Paul Bongiorno
Liberals beauty pageant of preferred leaders

In the trade, if we can call politics a trade, they call them beauty contests. That’s when pollsters get up to the mischief of asking voters who they would prefer to lead either of the major political parties. Probably excited by the launch of their new Ipsos poll, the Fairfax papers headlined the rise of Foreign Minister Julie Bishop to parity with Tony Abbott. But there are other results in the poll that throw just as much if not more light on what’s happening.

In the governing Liberal Party, the much-preferred leader as far as the nation is concerned is Malcolm Turnbull. He is 15 points clear of both the prime minister and the foreign minister, and has been in that position consistently since he was rolled by one vote in the party room five years ago. His refusal to walk away from an emissions trading scheme to deal with climate change was the immediate cause of his defeat. But it runs deeper than that. He enraged hardline conservative MPs and still does. The Ipsos poll found Coalition voters (41-24 per cent) share that antipathy, preferring Abbott at the helm.

But politics is a fickle business. One senior Labor politician, still carrying the scars of the Rudd–Gillard showdowns, says the Liberals may well return to Malcolm Turnbull, “if they get to be as desperate as we were in the run-up to the last election. Many of us hated Rudd but that didn’t stop us going back to him.” Indeed, few doubt Labor’s better showing than the opinion polls were tracking through 2013 can be attributed to the Kevin Rudd resurrection. Rudd himself certainly thinks so. In this scenario, ditching Abbott for Bishop would not make sense. The whole idea is to attract back to the Liberals those who have deserted to Labor or the Greens, and Turnbull is the overwhelming favourite with this group.

Opinion polls this far out from the election do not point to who is likely to win in 2016 but they do give a good indication on how the parties are travelling. The Coalition has been trailing since last December, just four months after it took power. And despite the first Fairfax Ipsos poll showing a virtual lineball result (51-49 per cent, with Labor a nose in front), the latest Newspoll and Morgan had a blowout Labor’s way (54-46 per cent).

There is a view in Labor that if Abbott is in this position after three months of intense focus on national security, it is difficult to see him clawing back more support in the future. In the meantime, Turnbull’s popularity has survived paranoia in the prime minister’s office. Although he would dearly love to be given Treasury, replacing a politically ailing Joe Hockey (8 per cent in the poll), that will never happen. He will be left in Communications with tasks that must stick in his craw, such as waging war on the ABC and defending the government’s intrusion into what citizens are doing in their private time on the internet. As a cabinet minister, of course, he also has to bite his tongue every time he’s asked about climate change and Direct Action. Remember he once slammed it “as a recipe for fiscal recklessness on a grand scale”.

Rolling a first-term prime minister as Labor did with Rudd, or a first-term premier, as the Liberals did in Victoria with Ted Baillieu, is no sure-fire recipe for success. It puts up in lights the fact that the government the voters turned to has failed in the judgement of its own members. Better to try to regroup. Here Abbott so far, apart from flicking the switch to terror, seems to be making that task even harder for himself.

Former Howard government minister Peter Reith spelt it out in the Fairfax papers: “We are now encouraged to think that the formerly risk averse Abbott agenda will soon have a touch of the ‘crazy brave’ and will include reform of the federation, tax reform, more budget cuts, pension reforms and labour market reform.” And on cue the prime minister told The Australian the Medicare co-payment and deregulation of university fees would be part of Australia’s formal pledges at the upcoming G20 summit. More than that, these would continue into next year’s May budget along with other “reforms” to public services.

His government has failed to persuade voters and the senate any of this is necessary or a good idea. Christopher Pyne’s moves to allow universities to set their own fees are rejected by two-thirds of Australians, according to Ipsos. Labor has seized on this botched reform, much in the same way as the Abbott opposition seized on the bungled mining tax. Bill Shorten is already starring in a TV campaign pledging to fight “$100,000 degrees”. The punchline: “A degree shouldn’t be a debt sentence.” Labor’s own research clearly dovetails with the published polls. At the Whitlam state memorial service, any mention of his free universities drew huge applause. Shorten, though, is certainly not planning to go back there.

