Available polling results for this week on average show the Coalition in its best 2PP position since before the Budget, with Tony Abbott's personal ratings substantially improved. So it may be a surprise to readers to see me offer this right from the outset: that the last two weeks of polling should be actually the most troubling the Coalition has so far seen in its time in office. The reason I say this is that the recent MH17 disaster was an event that allowed the Coalition to play to one of its supposed strengths - national security - but the voting intention gain has been so small, and such gains tend to be temporary anyway. When we look past these event-driven aspects of current polling, the government still has a lot of work to do to turn around the early negative perceptions.
This week's results
The four polls out so far this week have been Galaxy (52:48 to Labor), Morgan (54:46 to Labor, equivalent to about 52.5 accounting for Morgan's house effect), Newspoll (54:46 to Labor) and Essential (51:49 to Labor). It's a little bit against the normal run of play that normally bouncy Newspoll has been the least reactive to the MH17 disaster in 2PP terms, and normally sleepy Essential one of the most, but that's the way it is. Mostly, the Coalition seems to be getting back some very soft primary votes that were previously parked in the PUP column (at least for those polls that canvass PUP support.) All up there is just a modest move in the aggregate figure from 53.1 to Labor down to 52.8. This is the Coalition's least worst result since before the Budget, and there's no real doubt things have got better for them - just not very much nor very quickly. Here's the smoothed tracking graph:
Newspoll showed an improvement in Tony Abbott's net satisfaction of 12 points, from -29 to -17. While substantial, this did not match the personal bounces recorded by John Howard for any of Port Arthur, Tampa, the Bali bombings or 9/11, as noted in last week's instalment, A Brief History Of Disaster Bounces. Newspoll also showed Abbott improving as "better Prime Minister" to draw level with Bill Shorten (38-38) but Galaxy showed Shorten maintaining a six-point lead (41-35) on the equivalent question.
Tuesday's Australian delivered an especially comical display of spinning as writers tried to argue that the improvements in Abbott's rating were especially strong signs for the Coalition. The paper version of Phillip Hudson's article contained an argument absent from the online version, to the implied effect that Abbott's relatively small rise compared with those recorded by Howard was mitigated by Abbott being already unpopular. But that doesn't make sense, since if a leader has low ratings then there are more voters whose minds they have a chance to change, while a popular leader is less likely to get a big surge since their popularity will be closer to maxing out. A linear regression of PM netsat against change in netsat in the next Newspoll shows that any relationship between the two is extremely weak, but that there is a very mild tendency for PM netsats to move towards the average (around zero). Disliked leaders are slightly more likely to become less disliked next fortnight, and very popular leaders don't stay that way forever. Here's the obligatory splatter-plot:
Abbott's current bounce is the one red dot on the edge of the mass of green. It can be seen that far from rises of this magnitude or greater being rare when leaders are already unpopular, if anything they are marginally more common for an already unpopular leader. And pointing to Howard's 18, 18 and 24 point netsat bounces while already popular ignores his 20-point Tampa bounce from a prior netsat of -10. The Australian's Abbott-boosting also made much of the PM drawing level with Bill Shorten as better PM, as usual ignoring the vast historical evidence that a close PPM race usually (as in this case) means the government is trailing where it matters.
(Incidentally, if we add up all the cases of a 12-point or greater netsat rise by a PM from poll to poll, it turns out that Hawke racked up four in six years (albeit with more widely spaced polling - one of them was over two months), Keating four in just over four, Howard 14 in eleven years, but then this happened only once for Rudd early in his first term, and never at all for Gillard. Odd.)
Essential this week had figures that showed even stronger approval of Tony Abbott's handling of the MH-17 situation to last week's ReachTEL. Some of the apparent difference between ReachTEL's 51-23 result and Essential's 67-13 is down to ReachTEL's use of a "satisfactory" option (which hides some mildly positive intent), and some probably down to ReachTEL's use of answer forcing (which stops the mildly negative respondent from copping out with "don't know"). Combining the two polls, net approval for Abbott's actions seems to be upwards of +40 and possibly increasing.
While that sounds good for the PM, it is the Galaxy results where the big problems lie. Voters in the Galaxy survey not only preferred Bill Shorten to Tony Abbott, but continued to do so when the question was confined to economic management (43:36) or representing Australian interests overseas (41:39). This is in line with disappointing results for the Government on economic questions reported last week.
As usual with Galaxy I've derived the results for voters for non-major-parties and these voters reject Abbott as preferred Prime Minister (estimate 44% to 5% with the rest neutral), on the economy (43:8), and on foreign representation (43:12). Granted, about half of the Others voters are Greens, but these are not promising signs for the PM in terms of preference flow or the ease of recapturing lost primary votes. Overall, the bounce caused by a single event is not translating to an improved perception of the government's general performance.
Silly Question Of The Month
Certainly the silliest question of the month was this one asked by Galaxy, presumably at the request of the commissioning tabloids:
Who has shown the most leadership after the MH-17 disaster?
The options were Tony Abbott, Barack Obama, David Cameron and Uncommitted, and Abbott came out on top, 48% to 17% for Obama and 7% for Cameron.
The first thing wrong with this question is that domestic audiences are bombarded with news about our own Prime Minister's response and the average Australian poll subject would have no idea what David Cameron was doing about MH-17, and not all that much about even Obama. So it's hardly a meaningful comparison.
The second thing wrong with it is the assumption, premised in Australia's historical ties to the UK and the USA, that Obama and Cameron are meant to be the other major leaders. The crash killed 27 Australian citizens and by various tallies another 10-14 residents or others with close ties to the nation. It killed ten citizens of the UK and just one dual citizen of the USA. Way over half the casualties were Dutch, with the next largest grouping Malaysian, and thus it is to be expected that Mark Rutte and Najib Razak would be prominent in a similar or greater way to Abbott. And indeed, it is apparently Malaysia that has the runs on the board in terms of actual progress through the return of flight recorders and the bodies of many of the victims.
The crowing about this utterly meaningless result in some of the tabloids that published it is at best a sad indictment of what a fishbowl Australia's political culture can be at times like this.
Note Re Upcoming Weeks
Next week could well be a "boring week" in the polling cycle with only Essential currently due for release. Just as well if so because I'll be over in Tromso, Norway for the FIDE (world chess federation) presidential elections and administrative congress over the next two weeks, and there won't be much time for poll commentary. However, I'll try to write something a little bit different about the chess elections, which are actually quite politically interesting in their own right.