Post-Beattie, Pre-Debate, Coalition Leads 52-48: Newspoll

KEVIN RUDD seems almost out of magic bullets; after recruiting former Queensland Premier Peter Beattie to his cause the latest Newspoll has found his government continuing to languish, and in the wash-up from a tepid debate performance against Tony Abbott, Labor’s fate may well be sealed.

If it isn’t over until the fat lady sings — to coin an old phrase most recently popularised by former Richmond premiership player and 3AW football caller Rex Hunt — then she must be down in the basement, warming up her vocal cords, and readying to burst into melody.

After a week that has seen Kevin Rudd’s — and Labor’s — grip on this election slip dangerously, two big opportunities for Rudd have passed with it: the recruitment of Peter Beattie to stand in the marginal Liberal seat of Forde in Brisbane, and last night’s leaders’ debate hosted by the ABC.

Whilst the effect of the debate remains to be seen (although we will discuss this later), Newspoll has had its researchers in the field over the weekend, and following the Beattie announcement — and its findings make for sobering reading for those of ALP inclination.

The Newspoll for today’s issue of The Australian finds voter sentiment unchanged on a two-party basis from the last survey a week ago, with the Coalition continuing to head Labor, 52-48, on the two-party measure.

That measure is about as good as it gets for Labor here; we’ll run through some figures, and then I want to talk about this result in the context of last night’s debate as well.

Newspoll finds the Coalition primary vote sitting on 46% (+2%); the ALP on 35% (-2%); Greens on 11% (+2%) and “Others” on 8% (-2%).

These numbers are close to disastrous for the ALP, despite the two-party shakeout; the figure of 35% is little better than Labor’s support just before Julia Gillard was dumped.

If we look to the “underlying primary” calculation I sometimes use to strip the Greens’ vote out of what is always a two-way overall contest, those primary votes look more like 49% to the Coalition cf. 43% to Labor; viewed this way — and remembering “Others” almost always split 50-50 — Newspoll’s two-party figure is probably a sliver of a point off having been rounded to 53-47 instead of 52-48.

A new ReachTel poll over the weekend did find a 53-47 result for the Coalition, which was out from 52-48 in its previous survey; we will see what comes through this week from the other polls, but it is suggestive of the gradual drift back toward the Coalition that we have seen over the past few weeks after the peak in ALP support.

So if we split the difference — and call it 52.5% after preferences to the Coalition — this equates to a net gain of 12 seats, an 84-66 seat win, and an overall majority of 18 seats.

Newspoll, however, gets worse for Labor this week.

It finds Kevin Rudd’s personal approval rating up one point to 39%, but his disapproval number up one point too, to 48% — Rudd’s rating on this measure is settling far enough in net negative territory to be a concern, and with relatively few undecideds left to target.

Tony Abbott, on the other hand, sees his approval number rise to 38% (+4%) and his disapproval figure down to 52% (-4%); it suggests that with the election campaign underway people are now starting to look more closely at Abbott’s actual performance as opposed to listening to what the loudest voices — Labor’s — have been saying about him.

Significantly, these movements also mean that Rudd is now only negligibly more popular than Abbott, which calls into question the entire rationale for restoring him to the Labor Party leadership in the first place.

Newspoll’s “preferred Prime Minister” numbers underline the contention even further, with Rudd down a point to 46%, still leading Abbott, who nonetheless picks up four points on the measure to sit at 37%.

It seems — taking this poll, the ReachTel survey I alluded to, and the other polling we’ve seen over the past fortnight — that the Coalition is almost the certainty to win this election again that it has been regarded as for most (if not all) of the current term of Parliament.

It’s also fairly clear that the parachuting of Beattie into a key marginal seat in Brisbane has had negligible (if any) positive impact on Labor’s fortunes — and Beattie, like Rudd, was probably more likely to deliver a “sugar hit” that would wear off than a sustained, slow burn of incrementally increasing voter support.

And even then, I never expected it to make any difference south of the Tweed.

This brings us to last night’s leaders’ debate.

For mine, I think the encounter was decisively won by Abbott; that assessment is not born of my membership of the Liberal Party (although I’m happy that the two coincide) but rather of the fact that Rudd was nigh well hopeless.

