Opinion

Paul Bongiorno
Liberals clutch at straw polls in the wind

No one will be watching Saturday’s New South Wales election more nervously than Tony Abbott. The prime minister has worn the defeat of two first-term Coalition state governments this year like an albatross around his neck. Labor’s campaign material in those two elections used his visage to help scare voters away from brand Liberal. They are doing it again but without any real confidence it is working.

It’s not for want of trying. Labor has been pushing hard the line that voters will get double bang for their buck if they vote against the Baird Liberals: no electricity asset selloff and Abbott’s scalp at his next party room meeting. Labor hopes a bad result in Sydney would persuade already nervous Liberals in Canberra that the prime minister’s political toxicity is electorally fatal and being a first-term government won’t save them from a very unpopular leader.

One senior federal Labor strategist says the problem with this theory is voters’ hatred of Abbott doesn’t outweigh their liking of Mike Baird. He believes the premier will suffer a much smaller swing against him than was looking likely just a couple of weeks ago. If that saves Abbott’s skin, he says, so much the better. Baird is Australia’s most popular political leader, with approval up around 60 per cent in the polls. Abbott is Australia’s least popular leader, with an approval of just 29 per cent in the latest Newspoll. What’s bad for Labor at the state level is good for them federally.

A handsome Baird victory would show how important it is to have a government leader who people trust, even if they don’t like his key policy proposal. The published opinion polls in NSW show a majority are against privatisation but they seem to dislike the Labor alternative more. Credibility is the currency of successful political leadership. Baird appears to have it in spades; Abbott is running on empty. Unlike his state colleague, he took easy options to the electorate only to ditch them at the first opportunity after the poll.

But a Baird win would be something else, too: a huge endorsement of the style of politics that Malcolm Turnbull describes as the “sensible centre”. Baird comes from the moderate wing of the Liberals, a faction locked in internecine battles with Abbott’s conservatives for years. His father, Bruce, was a minister in the Greiner state Liberal government whose career nosedived when he went to Canberra. Baird snr was one of the Liberals who showed great political courage in rejecting John Howard’s hardline policy on refugees. That policy, of course, was the last straw for former prime minister Malcolm Fraser.

Fraser was honoured with a state funeral on Friday. In December 2009 he quit the party of which he had been a member for 60 years and leader for eight, seven of those as prime minister. The defeat of the moderate Turnbull by Abbott in a leadership coup persuaded him the party’s lurch to the right was irretrievable. He said at the time the party was no longer liberal but conservative and unrecognisable as the party of Menzies.

In parliament the prime minister tried to bury the hatchet with the memory of his illustrious predecessor. He said the challenge for Liberals was “to be more magnanimous in his death than we were in his life and to acknowledge this giant who is surely one of us”. Fraser was fiscally conservative and, as former prime minister Howard noted, he led a competent government that restored a sense of stability. He left it to others to draw comparisons with the current version of the brand.

Fraser was no right-wing ideologue. He was socially inclusive and implemented many of the policies championed by Labor’s Gough Whitlam in the areas of land rights, race relations and accountability.

Almost to his dying day Fraser kept up his trenchant criticism of the bipartisan policy of offshore detention of refugees. Just four months ago, he savaged new laws that then immigration minister Scott Morrison pushed through the senate; laws too draconian even for the Labor party. He warned that Australia would be known around the world as the most inhumane, the most uncaring and most selfish of wealthy countries.

Abbott’s instincts in this area sadly add weight to Fraser’s uncompromising assessment. On Radio 2GB the prime minister was asked about the Moss review findings of sexual and physical assaults on women and children on Nauru. He said “things happen” – a tidier version of the “shit happens” comment he made three years ago when speaking about the death of an Australian Digger in Afghanistan. Five days later, the penny had dropped and he told parliament it is “appalling and reprehensible”. He said Australia was working with Nauru to ensure, “this kind of thing … [is] punished and that it never happens again”.

Last month Fraser came to the defence of the Human Rights Commission president, Gillian Triggs, when Abbott said his government had lost confidence in her. Fraser told ABC Radio it is Abbott who should resign rather than the respected lawyer. Indeed, a trawl through the former prime minister’s Twitter account shows he was keen for his followers to be aware of news commentary critical of the prime minister. But if he was hoping his old party would sack his successor, or that the current PM would quit for the good of the government and the nation, he would have needed to live a little longer.

An eight-point turnaround in the Newspoll in two weeks was a straw in the wind ministers seemed to grab with both hands. The Coalition still trails, as it has for the past 12 months. The other reality check was the Morgan and Essential polls went in the opposite direction, showing a bigger lead for Labor. Still, the Liberals’ federal director, Brian Loughnane, believes the Abbott strategy for survival is working.

Turnbull mustered what almost passed for a straight face, to tell journalists, “Tony Abbott is safe, he’s the prime minister, he is safe in the bosom of the party that supports him with 100 per cent loyalty.” He said he’s always pleased when the government is up in the polls even though they often contradict each other.

Abbott spelled out the recipe of his success in the party room: “We are focused on Australians and what they’re interested in. Their concerns are our concerns.” The May budget will be proof of this. The treasurer says it will be responsible, it will be measured, and it will be fair. He made that claim last year, too. To say it did not stand up to scrutiny then might be an understatement. Twelve months later Joe Hockey, like his prime minister, has expended his credibility. According to the Essential poll, voters disapprove of the job he’s doing 51 to 27 per cent. He no longer has a convincing lead over the shadow treasurer, Chris Bowen, on trust to handle the economy. It’s virtually lineball, 26 to 25 per cent.

Debt and deficit fears have been put on the long finger – the very long finger. Curiously, Abbott uses the Intergenerational Report as a guide. It has no surplus for 40 years. Never mind, he’s reworked a winning slogan: “We have stopped the boats, we have scrapped the carbon tax and we have cut Labor’s debt and deficit by half going forward.” No longer is the budget going to be returned to surplus this and every year of government, as Hockey once promised. He told the party room, “We will get the budget back to surplus as soon as possible.” Hardly a yardstick for success.

There is still a nagging suspicion around Parliament House that Tony Abbott has not completely killed off the option of a double dissolution election if his populist budget repositioning works. Sure this government “intends” to serve its full term but, as we know, circumstances can change. The biggest change would be getting a whiff of another challenge. It’s called the nuclear option and it would mean on current polling that the government would be defeated. But the mere threat of it is meant to scare the party room off another spill. The ABC’s election analyst, Antony Green, says it would certainly double the number of weird and wonderful people on the senate crossbench.

Abbott could minimise that by adopting the unanimous recommendations of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters. Its chairman, Liberal MP Tony Smith, says retaining the current system is not an option. Optional preferential voting would give back to voters full control of where their preferences go. It would kill stone dead the work of any preference whisperer gaming the system.

The prime minister says he’s waiting for the final report of the committee before he considers moving. Here’s the rub: that report will be tabled before the budget. Legislation could be introduced in May. It would take some of the gamble out of a pre-emptive rush to the polls.

To make that scenario redundant, Mike Baird has to demonstrate the Abbott factor is not as toxic as Queensland and Victorian Liberals believe. And Joe Hockey has to pull some rabbits out of the hat on budget night.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 28, 2015 as "Straw polls in the wind". Subscribe here.

Paul Bongiorno
is a columnist for The Saturday Paper and a regular commentator on ABC Radio National Breakfast.