Reith was a significant player in John Hewson’s GST, which went down in flames at the 1993 election. He is warning the prime minister to steer well clear. He writes, “Even if reduced income tax rates were persuasive (which I doubt), the broadening of the GST base could be pretty lethal in an election campaign.” The Ipsos poll supports this view: a majority 52 per cent oppose a rise in the tax, even if it is coupled with income tax cuts. The Howard government’s near-death experience in the 1998 GST election adds weight to this Reith conclusion: “Any increase of the GST would be a huge fight; it is just about certain it would lose seats for the Coalition and be a major barrier for the return of the Abbott government.”

There is a lot of relativity in politics but the other star performer in the Ipsos beauty contest was Labor’s Bill Shorten. No doubt the poor performance of Abbott and his government is a factor, but it is not all. Shorten has kicked well clear of his opponent in the post-election leadership ballot, Anthony Albanese (30-18 per cent). Labor’s united front and, ironically, the Rudd reforms that make it virtually impossible to dump a parliamentary leader between elections are just as important. Apart from a curious outbreak criticising national security laws that he voted for without public demur, Albo, as he’s known, has been faultlessly supportive. But more to the point Shorten has not given him or anyone else reason to challenge for the good of the party. Under Shorten, Labor has led in 13 consecutive Newspolls, something not seen since the Rudd dominance.

It is extraordinary that someone who has been in the parliament only seven years is lineball with Tony Abbott as preferred PM in Newspoll, and has a net approval rating higher than the prime minister’s, though both are in negative territory. At a similar stage of their first terms in the top job, Howard and Rudd were about 20 points ahead of their opponents.

Shorten knows he’s very much a work in progress, but he is showing an ability to play issues. In lockstep with the government on national security, he has still astutely read the mood of concern on overreach in recent weeks. The opposition was able to portray itself as winning more oversight and accountability of security agencies.

During the week he claimed vindication when Abbott finally came around to doing something more substantial on the Ebola crisis in West Africa. Labor began running on the issue six weeks ago. Australia’s belated willingness to get involved by funding a 100-bed Ebola treatment unit in Sierra Leone and support for health volunteers was welcomed as “heeding Labor’s advice”.

But the prime minister is certainly ignoring Labor’s advice on how best to deal with climate change. Rather than be spooked out of pricing carbon after the repeal of the carbon tax, Shorten has nailed his colours to the mast and will take it to the next election. He says, “Labor is the only party fighting for effective and efficient climate change policy – and we will keep fighting. We support an emissions trading scheme. It’s the policy the scientific experts and the economists agree with.”

The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change powerfully put that issue back in the headlines with its synthesis report this week: “The world must stop almost all greenhouse gas emissions through a phased elimination of fossil fuels by 2100 if we are to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.”

Those impacts are already being felt: more and longer heatwaves, prolonged bushfire seasons, more and fiercer storms and cyclones. They have the potency to turn public opinion, much as the severe drought did in the run-up to the 2007 election. Then a reluctant John Howard was forced to take to that campaign a world-leading carbon pricing mechanism.

Abbott once described himself as a weather vane on the issue, but has left himself no room to swing in another direction with any credibility. The popular Turnbull is ready to come to the aid of the party, an offer likely to be rebuffed. Shorten’s long run of opinion polling ascendancy may just translate into a surprising victory in the only poll that counts.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 8, 2014 as "Malcolm Turnbull, beauty queen".

A free press is one you pay for. Now is the time to subscribe.

Paul Bongiorno is a columnist for The Saturday Paper and a 30-year veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery.

Sharing credit ×

Share this article, without restrictions.

You’ve shared all of your credits for this month. They will refresh on September 1. If you would like to share more, you can buy a gift subscription for a friend.