It appears he flagrantly breached the agreed rules for the debate by bringing and speaking from prepared notes, when none were permitted; it’s the type of poor form I would expect of Rudd, but even with that advantage his effort was nonetheless dismal.

I’m not saying Abbott’s was a faultless performance, mind; yet it was simple, to the point, clear, and to my mind a concise appeal for support in the face of ample reason not to support the ALP (that Abbott — wisely — opted not to get bogged down in the detail of).

By contrast, Rudd presented as flustered, nervous, and restive; his body language was appalling (just what was he doing with all those hand gestures?) and more than once — when nailed by Abbott on a point — he looked like he might jump across the set and try to punch Abbott on the jaw.

(Not that he would have got very far against the one-time Oxford boxing champion).

If scare campaigns on the GST, cuts to the health and education budgets, and adherence to the now-discredited $70 billion Abbott “black hole” story are discounted from Rudd’s utterances last night, he didn’t actually say much — and what he did say was mostly the hyperbolic, meaningless spin voters are becoming reaccustomed to hearing from him.

His insistence on trying to run scare campaigns — mostly over a rise in the GST — at irrelevant points in the debate, and especially on issues Abbott explicitly ruled out, made Rudd appear petulant and ill-prepared.

About the only issue Rudd was cogent on was gay marriage, which is ironic given he only recently reversed a long-standing personal opposition to the legalisation of the measure.

Yet I am a cynic, and with no disrespect intended to gay people, I think Rudd is using them on this; it’s an attempt to wedge Abbott, and it’s a screen to hide behind and try to distract attention from his (and Labor’s) litany of more meaningful failures over six years in government.

And whilst the question of who won the debate has been met with mixed answers depending on who you listen to, it’s probably telling that the Nine Network’s political correspondent, the respected veteran journalist Laurie Oakes, overrode his network’s “worm” to declare that Abbott had, in his view, won the debate.

(A note on the “worm:” either get rid of it from these debates altogether, or stop recruiting university students to fill the role of “panellists.” My preference is to get rid of it — it’s a dumb idea from the 1990s that is thoroughly unrepresentative, and past its expiry date).

All of this brings us back to the polls.

It remains to be seen what happens from here, but I tend to think that if the next round of polls — those whose research is undertaken after last night — fails to show any gains for the ALP, then the election is as good as over.

The one qualifier to that call is of course the perennial possibility of a colossal gaffe being committed by the Liberals; anything is possible — even if unlikely in this case, given the iron discipline with which the Coalition has conducted itself over the past three years.

The point is that time is running out for Labor, and its leader would appear to be just about out of magic bullets — if, indeed, he has any left at all.

That fat lady must just about be through her warm up routine, and almost ready to sing.

“A New Way:” Beattie To Canberra; Cain, Bannon To Follow

THIS IDEA is that bad: recycling old ALP warhorses signals desperation, not strength; if Peter Beattie is Kevin Rudd’s idea of “A New Way,” John Cain and John Bannon — even Brian Burke — must surely follow. Labor is desperate; but if it wins, Beattie would replace Rudd, not serve under him.

Sarcasm aside, news yesterday that former Queensland Premier Peter Beattie is to stand for election in the seat of Forde would be hilarious if received in jest, not earnest.

30 days prior to a federal election, the former Premier is to stand in an electorate he admits he has little knowledge of, despite 18 years in state politics and nine as Premier.

It comes “a few days” after a phone call between Beattie and Rudd, in which the pair say they agreed to put aside their notorious (and acrimonious) differences for the good of the ALP, with Beattie dripping endorsements of Rudd all over his media coverage yesterday.

And it began with Beattie flying into Australia yesterday morning after a protracted stay overseas, moving directly into his brother’s house in the Forde electorate — presumably to afford the cover of being “a local.”

Hardly an auspicious start.

Labor is desperate to win the September election; as we have spoken about many a time, the imperative to keep bums in ministerial leather and the party connected to the levers of power — not least, to dispense patronage and favours to its union masters — transcends every other consideration.

It follows, therefore, that Beattie isn’t simply making up the numbers.

It is unlikely his presence will garner the ALP a single vote south of the Tweed River; as Queensland Premier he enjoyed modest recognition outside his home state, but no more.

