Labor would easily win election "held now"
Coalition's worst position of the current term so far
On current polling One Nation could win at least three lower house seats
Normally I go a couple of Newspolls between poll roundups these days, but this week's has been one of those Newspolls. Following a conveniently timed "Newspoll bomb" by former Prime Minister Tony Abbott, the Turnbull government has recorded a new worst set of figures, and leadership speculation is rife. This comes on top of a Fair Work Commission decision to cut penalty rates, which is seen as bad news for the government although the process was set in train and, until its outcome, supported by Labor.
We are still getting very little federal polling apart from the weekly Essential readings and the slightly less than fortnightly Newspolls. The latest Newspoll came in at 55-45 to Labor, the highest reading for the Opposition since March 2015. (In total during the Abbott Prime Ministership Labor recorded four 55s and one 57.) I've aggregated it at 54.8 after processing the primaries. The last few Essentials were more restrained (typically for Essential) at 52, 52 and 53 for Labor, which I aggregated at 52.4, 52,2 and 53.0. Overall, largely on the back of the recent Newspoll, my aggregate has for now gone to 53.8% in Labor's favour. This is the first time in this term that it has exceeded the 53.6 at which Tony Abbott was disposed of in the term before.
However, while the Coalition under Abbott trailed almost continually from December 2013 until Abbott's removal in September 2015, the Coalition under Turnbull has not been behind yet for nearly so long. What would be concerning is that the gap keeps getting worse and worse - there have been brief recoveries but each, so far, is followed by a further blowout.
How might this government become competitive again? How will its fate be any different to that of the Gillard-Rudd regime? The answers may exist, but aren't yet obvious.
LeadershipsNewspoll also showed Malcolm Turnbull with his worst netsat to date, at -30 (29-59). But things were not much rosier for Opposition Leader Bill Shorten, at -26 (30-56), his worst rating since February last year (when Turnbull was still vaguely popular). The combined score for the two leaders, -56, was their worst so far as well. (Abbott vs Shorten reached -61 just before Abbott was removed, and Gillard vs Abbott reached -64 in February 2012. The all time worst was -74 by Keating and Hewson in September 1993.)
Turnbull also recorded his smallest lead as "better Prime Minister" over Shorten so far, just seven points (40-33) but the main point here, again, is that he's still ahead at all. There is only one case of a PM leading by more while having a 2PP score this bad or worse - Julia Gillard led Tony Abbott 46-37 in April 2011 while her party also trailed 45:55. (At that time Abbott was on -17 and Gillard on -10 net satisfaction, for what it's worth.)
Essential released attribute polling showing only minor slides for Turnbull since September 2016 (though much of the gloss was already off his leadership by then) and no major changes for Shorten. In comparison, it's still the case that Turnbull polarises opinions more, both on positive and negative attributes.
A major theme in recent polls (both state and federal) has been the rise of Pauline Hanson's One Nation, which now commands about 10% national support. A common mistake in commentary has been to treat those who are saying they would vote One Nation as all the same thing - politically incorrect, anti-Islamic, pro-Trump xenophobes who relate to Pauline Hanson.
In fact those who say they will vote One Nation to the pollsters are much more diverse, and are probably something like Hillary Clinton's vastly unwise but probably accurate depiction of Trump voters. For every "deplorable" who buys the full PHON package there's at least one who is just economically desperate or disgruntled. As noted by Scott Steel (who has tweeted many interesting things about internal polling on the Hanson vote) soft One Nation voters don't buy the party's Trumphugging, and they also don't necessarily agree with One Nation policies on environmental matters, nor would they be likely to be impressed with the party's economic voting record if they studied it in detail. Rather, about half of the current One Nation surge appears to consist of voters who are not natural One Nation supporters but are parking their votes there in disgust.
In theory, these super-soft vote-parkers might be easily recaptured, but the urban, middle-class twee campaign style of the last federal election isn't going to do it and the obsessive culture-warring of the Abbotts and Bernardis has no useful answers for this kind of voter either. The Australian in the last few days (PwC modelling reveals one nation split into haves and have nots, and there has been lots of detail in the print editions) has painted a primarily economic picture of sluggish wage growth and quickly rising unemployment in non-mining-boom regional/rural areas as drivers of the Hanson vote. It almost seems as if voters are choosing One Nation not because they agree with it, but because they realise it's the only way to try to shock the major parties into actually paying attention outside of the cities.
I treat the endless line of predictable polling results commissioned by the Australia Institute with some weariness, but the risk of One Nation winning House of Representatives seats at the next federal election is indicated by the primaries in their ReachTEL poll of Dawson, where the LNP has 33.2% to One Nation's 30.8% and Labor's 27.1%. While the poll outcome might have been different had the LNP incumbent, sometime rebel George Christensen, been named, there is nothing on the surface implausible about One Nation polling 30% or so in this electorate. Indeed, it's more or less exactly consistent with the party's Senate vote in 2016 there of 13.2%, multiplied by the subsequent increase in One Nation's national vote.
Anyone thinking that these figures would make for an easy win for the LNP on Labor preferences should check the preference distribution from the seat of Maranoa, the only seat where One Nation made the final two in 2016. In that case, despite Labor preferencing the LNP ahead of One Nation, Labor preferences in fact split almost equally (50.3 to 49.7).
