Paul Bongiorno
Polls unmoved as parliament breaks for winter

Federal parliament has now gone into its six-week winter recess. At his end-of-session party room pep talk, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull advised the troops to recharge their batteries and get in touch with their voters. Many will flee the colder climes of Canberra for the consoling warmth of Europe or the United States. That respite will relieve them from what is in many ways a winter of discontent, if not dashed expectations, for Turnbull and his government.

Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce tried to buy time against any impatience with the Coalition leadership for not connecting better with voters. He reminded MPs there was plenty of opportunity to turn things round. He said this time next year would still be 12 months away from the scheduled election – an interesting position in light of reports that Turnbull was heading for an election as early as August next year. Of course, for him to do that the government would want to be travelling a lot better than it appears to be at the moment.

The prime minister himself isn’t trying to scare his troops into line with the threat of an early election; he has spent most of the year urgently trying to shore up his standing with the electorate. The most eye-catching example: the May budget. It was a lurch to the centre if ever there was one, and proudly labelled as such by Turnbull’s treasurer, Scott Morrison.

Not surprisingly it was panned by the right-wing commentariat and conservatives on his backbench as a sellout to the left, “Labor lite”, “big spending and taxing”. It ditched the remaining zombie measures – unpopular spending cuts that were a legacy of the politically disastrous 2014 Hockey budget. It committed to fully funding the National Disability Insurance Scheme and announced a very popular tax on the banks.

Since then Turnbull has unveiled a needs-based schools-funding package winning Labor’s champion reformer David Gonski to its cause. And he began to look and sound like the Turnbull of yore with a clean energy target scheme that takes climate change seriously and sets out to reduce emissions. For good measure he has begun to bang the national security drum more.

And yet the dark clouds have not lifted. This week’s Newspoll, which was 53-47 Labor’s way, cemented the trend begun soon after last year’s election that has gathered pace this year. Polling analyst Andrew Catsaras says a close look at the poll shows that “nothing is happening here”. Though Turnbull has maintained a clear double-digit lead over Bill Shorten as preferred prime minister, this is not a lead indicator. Prime ministers and premiers have lost elections while still being “preferred”. More ominous is the shared net negative approval of the two leaders – an abysmal minus-23. The number captures the margin between approval and disapproval.

Polls this far out from an election are not predictive, but they are indicative of how a party or government is travelling. The fact is neither of the major parties is travelling as well as was the norm a decade ago, but our preferential system delivers a two-horse race and it is there that Labor is ahead. And, as Tony Abbott mischievously but accurately prognosticated, that makes Shorten favourite to win the next election.

Turnbull doesn’t need much persuading. Any vestige of doubt he is fixated by the opinion polls, particularly Newspoll, would have been banished after his comic routine at the recent Mid Winter Ball. There he controversially mimicked Donald Trump.

The section of the good-humoured piss-take that leaked revealed the prime minister’s frustration that, despite his best efforts, the electorate seems unmoved. Turnbull mocked the president’s regular criticism of the “fake polls” during his long campaign to take the Republican nomination and then the top job itself. “We are winning and winning in the polls. We are. We are. Not the fake polls. Not the fake polls. They’re the ones we’re not winning in. We are winning in the real polls. You know, the online polls. They’re so easy to win, did you know that?”

Turnbull may now regret it, but he laid down the marker of 30 negative Newspolls in a row as reason enough for a change to another captain of the ship. Shorten’s office put out an analysis of leadership changes on both sides all the way back to 2006. It found party rooms more often than not struck long before 30 bad results were recorded. Whether the compilation was designed to spur the Liberal party room to another decapitation or not is arguable. The fact is there is no hugely popular or obvious alternative who would guarantee an immediate boost. There’s no Bob Hawke, Kevin Rudd or even a Malcolm Turnbull in the wings.

Surely the lesson of dispatching sitting prime ministers is that it achieves nothing if it doesn’t unite the government behind the new leader. This is especially the case if the vanquished hangs around brooding and resentful. In the Rudd–Gillard years that was certainly the case. What is making things worse for the current prime minister and government is that the divide is not only involving an ego bent on revenge – the Rudd paradigm – but also a policy divide. There is a battle for the heart and soul of the Liberal Party as either a moderate centrist organisation or a conservative right-wing project. This is a lethal mix because it keeps reminding the electorate that the government is deeply divided. Abbott, unlike Rudd, is very upfront about it. He makes strong use of his regular appearances on Radio 2GB, often with a pool news camera in the studio that then turns up as footage on national TV news bulletins.

This has to go a long way to explaining why the government goes into deep winter with a frantic lack of achievement. Just when Turnbull is positioning to end the climate wars thanks to the work of the chief scientist, Alan Finkel, his party room is resisting the key recommendation of a clean energy target of 42 per cent. This week it agreed to 49 of the 50 recommendations but not to the one that is crucial to delivering a rational transition to cleaner, cheaper energy. One Liberal backbencher explained aversion to the aim in terms of it being too close to Labor. “It would be crazy to adopt this target having argued so long and hard against Labor’s irresponsible 50 per cent,” he says.

So despite a most un-Liberal-like intervention in the export gas market, to assure domestic supply, and a move to stop electricity utilities appealing against the regulator’s price decisions, the perception is reinforced that Turnbull is a captive rather than a leader of his party. Such is the pressure on the prime minister, he says he’s even open to funding new coal-fired power stations. He even uses the much-loved concoction of “clean coal” when “slightly less dirty” is the truth.

Turnbull’s other attempt to gazump Labor on education turned into another political shambles thanks to internal party dissent and a mishandling of the huge Catholic schools sector. Make no mistake, it is not only that sector that is offside. The New South Wales, South Australian, ACT and Northern Territory governments have lost the generous deals they signed with the Commonwealth in the dying days of the Gillard government. Education Minister Simon Birmingham was unrepentant. His view is they were overfunded thanks to desperate special deals.

In the end Turnbull and Birmingham were able to persuade the senate crossbench that they had produced a genuine needs-based funding approach and were pumping $23.5 billion more into schools than his predecessor Tony Abbott was planning. On Tuesday an exasperated prime minister, facing push-back from Abbott, Kevin Andrews and retiring West Australian senator Chris Back among some others in the party room, retorted with the home truth that Abbott’s cuts were timed to come in this year.

In the end Birmingham, under pressure not to deal with the Greens, gave up on them. Their leader Richard Di Natale kept upping the ante as he tried to keep his restive party room on side. The minister, meanwhile, pulled off a deal with 10 of the other crossbench senators and without telling Di Natale brought on the bill. The irony is that much of what the Nick Xenophon Team wrung out of the government was originally inspired by the Greens.

Turnbull painted Labor’s implacable opposition as crass opportunism based on what he called the hoax of its $20-billion-extra 10-year plan. Shorten hit back with the reasonable point that the government can find $65 billion for corporate tax cuts during the same period but not the much less amount for investment in education.

Apart from all the distracting government infighting, there is also another persuasive explanation for why nothing is happening in the polls: underemployment, stagnating wages falling behind the rising cost of living and higher bank interest rates. Not a good time to be seen to be doing nothing about a cut in weekend penalty rates. At least someone on the government side gets it: the Nationals’ George Christensen finally crossed the floor to make the point. But then again, in doing so he highlights his belief that the government is out of touch.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 24, 2017 as "Nothing to see here".

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

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