Bad news for Tony Abbott and the Coalition continues today with the publishing of another poll that shows just how dramatically the Liberal and National parties have slumped since 2013’s election.
The latest poll shows the Abbott government is now a full 10 points below its election-winning vote. This is way beyond mere “out of honeymoon” blues.
The Newspoll, published in The Australian on Tuesday, puts Labor ahead of the coalition 55-45 per cent in the two-party preferred vote, a further depressing drop of two points for the coalition since the previous poll two weeks ago.
Primary support for the coalition is also down two points to 35 per cent, from 37 per cent, while Labor is up one point to 37 per cent – two points ahead of the coalition. This result would have seemed impossible in the dark days when Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd were engaged in their death struggle. It remains to be seen if Tony Abbott goes down in history as the only man capable of breathing new life into the Labor corpse which seemed crucified, dead, buried, with multiple stakes through it’s heart and then cremated such a short while ago. That they are even competitive again so soon is startling.
It’s not all good news for Labor. Outflanked on the left, the Greens have also gained three points in the primary vote – up to 13 per cent.
Voter dissatisfaction with Tony Abbott has reached the highest level since he became prime minister, 62 per cent, and is his worst personal result since November 2012, The Australian reports. With his approval rating at 31 per cent, Mr Abbott’s net approval of minus 31 points is the worst for a prime minister since Julia Gillard scored minus 34 points just days before she was replaced by Kevin Rudd in June last year, when she was widely considered to be leading the Labor Party to certain disaster. It will not have escaped Liberal and National backbenchers that Abbott now appears to be doing the same.
Whether Abbott’s vast slump into extreme unpopularity will prove enough of a motive for the hard heads in the Liberal Party to replace him with the much more moderate Malcolm Turnbull remains to be seen. We have always been of the view, even before the last election, that Turnbull would be Prime Minister before Christmas 2014. Abbott is both simply too relentlessly self-satisfied and negative to play the role of Prime Minister, a job which requires the ability to reach across the aisle to independents and natural Labor supporters to build a centrists’ coalition.
Abbot is not a conservative. He is not a “one nation” Tory. He is a radical right winger – a born-again Thatcherite, his idol in his youth. As such, he was never going to sit well in power with the essentially small-C conservative Australian public. We are seeing the hubris of Nick Minchin and others on the hard right coming home to roost. They wanted their boy – they got him up by one vote – and now he is proving to be manifestly un-re-electable. A great opposition leader doth not a great prime minister necessarily make. They might have won less big had Turnbull remained at the helm (they might have won bigger, too), but they would have won more enduringly.
Labor leader Bill Shorten has also regained a 10-point lead as better Prime Minister that he took after the budget – on 44 per cent, with Mr Abbott on 34 per cent. We do not believe he is yet “popular” – he has neither the common working man’s touch of a Bob Hawke or the swaggering certainty of a Paul Keating. But he has hardly put a foot wrong yet, revealing that he has both a good “ear” and a smart brain. His meek persona also contrasts nicely with Abbott’s arrogance.
It is well-known that Shorten wishes to keep his powder somewhat dry, and not to “knee-jerk” to every mistake or missed step from the Coalition. Thus former federal Treasurer and Deputy Prime Minister Wayne Swan played Shorten’s stalking horse yesterday when said Liberal-National Party backbenchers were too gutless to speak out against the “savage cuts” in the budget, which he sees as reflected in the Newspoll. “If they had any decency, they’d be standing up in the party room and holding the LNP to the promises they made to the people of Australia at the last election but they’re not because they’re gutless,” he told reporters in Brisbane. “There’s no spine in the LNP backbench either at the state level or the federal level. They sit back and meekly accept the savage cuts … which are going to hurt the peace of mind and welfare of families right across Australia.” You can expect to hear a lot more of that as each and every Budget action wends its way trhough the legislative process.
To be fair, Swan was probably speaking from the heart, too. As a Labor backbencher during the early 1990s, Mr Swan led a revolt against the Keating government’s unpopular post-election budget that increased taxes.
Anyhow, the next few months will be interesting indeed. From being one of the most successful Opposition leaders the Liberals have produced in a long time, Abbott may well go down as their most unsuccessful Prime Minister. A recalcitrant Senate filled with newly hopeful Labor and Green representatives is now replaced with one with even greater complexity. At first blush, the new Senate looks like a more amenable one for Abbott. But appearances can be deceiving. Clive Palmer, for example, knows full well that supine agreement with the Government – any Government – would render his populist message irrelevant. There’s no point being “anti” the establishment and then joining it, as the Australian Democrats discovered over the GST, and the Liberal Democrats in the UK and the Free Democrats in Germany can attest more recently.
We can therefore expect regular little eruptions of rebellion from Palmer and his mates, and watching his eye for publicity and gesture politics one can expect those rebellions to be on core issues, such as the politically smart agreement to scrap the unpopular carbon tax and return the dividend to ordinary voters as a reduction in household costs. And if they aren’t core issues, he will trumpet them as such, anyway. And every time he lays a glove on the Government, Abbott will not only look dumb, but weak. A terrible combination.
The essential problem that Abbott faces is that by manufacturing a financial crisis out of a structural deficit (which is not, after all, the same thing) he has critically reduced his room for manoeuvre. As a result, he is now stuck with slogging round the country telling everyone, basically, bad news, for at least the next 18 months.
He might even have pulled that off if his presentation, and that of his very lacklustre Treasurer Joe Hockey, had been less simultaneously preachily self-congratulatory and ham-fisted. But apart from his suddenly incoherent and uncertain delivery (has any senior politician anywhere in the world ever said “Er” so often?) he has also wedged himself by a serious of actions that were never going to get through the Senate, and which were guaranteed to appear mean and un-necessary.
The most obvious example is the GP co-payment, which looks and smacks like nothing more than soak the poor, and should never have been advanced in a month of Sundays. But once advanced, it was not “sold”, beyond a repeated mantra that this was somehow “for the good of the country”. Scores of worried little old ladies and the chronically ill duly queued up on talk-back radio stations of all political inclinations to tearfully ask what would become of them now they couldn’t afford to go to see their doctor. The message that the co-payment was theoretically designed to be capped at a maximum of $70 a year completely failed to cut through. Once again, the central Liberal Party message-meisters and their political puppets have been shown to be far less competent and aware than they are often painted.
(A similar problem assails the Victorian Liberal and National Parties, where two years of good financial management and the resulting announcement of the biggest-ever infrastructure spending program in the State’s history – in any State’s history, actually – is being completely overwhelmed by the unpopularity of the Abbott Government. Liberal and National Party publicists seem at a loss to know how to punch their message through. (There’s a clue in this paragraph by the way, boys.) Meanwhile Denis Napthine despairs in his eyrie and Daniel Andrews hugs himself with glee, saying very little, cheerfully waiting to fall into office. But that’s another story.)
Those surrounding Abbott need to understand this: it’s one thing to drag down an unpopular Prime Minister in whom trust has been lost. It’s quite another to sell a swingeing austerity package that very few people think is needed in the first place.
They – and he – need to lift their game very fast, or yibbidah yibbidah, that’s all folks.