thing.

As it stands, and as The Australian notes, a 50/50 result, if applied uniformly at an election, would see Labor win 14 seats from the Coalition: that reduces the government to 76 seats, and the barest of majorities. If my sense the 50/50 Newspoll result is a bit overcooked for the Coalition is correct, or if patchy voting trends rob the Coalition of another seat or two over and above those 14, the outcome is pretty obvious.

My sense is that if Labor can get to 71-72 seats on its own, the assortment of Greens and other crossbenchers will be enough to put it into government. Whether it wins in its own right or achieves the lesser milestone of forcing a hung Parliament, Bill Shorten becomes Prime Minister either way. The only way Turnbull can be re-elected is by snaring 76 of the 150 lower house seats outright for the Coalition — a task all polls suggest is becoming an increasingly difficult objective.

You really have to wonder just what the point of paying Coalition staffers is if this is the best situation they can engineer against a party that should be at least another couple of terms away from contemplating a return to office after the debacle of the Rudd-Gillard years, and against an opponent in Shorten who has been so thoroughly discredited, repeatedly, that it’s almost offensive to see him still standing politically. It’s as bad as that.

But as I have been saying for some time now, unless the message from the Coalition changes drastically — and its delivery is reworked altogether — then 2 July looms as a bad day for the Coalition, and an even worse day for the country.

If Turnbull wants to be Prime Minister as badly as the effort to seize the office in the first place might have suggested, it’s time to get the skates on.


Personal Parties Another Stain On Undemocratic Senate

WHAT PAUL KEATING colourfully — and accurately — characterised as “unrepresentative swill” is now being abused as a vehicle for personal aggrandisement and empire building by obsequious individuals with little to no public support, as a proliferation of “personal parties” are initiated by deserters from irrelevant minor parties exploiting lax registration provisions. It is merely the latest signpost to the need for an overhaul of the Senate.

No politician will ever say so — for fear of being accused of “talking down” Australia, its economy and/or our system of government — but there is a sickness affecting Australian politics which, unless something is done about it, stands to become a self-defeating affliction.

As jaded voters walk away from major parties that lose sight of their mission to govern for the majority and into the arms of microparties, which — to differentiate themselves, and to attract crucial media attention — obstruct and oppose and embark on crusades against the bigger parties, individuals, and (in Jacqui Lambie’s case) past benefactors: the effect of which is to create more chaos, contributing to the unworkability of Parliament, and making it harder for Australia to be effectively governed.

In turn, this merely fuels the disaffection and jaundiced estimation in which politics is held: and on the cycle goes as a consequence.

Now more than 30 years after the event, the Labor Party must (at least privately) rue its handiwork in 1984; the fiddle it committed upon the Senate that year — enlarging the chamber from 64 to 76 Senators, with the explicit if unspoken objective of preventing the Coalition from ever again controlling it, and thus ensuring a repeat of the events of November 1975 could never occur — is directly responsible for the fractious state in which the Senate finds itself today, and in hindsight was arguably the most anti-democratic injury inflicted upon Australia’s political system in decades — if not since Federation.

That act of political bastardry in 1984 has also proven to be a gift that keeps on giving — and not in a positive or even pleasant way.

In time past the Senate has come in for quite a lot of scrutiny in this column, culminating in an article about six months ago that outlined some ideas for overhauling it; I should make the observation that my gripe against the Senate isn’t that the Coalition doesn’t control it (it probably still wouldn’t, based on the 2010 and 2013 Senate election figures, even on the pre-1984 system) but rather that Labor’s act of bastardry has turned that chamber into little more than a sinecure for mostly irrelevant and sometimes odious individuals, often with virtually no public support, from which absolute mayhem is perpetrated under the guise of “diversity of opinion” and “inclusivity.”

It has taken time for the full consequences of Labor’s act of sabotage to fully become apparent; just as it has taken time for the major parties’ collective share of the primary vote to corrode, it has taken time for unscrupulous and sometimes power-crazed interests to work out how to game Senate elections, “harvest” preferences, distort election results, and achieve the election of people to the upper house who in reasonable circumstances would never be elected and who — on objective criteria — would never be elected on merit.