Yet it provides clarity on two points: one, that the ALP knows it is going to suffer a belting in the southern states; and two, that its rhetoric about needing to win seats in Queensland is forged in all seriousness — and that that enterprise is progressing far less successfully than the party is acknowledging publicly.

The first question is whether Beattie can even win in Forde: a traditionally marginal seat, it has been won by the government party at every election since 1987, except 2010.

Held by the Liberal Party on a slender 1.6% margin it may be, but it also typifies the outer metropolitan mortgage-belt electorates populated by working class and lower middle class families that, anecdotally, are swinging against Labor in all capital cities.

Assuming he clears that hurdle — and it’s a not-insubstantial “if” — the next question is whether Beattie can lift the statewide ALP vote in Queensland by two or three points.

In short, it’s doubtful — Beattie quit as Premier with reasonable approval numbers. But his legacy only became evident on the watch of his successor, Anna Bligh, whose government was ultimately flung from office in an avalanche: its public service bloated and inefficient, its health system dysfunctional, and the state virtually bankrupted.

Labor has been trying to harness dissatisfaction with Campbell Newman’s conservative government in Queensland to drum up a fear campaign about “cuts to the bone” that might ┬ábe replicated under a conservative government in Canberra.

But Newman is attempting to repair the damage done by his Labor predecessors, and to knock Queensland back into economic shape — something Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey are likely to be required to do federally in the near future.

Beattie, by contrast, is simply a former Premier who won four elections but jumped out of the coop before the chickens came home to roost.

In exactly what degree of esteem he is now held will become evident soon enough.

Either way, the only federal election in the past 30 years at which state factors can conclusively be said to have had an impact was in 1990, when Victorian voters delivered nine additional seats to the Liberals on the back of mismanagement of the state by the government of John Cain — and even then, the effect was confined to Victoria (Bob Hawke and the ALP were, of course, narrowly re-elected to a fourth term on that occasion).

The economic evils of Cain and his successor, Joan Kirner, make the alleged misdeeds of Newman’s government pale into insignificance.

I have never thought Labor would win this federal election; not under Julia Gillard, not under Rudd, and certainly not now simply on account of a former Labor golden boy in Beattie throwing his hat into the ring.

Were it so straightforward, Cain and the equally disgraced Bannon — or even the smooth-talking miscreant Brian Burke — would indeed be standing for Labor this year as well.

I’ve been asked about possible Labor gains in Queensland (as an ex-Queenslander) since the election was called last week; until today, I didn’t think there would be any.

Beattie might win Forde; might. Even on that count, I’m sceptical. But were he to do so, that would be about the extent of it, and Labor certainly won’t pick up the six to eight extra Queensland seats it has been rattling on about, or anything approaching that.

The whole “Beattie for Canberra” thing just doesn’t add up at first glance; there is seemingly little or no reason for Beattie to even countenance it — especially given his wife is known to oppose his return to politics.

He has joked about a “death in the family” — his — should he ever re-enter the fray too often not to expect his wife’s hostility to the move to be taken at face value.

He is also 60 years old, which is not a noted age for federal politicians to be embarking anew on long and/or successful careers.

And this all points to a broader motive underpinning it.

It is no secret that Kevin Rudd continues to be reviled by a large cross-section of the ALP party room, as well by at least some of his staff; to compound this, he has declared war on the party’s vested interests with his proposed leadership election reforms — a package the unions, and Labor’s NSW branch in particular, will never allow to stand.

In the highly unlikely event of a Labor election win, Rudd is an odds-on certainty to be executed — again — in another brutal and ruthless coup by the same faceless forces that engineered his demise in 2010.

It may be as prosaic as Rudd having decided Beattie would be the least worst contender to replace him, and — in counterbalance to his rival Bill Shorten, who has form in coups against Labor leaders — opted to maximise the prospect of someone other than Shorten emerging victorious from such a coup if, indeed, it eventuates.

Beattie isn’t going to Canberra to sit quietly on the backbench; that is a given.

He’s probably not too interested in the good burghers of Forde either, the truth be told.

But the bottom line for voters — in Queensland and the rest of the country — is that the Beattie announcement changes nothing in terms of the 7 September election.

If Labor loses, it won’t matter a can of beans whether Beattie wins Forde or not.

If Labor wins, nobody should be surprised when Rudd takes another leadership bullet.

