YET ANOTHER POLL showing the Coalition reclaiming lost support is out this morning, with the Fairfax-Nielsen Poll showing Labor’s predictable post-budget lead halved to now stand at 53-47 after preferences; the results are in line with other polling we have been tracking, with the trend back to the government now both unmistakable and gathering pace. Nielsen also asked the “preferred leader” questions — we’ll briefly analyse these as well.
Certainly, any election at which the ALP scored 53% of the vote after preferences is — funnily enough — likely to be won by the ALP.
But as I heard one commentator remark last week, opinion polls canvass people’s views about their voting intention “if an election for the House of Representatives were to be held this weekend” and that, clearly, there is no election on foot at present (the wildest dreams of the
Communist Party Greens and the ALP notwithstanding).
It is important to remember that mid-term opinion polling is more likely to favour opposition parties generally, and that after an event of great controversy (such as the recent federal budget) that tendency will almost invariably be more emphatic.
Yet it is equally important to remember that the ALP was thrown from office in a landslide not so long ago, and whilst voters may be angry with some of the measures the Abbott government is attempting to legislate as part of its budget, Labor has offered nothing to indicate what it would do differently, and to date has paid only lipservice to any meaningful attempt to clean up its act as an organisation and as a political entity.
In other words, it should surprise nobody that the polls — from a trend perspective encompassing the major reputable surveys — are, at the very least, returning to a more neutral level.
Nielsen has recorded primary vote support for the Coalition at 39% (+4% since mid-May), with Labor on 37% (-3%), the Greens 13% (-1%), and “Others” — including the Palmer United Party — at 11% (unch). And this, as readers have already seen, translates into the 53-47 headline finding in Labor’s favour.
I have had a look through some historical data overnight (which is a good thing: my memory is formidable but it isn’t infallible, and I would have shortchanged Labor very slightly had I relied on it). The purpose of this was to check out something that has been bugging me about these post-budget polls, and ironically the primary point of the exercise was to quantify something on the Labor side rather than to defend the Liberal tally.
To look at the 26 federal elections in Australia since (and including) 1949, the Coalition has only recorded a primary vote of less than 40% once: in 1998, when the Howard government was re-elected off a primary vote of 39.6%. Even then, the 8.5% polled by One Nation at that election (largely siphoned off the Coalition’s 1996 tally) returned very strongly to Howard through preferences, which (statistically speaking) was the primary reason the government was re-elected despite trailing Labor on primaries.
By contrast, the ALP has, in the past 25 years, recorded a primary vote of more than 40% at just three of the nine elections held since the 1987 double dissolution: in 1993 (when Paul Keating was re-elected), in 1998,* and in 2007 when Kevin Rudd ended 12 years of Coalition rule.
Across the latest round of polling, Labor’s primary vote is averaging a shade better than 36%, and this latest Nielsen poll has the ALP slightly ahead of that marker. But the real reason I wanted to look at historical election numbers is to provide a counterweight to some of the wild (and perhaps understandably enthusiastic) claims of looming electoral Armageddon for the Coalition, and similarly of a smashing return to office pending for Labor.
It is very unlikely that the Coalition will record a vote of less than 40% at an election, and in the unlikely event that it were to do so, an inflated level of support for the Palmer United Party would be the logical explanation. In such an eventuality, most of those votes would flow back to the Coalition on preferences — just as the One Nation votes did in 1998, not that anyone in the conservative parties wants to acknowledge it.
Labor is a different kettle of fish altogether, and despite the residual source of guaranteed additional support in the form of Green preferences, Labor has only won an election once — in 1990 — with a vote of less than 40% (although Gillard achieved minority status in 2010 with 37.9%).
This is a critical point for the simple reason that most of the support the Coalition “lost” in the wake of the budget went to minor parties and the Greens, not directly to Labor; and whilst a poll here and a poll there has shown Labor on a vote with a “4” in front of it, the trend across surveys is a more reliable reading of this kind of research, and on that consideration begs the difference.
Hence the rationale for looking at Labor’s “average” at 36% which, incidentally, is virtually static over the five weeks since the budget, whilst the Coalition number (at about 38%) has already begun inching upwards again. It’s just another way to sift and interpreting the data in trying to get a firm read on the state of the parties, and whilst I certainly have no desire to ever see Labor hold office in Australia, I equally have no desire to present pro-Coalition arguments predicated on an erroneous interpretation of this material, which is why I’ve undertaken the historical snapshot presented here.
And having presented it — let’s get back to the rest of the Nielsen numbers.
Like every other poll since the high water marks achieved by Labor in the immediate aftermath of the budget, Nielsen finds a deterioration in the standing of opposition “leader” Bill Shorten and a corresponding improvement in the position of Prime Minister Tony Abbott; the only variation across the lot of them has been the rate and degree of the change, but the direction has been uniform — and this poll continues the trend.