Today, however, I want to make note of the growing number of personal “parties” that are springing up, for this — just like the 1984 “reforms” to the Senate — is a symptom of the sickness afflicting Australian politics.

The idea that “a party” can qualify as “a party” under Australia’s electoral laws is a regulatory absurdity that should be immediately dispensed with; the provision that a single member of an elected chamber can automatically be accorded party status serves no other purpose than to pander to heretical miscreants who either walk out of an established party, under whose banner they were elected, or as an incentive for an MP elected as an Independent — perhaps fearful of defeat, or merely to create for themselves officially sanctioned self-importance to trade on — to call themselves something pompous in an effort to beef up their public profile for political purposes.

Yes, I’m talking about you, Jacqui Lambie, with your silly “Jacqui Lambie Network.” You too, John Madigan — DLP deserter and now the apparent leader of the “Manufacturing and Farming Party.” There is no prerequisite for these “parties” to substantiate any degree of public support whatsoever, and places them at an unfair and indefensible advantage over other obscure parties who might never win a seat, but which have nonetheless done the groundwork to at least satisfy statutory requirements that they pass a certain threshold of financial party members.

An earlier example, from a comparatively kinder and gentler time, can be found in the case of former Australian Democrats leader Meg Lees, who walked out of that party to form the “Australian Progressive Alliance;” I liked Lees, and despite disagreeing with her views politically readily acknowledge she was a far more substantial figure than virtually all of today’s crossbench Senators (and some dwelling in the major parties, just to be clear). But when the votes were tallied at the Senate election of 2004 it was clear that the only person “allied” to Lees’ crumb of a party, in round terms, was herself.

South Australian Nick Xenophon is on stronger ground, having polled a quarter of the South Australian primary vote in 2013 and almost winning enough votes to get a second Senator elected on his ticket but even this fails to pass the test in my view, for Xenophon faced voters as an Independent, not the leader of a party. When all else is said and done, it’s still a breach of faith with voters.

And whilst I have extreme objections to the fact Ricky Muir (and his half a percentage point of the vote in Victoria) sits in the Senate at all, one must at least acknowledge his Motoring Enthusiast Party was a registered entity before the obscenity of preference harvesting swept him to Canberra with negligible public support.

I’m aware that Lambie and Madigan are facing legal action from Clive Palmer and the DLP respectively, in retribution for them deserting the parties for whom they were elected; that’s another argument for another time, but I believe (and it’s a personal opinion) that the Constitution is on the side of the defectors; whether it is or not, one is prepared to suggest that Palmer’s pursuit of Lambie and fellow PUP defector Glenn Lazarus for some $9 million is ridiculous.

And whether it is or not, it still doesn’t change the fact that there is no defensible or morally justified argument that legitimises Lambie, Madigan, Xenophon, Lees before them, and others who have come and gone (and probably will again) declaring themselves “parties” on the basis of having a single seat in Parliament.

I’m sure we will be talking about this again — and not least on account of the fact that in Lambie’s case at least, the good Senator from the Apple Isle seems unable to keep her mouth shut, especially whenever the inclination to spout forth with verbal diarrhoea hits her.

But I challenge anyone to mount the counter-case that any of these so-called “parties” should be allowed to stand as such for any other reason than the defective regulations that permit them to.

What is a party? Is it a “gang of one,” as I derisively said of Lambie?

Rather than lowering the bar to enable “parties” to spring up like weeds in September, I think the relevant provisions of the Electoral Act should be changed to lift it: if you can’t expend the hard work and shoe leather, and recruit a reasonable number of grassroots supporters to your banner in the very first instance, then you shouldn’t be allowed to call yourself “a party:” and if that means parliamentary “careers” are terminated through the inability to generate publicity, so be it.

Nobody is owed a seat in Parliament simply because they want it. And nobody who already has one is entitled to hang onto it forever.

All this provision amounts to is a crutch for elected representatives to break faith with the people who elected them and — mostly — the parties whose support they relied on to achieve that election in the first place, and whilst the Constitution may or may not allow them to remain in Parliament after doing the dirty on their original supporters, the Electoral Act most certainly shouldn’t aid their endeavours to be re-elected to it.

If we’re going to talk about Senate reform at all, this is one aspect of the overall sickness that affects the chamber that can be cured relatively easily, and it should be.