It’s at that point — assuming he wins his seat — that yesterday’s dramatic return by Beattie might actually mean something.

But in the final analysis, none of this gives credibility to Rudd’s theme of “A New Way,” and it’s that message — if any — that will resonate around the country.

Public Transport in Brisbane…Grrr…

I’m in Brisbane on a short visit at present and I can’t let my experiences on the suburban trains today go unheralded.

The first thing of note was the sign at Central, saying return train fares are no longer sold – fair enough, I thought, but one could always buy a return ticket when I lived here.

Next came the shock – the sheer usury of the ticket prices. I took two trips today – one to Indooroopilly and one to Toowong, both from Central (for the uninitiated, six stops and four stops respectively). The first ultimately cost $9.20 return (after buying a ticket back at the other end); the other $7.80.

And we complain about fares in Melbourne! We have a bargain basement regime weighed against this.

Taking the escalator from the concourse at Central to the platform, I was struck by how grimy, dingy and neglected the whole place looked. OK, so it’s a train station and a public place, but it made Flinders Street, in its notorious state of disrepair, look like a palace by comparison.

Toowong station was even worse, and looked like it hadn’t had a cent spent on its maintenance since I last took a train from there ten years ago.

But back to Central. As the first train went by whilst I waited for my train to Indooroopilly, I noticed a grotesquely crass piece of spin that made anything from our recently-departed Bracks/Brumby government pale by comparison: the carriages were emblazoned “No. 12 of 64 new trains for SEQ,” replete with Queensland Government logo. How nauseating.

Once aboard the newish train that arrived to take me to Indooroopilly, I saw the filth, the ripped velour on the seats, the carpet on the floor of the carriage that was worn through and which had had an appalling attempt at a patch job done on it with ducting tape and what appeared to be Nikko pen to try to match the background colour.

The other three train trips were on equally or more neglected trains; in total all four carriages I travelled on had faulty doors that had been locked and sealed with tape.

And does Queensland Rail pay cleaners? The amount of half-eaten food liberally strewn around the trains, food wrappers, old newspapers and – in one case – what looked like a piece of “utilised” toilet paper, was a disgrace.

Indeed, on the train from Toowong tonight on the way back to my hotel, one fellow passenger noted aloud that the carriage smelt “like spew.” Quite.

Add in the surly attitude I was given by the station staff at Central, the disrepair evident in stations I passed along the way, and even the noxious “Doors closing, please stand clear” recording I’d happily long forgotten ever existed until today, and I can see that travelling by train in Brisbane must incense the unfortunate inhabitants forced to endure it.

I thought the standards on the Melbourne metropolitan train network had fallen far during the eleven years of Labor government in Victoria. The standards would need to fall far further to reach the level of those in Brisbane.

Yes, I took two shortish trips on one of seven suburban train lines: how representative is that? My answer is what is routinely thrown at me by friends who still live in Brisbane and don’t like what they find on visits to Melbourne.

And that is simply that as a visitor in Brisbane, my impressions count, as do those of any visitor. That public interfaces like its trains are opportunities to sell a destination or tarnish perceptions of it. And they are a reflection on those who provide services, in this case the Queensland state government.

Public transport is a modern hot-button issue electorally on so many levels. I left Brisbane at about the time Peter Beattie was becoming Premier of Queensland and would be lucky to have spent a month in total in Queensland in the 13 or 14 years since I headed south.

All I can say is that if the Beattie/Bligh government has applied itself as assiduously and as competently to other aspects of its jurisdiction as it apparently has to Brisbane’s trains, then it is small wonder Queenslanders have been looking for a reason to throw it from office – a reason that the conservatives, for so long until very recently, have been unable or unwilling to provide.

An old mate today asked me what I thought would happen at the looming Queensland state election in light of Anna Bligh’s flood boost and the unorthodox arrangements being undertaken by the LNP.

I said that I thought Campbell Newman would win in a canter in Queensland. The swing in Ashgrove will be nearly double that required to take the seat, and whilst I don’t go along with current polls predicting the ALP being left with as few as 10 of 89 seats, I think a nett loss of some 25 to 30 seats is what the ALP can look forward to in the none-too-distant future.

Based on what I’ve seen today, it’s no wonder the natives are angry. And waiting on their balconies with the baseball bats.