It would be rash to apply the same preference distribution in Maranoa (a sprawling seat where Labor is uncompetitive) to Dawson (a more compact seat where Labor is in the fight, and would hence make a bigger and more effective how-to-vote card effort). But while I would expect the LNP to hold Dawson on these numbers, in an election held "right now" the same pattern of linear increase since 2016 (if true) could well see One Nation win the seats of Wright, Flynn and Hinkler and be serious contenders in Blair, Maranoa and perhaps a few others. Also, while One Nation would have three seats on the line at a half-Senate election (in Queensland, NSW and WA) on current vote levels they might even increase their Senate holdings. Of course it is a long way to the next election and there's lots of time for the One Nation bubble to burst ... well, we think so ...
One theory about One Nation I should put to bed is the idea that One Nation voters are attracted to stability. This Joe Hildebrand effort originally said "Say what you like about One Nation, it's had the same leader for 20 years", which has since been corrected to "Say what you like about One Nation, it's got the same leader it did 20 years ago." In fact, that's not exactly true either since we are still a month and a bit shy of One Nation's 20th birthday, but the important point is that One Nation has a tumultuous history (which it continues to this day with regular candidate disendorsements). Hanson herself led the party from 1997 to 2002 before resigning, being expelled or both (accounts vary) and was not then a member again until 2013, in this time even running against her own party for Senate in Queensland in 2004. She has only been leader again since late 2014 (not even the three years of the headline.)
What Might Happen To The Liberal Party?
As things stand there has been a huge plunge in betting odds on Peter Dutton to be the next leader of the Liberal Party. (Note: this doesn't necessarily mean the next PM - Turnbull might lead the party to an election and lose it, or the government might even change mid-term, though that's not all that likely). Dutton came down from $26 in September to be $2.50 favourite last week and then $1.87 odds-on favourite this week.
When I tweeted last week's odds I received a very large number of comments (indeed more than twice as many comments as vanilla retweets/likes). The gist of the comments was that either the bookies/punters or the party must have rocks in their heads, with the general impression of those commenting being that Dutton is a talentless fool who is also a meanie to asylum seekers and whose seat is too marginal at just 1.6% anyway. Aside from the marginal seat bit, this is not too different to the gales of laughter that greeted Tony Abbott as the new Opposition Leader in 2009.
The appeal of Dutton is obviously that he's the Tony Abbott you have when you don't have Tony Abbott, and getting both Turnbull and Abbott out of the Lodge would make an appealing end to their long-running leadership squabble. He might also be ordinary and down-to-earth enough to have some appeal to the left-behinds who are currently flocking to PHON. Whether he is "up to it" is a big question though - and it was also a big question for Abbott, who then proceeded to demonstrate that he was not.
As for Abbott, I have always been reluctant to compare Tony Abbott with Kevin Rudd. Both were removed from office then remained in parliament and destabilised their successor following (and to some degree before) their successor's narrow election victory. But the reasons for Abbott's removal were extremely clear at the time, while the reasons for Rudd's removal remain mysterious and complex, perhaps even to some of those who did the deed. Public polling evidence as viewed through past history had Rudd in a probably election-winning position no matter what his colleagues thought of him, while Abbott was at best a 50-50 proposition and therefore a massive risk.
The failure to sell the Rudd-booting to the public legitimised Rudd's grievance as he sought to make a comeback. Abbott however has no valid argument for reinstatement save that he will continue to wreck the joint until somebody gives him what he wants. Even his latest of many versions of the "conservative" (read: reactionary) Liberal project has been treated with scorn by otherwise sympathetic commentators, who point out that Abbott sold himself as one of them for years then did nothing to advance the cause in office.
Furthermore, it's hard to see how Abbott's proposal to weaken minor party power (Unicameral By Stealth) is going to help win back voters who are parking their votes with the minor parties in an attempt to leverage something other than business as normal from the big two.
While I am sceptical of the chances of an effective Tony Abbott return as Prime Minister, there is a widespread view that his undermining - even if supported by very few colleagues indeed - will itself create a fatal media cycle of leadership speculation, disunity and infighting of the sort we have seen so often before. An interesting aspect of this is that no matter how much the current PM caves into bullying from the hardline right, he will only be bullied some more: they will continue to paint him as left-wing and ineffective no matter how many right-wing ideas he is willing to support and how many bills he gets through the current Senate.
If all this, or simply Turnbull's inability to respond to the problems created by the current economic environment and the resurgence of One Nation, mean that Turnbull becomes an unviable leader, what then? Turnbull has so compromised what he previously appeared to stand for - both on the way to the top job and since acquiring it - that it is hard to tell what if anything he is all that deeply committed to. Clearly, he's been willing to sell out to get and keep the position of Prime Minister, which is important to him, but if his days in that post become clearly numbered, what then? Will he be more committed to the Liberal Party or the liberal project, or will he just lose interest altogether?
Two Australian governments have fallen on the floor of the House of Representatives because they lost crucial votes when their own members (or ex-members) crossed the floor - the Bruce government in 1929 and the Scullin government in 1931. The removals of Rudd, Gillard and Abbott all carried some "transactional costs", but if Turnbull is not willing to go quietly, removing him could come with the biggest pricetag of them all. We have seen governments plagued by ideological or personal tensions before, but it is a long time since we saw one so plagued by both at once. At this stage I don't predict that the party will split, but I think it's enough of a chance to be worth keeping an eye on.
A Not-A-Poll has been added in the sidebar if you want to have your own go at estimating how long Turnbull will last. It will stay there for as long as he does.