From where the polls stand right now, this election campaign will either be one of the most unusual since Federation, or the most pointless. Naturally, this blogger leans towards the latter.
Given the unprecedented run of bad polls, if this government is returned it will be an historic upset. But in the more likely event it is a foregone conclusion, the campaign will be especially pointless because the main reason for the government’s defeat will be barely mentioned, let alone discussed.
Looking over the polls of this sorry term of government it is not hard to see what that reason is. Turnbull’s grumpy acknowledgement of his narrow victory in 2016 turned out to mark the polling height for the government. Approval continued to sink as Turnbull seemed hostage to a right that the public had already made very clear during the calamitous, but brief, Abbott premiership it did not want.
But in the second half of 2017 things started to turn around. The defeat of the right in the same sex marriage referendum and Turnbull’s brazen face off with Joyce’s “world of woe” seemed to give him some clear air and, almost, made Turnbull appear master of his own destiny. During the first half of 2018, the government’s polling started to recover and by mid-2018 was within two points of the Labor opposition. For the first time since the 2016 election, the pressure seemed to be back on Shorten as his leadership rival toured the nation’s chat shows.
Then, in August 2018, the polls reset. A two-point gap became a ten to fifteen point gap. The possibility of re-election vanished from sight and soon the government was losing historically safe seats and writing off the nation’s second most populous state as a naturally hostile enclave. The trigger, of course, was the dumping of Turnbull.
The public reaction to Turnbull’s ousting was hostile and unusually so. For the first time in thirty years of Prime Ministerial dumpings the government’s polling went down – and by a lot.
The cause of this unprecedented reaction was never made clear. Sure, Turnbull was more popular than Morrison before his dumping, but not that popular. Morrison’s approval may have been mediocre for a new Prime Minister, but still better than Turnbull’s was when he left.
Perhaps a clue to the hostile reaction was in one thing that distinguished Turnbull’s dumping from the others. For each dumping there had always been an electoral rationale, especially for the return of Rudd and Turnbull. But to justify Morrison taking over there was nothing, no polls, no policy turn.
There had been an attempt to justify Turnbull’s removal by the Liberals’ mediocre performance in the Longman by-election. But it wasn’t long before the same Liberals who were using his poor performance in that by-election to get rid of Turnbull were clamouring for him to come back and save another by-election in Wentworth. After they lost that, and the polls sunk even further, they soon went quiet.
The inability to make an electoral justification stick was significant because it marked the end of what had been a contradictory narrative by both major parties as they removed their leaders over the past decade. On one hand they would claim the right to change their leaders since the electorate voted for parties, not the leader – on the other hand they dumped their leader on the justification that it wasn’t true. While claiming the leader wasn’t the issue the previous election, they were arguing the leader had to be changed to win the next.
In reality, of course, both parties have been hiding increasingly behind leadership, none more so than Labor did in Kevin07. Since then it has been about the leader brought in to save the party as Labor did in 2010 and 2013, and the Coalition did in 2016 – or the stability of the leadership team in counter to the opposite side as the Coalition did in 2013, and Labor will do this time round.
Yet each time the parties changed their leader they were undermining their own case for governance. It was an implicit acknowledgement that the parties were being increasingly elected less on their own merits and programs but popular leaders that could fill the vacuum. Their inability to do so was why it generally did not work.
This all fell apart in August 2018. Turning to a non-entity like Morrison revealed a party that was simply not there. It wasn’t so much that people were angry with Turnbull’s dumping, just turned off and disinterested. A long-standing vacuum in the Coalition’s program has been revealed without even the pretence of covering it up with someone who the public might actually like.
There seems a curious reticence to admit this in the coverage. Each minor movement in the polls is explained with a necklace string of issues that will supposedly “decide” this election: asylum seekers, franking credits, the budget, electric cars, vegan terrorism etc. etc. but barely any acknowledgement of the issue that led to the most decisive shift in polling during this government’s term.
Labor try to make an issue of it. However, like any party concerned about its own fragility they see it as about unity, but it is not. The biggest boost any government received over the past decade of knifing and turbulence was on 27 June 2013 when not only one Prime Minister ousted another, but half of the Cabinet walked out in protest. The public doesn’t mind disunity, as long as it has a point. Now it clearly does not and so there is now a good chance Bill Shorten will become the most unpopular Labor leader to ever take his party to power.