Having said that, Nielsen does find Shorten to be on firmer ground than almost all of the other surveys, although this is consistent with Nielsen’s numbers for Labor generally being at the upper end of findings across the polls, which it has been more or less since that disgusting, hypocritical “misogyny” speech by Julia Gillard in late 2012.
This month, Nielsen’s results see approval for Shorten at 42% (-5%) with disapproval sitting at 41% (+2%); as Fairfax’s political analyst Mark Kenny rather triumphantly crowed in today’s papers, it sees him “enjoying” a net approval rating of +1%. It’s heroic spin to put on these findings, given any continuation of polling trends is certain to see Shorten slip back into net unpopularity where, arguably, he belongs.
(SPOILER ALERT: Special article on Bill Shorten later this week at The Red And The Blue).
Tony Abbott — as I seem to say a lot — continues to record “Tony Abbott-style” numbers in this survey, although they’re looking up slightly: 35% (+1%) of Nielsen respondents approve of his performance, and 60% (-2%) don’t. It’s nothing for Labor to crow about; the findings are typical of numbers about Abbott for years, and are not in themselves any bar to either his continued leadership of the Liberal Party or to his ability to win another election. But more on that in a moment.
The “preferred PM” measure sees Shorten (47%, -4%) continue to head Abbott (40%, unch): this is a better result for Shorten than he achieves in all of the other major opinion polls but again, the trend of a narrowing of his lead is common to all of them, and in most of the others that lead has been virtually erased.
I come back to the point I made at the outset: these numbers remain positive for Labor overall, but there’s no election this week; for those who sit in Labor shoes that’s possibly a very good thing, because by the time an election does roll around, Labor’s numbers might not be much chop at all.
This is the first poll taken in the washup from Abbott’s successful international trip; ahead lies the change in the composition of the Senate, the impact that event may or may not have on the implementation of the budget and its impact on the polls and, of course, more allegations and revelations from the Heydon Royal Commission into the union movement.
I tend to think the trend away from Labor will continue, but the rest of the year will be a volatile time in Australian politics; as ever, we will wait and see.
Very quickly, I also want to look at the results of questions Nielsen asked its respondents about who their “preferred leaders” of each of the major parties are; I think readers know I think these kinds of questions are absolute drivel, but the Nielsen numbers do warrant mention on a couple of points.
We had a look at a similar survey conducted at the beginning of the month by Morgan Research; I link that article to this because to a large degree my thoughts are the same. The findings of the two, broadly, are the same. But a few points.
Overall, Nielsen finds Malcolm Turnbull the preferred leader of the Liberal Party by a 62-30 margin; among Liberal Party supporters, however, the numbers favour Tony Abbott over Turnbull, 59-39. Just as Morgan found near-absolute unanimity of support for Turnbull over Abbott among those identifying as Labor or Greens voters, it’s a reasonable bet to assume Nielsen has uncovered precisely the same phenomenon.
The hatred of the Left for Abbott is unreasoning, unreasonable, and total. Its penchant for Malcolm Turnbull is similarly unified. Yet the Left can love Malcolm all they like, but they would mostly never vote for him, and this survey once again shows why any fool in the Liberal bunker who sought to draft Turnbull as a “messiah” would be engineering the party’s likely death warrant.
More useful conclusions might be gleaned from Nielsen’s questions over the preferred leadership of the ALP, however; at the headline, Shorten (25%) is found to be preferred over Anthony Albanese (19%) and Tanya Plibersek (17%).
The numbers for the trio in the Morgan survey were 32%, 13% and 16% respectively.
I made the point in my piece on the Morgan findings that the combined numbers for Albanese and Plibersek were almost on par with the support Morgan found for Shorten; in the case of this Nielsen poll, the aggregate of Albanese/Plibersek support is well ahead of that for Shorten.
It might sound like a marginal argument, but I actually think the deterioration in Shorten’s position as “leader” is accelerating more quickly on his own side of the divide than it is in a head-to-head with Abbott and the Liberal Party.
Despite my aversion to this kind of polling some additional research on the question would be useful in either supporting the deduction or to scotch it, but whether Labor wins an election any time soon is one thing; whether Bill Shorten ever becomes Prime Minister is an entirely different proposition altogether, and in my mind the two are mutually exclusive.
As indicated in the body text of this article, I will be writing on Bill Shorten later this week; I can’t commit a precise date on account of various other activities I know are on my slate this week, but I do encourage readers to keep an eye out for it.
It will address the question of Shorten and his “leadership,” and I trust it will prove most illuminating.
*In 1998, the ALP polled primary votes totalling 40.1% of votes cast: the “slight shortchanging” my reliance on memory would have rendered, if unchecked, would still have been to note Labor won the primary vote, but at a level of 39.9% (which for some reason sprang instantly to mind when I considered the respective support for the parties at that election).