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National Affairs

The Coalition’s deck-chair question

31 March 2017

Who will lead the government to near-certain defeat at the next federal election?


Uncomfortable times: prime minister Malcolm Turnbull (centre), immigration minister Peter Dutton (top left) and treasurer Scott Morrison leaving the House of Representatives after question time on 22 March. Sam Mooy/AAP Image

Uncomfortable times: prime minister Malcolm Turnbull (centre), immigration minister Peter Dutton (top left) and treasurer Scott Morrison leaving the House of Representatives after question time on 22 March. Sam Mooy/AAP Image

It’s difficult to imagine anything other than a comfortable change of government at the next federal election.

This judgement is not greatly influenced by the recent result in Western Australia, where a huge two-party-preferred swing to Labor delivered it almost 70 per cent of Legislative Assembly seats. Despite the inevitable scramble to draw federal meaning from state outcomes, and the routine overlaying of state results onto federal boundaries, the record shows that one does not portend the other, except on random occasions.

The reason we should expect Labor to win the next election – gather around everyone, take notes – is the opinion poll figures. Stretching back almost to the last election, they have had the opposition consistently and comfortably ahead, recently by large amounts, and most often these days by about 6 per cent.

Forget the “you can’t trust polls these days – remember Brexit and Trump” narrative; surveys for those events were not one-sided by such large margins for as long as this. Rather, more polls were being taken in both cases, which gave an illusion of assuredness.

It is true that federal governments have come back from deficits of this magnitude before, but not such dug-in ones. And, yes, with ever-depleting voter loyalty to major parties, the size of the comebacks has grown over the decades. Paul Keating’s return in 1992–93 seemed unprecedented at the time, and so did John Howard’s in 2001. Even Labor’s thumping loss in 2013 represented a discernible improvement from its polling over that term.

With low support for the big parties, a question mark sits over pollsters’ two-party-preferred estimates. In particular, allocating One Nation preferences as they flowed at last year’s election probably understates Coalition support, both because the minor party’s how-to-vote cards were unusually Labor-friendly (overall) in July last year, and because One Nation is unlikely to receive the high vote recent opinion polls have suggested. (This is the usual fate of minor parties deemed sufficiently competitive to be included in pollsters’ “Which of these parties will get your first preference?” list.)

But that’s a small question mark, potentially making a difference of, perhaps, 1 per cent of the two-party-preferred vote, not nearly enough to rescue this government. Its die is cast. It is on the way out.

But what about the drivers of that result? Why is it likely to happen?

We all view political contests primarily through the opinion polls, and then through the politicians’, reporters’ and commentators’ views and behaviour, which are also largely determined by the polls. Judgements about political nous and connections with the concerns of middle Australia are formed through the polls, and often rewritten in light of new ones.

In my opinion, the Labor opposition deserves some credit for the poll figures, but not too much. Bill Shorten might come across as unconvincing and insincere, but at least he’s generally not scary, which is most important in an opposition leader. Strategically, the party is enjoying its mojo, although it remains susceptible to getting trapped in the moment: currently, for example, some Labor figures give the impression they believe popular support for retaining 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act will carry them to office.

“Mediscare” in the final weeks of the 2016 campaign was a stroke of genius, but the little-mentioned key component was the central role of Bob Hawke who, more than any other living former prime minister, retains credibility in the electorate – much more than in his final years in office.

My two cents’ worth is that the post-2008 economy – sluggish growth, widespread insecurity and stubbornly low government revenue – makes governing difficult today, and that in this country the ferociousness of partisan politics and a powerful Senate, with swelling crossbenches, renders it all but impossible.

Little that is contentious can be legislated, and consequently governments don’t get to experience that authority-building dynamic of forcing unpopular change that voters eventually, retrospectively, often through gritted teeth, approve of. Instead, Malcolm Turnbull, like Tony Abbott, is accused of lacking the will for reform, and of standing for nothing.

The Liberal Party will roll Turnbull before the term is out, probably by year’s end. The question on not too many lips is: could a restoration of Abbott as prime minister save the government?

Tony quite evidently thinks so, and a small handful in the Coalition party room probably agree. Opinion polls show him favoured to lead the Liberal Party by 10 per cent or a bit less of the voting population; which is about a million and a half Australians, and many, perhaps a majority, of those would believe he’d have a good chance of taking the party to victory.

Given his toxicity in voterland – the horror with which the huge majority of Australians would greet even the prospect of a hint of his return – the idea seems bizarre. From 2011 to 2013, ousted Labor prime minister Kevin Rudd undermined his leader by flirting with the electorate at large, whose demands for his restoration eventually forced a majority of caucus members to act. Abbott, by contrast, only flutters his eyelids at that tiny section of the community, the Coalition base, because no one else is remotely susceptible to his charms. But presumably he receives encouragement from true believers in the street and at airports and via email; it only takes a few.

The argument for an Abbott restoration is straightforward: he knows how to defeat Labor. Remember what he did to Rudd, then Julia Gillard. A ferocious political animal, he was never popular but he was devastatingly effective. A 2.6 per cent swing in 2010 that almost got the Coalition into office, then another 3.6 per cent three years later to deliver smashing victory. No opposition leader had achieved anything like that since Gough Whitlam (in 1969 and 1972).

My view is that an Abbott restoration would be disastrous for the government’s chances, and he’d lead them to monumental defeat (remember Whitlam in 1975 and 1977). He’d probably do even worse than that current favourite to replace Turnbull, Peter Dutton.

If it were up to voters, Julie Bishop would be next off the rank, but internal dynamics dictate that Turnbull’s successor must be from the party’s right. That seems to mean Dutton, or Scott Morrison or Abbott. The polls say that Abbott is screamingly popular compared to the other two, and Turnbull is preferred to any of them.  

Public confidence in the political process is set to get a whole lot worse. •

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Limited avenues: prime minister Malcolm Turnbull announcing the replacement of the 457 visa programlast week. Lukas Coch/AAP Image

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