And the subterranean campaign for leadership continues

Another day, another opinion poll, another round of speculation as to what the tea leaves really mean.

Today’s Newspoll will be studied closely, as usual, by political observers hoping to get a handle on what voters think of the shenanigans in Canberra. And what that might mean for the future of Prime Minister Tony Abbott.

Do the numbers suggest rusted-on conservative voters are heartened by the Prime Minister’s strident rebuke of That Woman from the Human Rights Commission? Or that the everyday disengaged voter feels more secure now the PM has increased his flag quotient at national security press conferences to eight? Does it matter that the Government has upped its pay offer to the troops from offensively paltry to merely stingy?

Newspoll does not provide these specific answers, although some pundits might be tempted to suggest it does. It is however considered to be the poll to watch, given it’s the longest-running survey of its kind in Australia and has a strong track record in accurately tapping into the mood of the nation.

Like other polls, Newspoll’s value is not so much in the fortnightly pivot of its numbers, but in the trend those numbers trace over time.

Our embattled PM may take succour from the fact today’s poll shows his approval rating has been trending upwards since it almost hit rock bottom just before disgruntled backbenchers failed to bring on a leadership spill in early February. Then it was 24 per cent, second only to Paul Keating’s worst approval rating for a PM at 17 per cent, and now it is 28.

But that’s the only Newspoll trend in Abbott’s favour. Labor leader Bill Shorten’s lead as preferred prime minister has widened (44 per cent compared to Abbott’s 33), while the ALP maintains its hypothetical election-winning lead over the Coalition, on a two-party preferred basis (55 per cent to 45 per cent). Labor has now held this lead for 11 straight months.

What the protagonists in the Liberal leadership war make of today’s Newspoll will no doubt become evident as the day progresses. Abbott’s supporters will likely point to the PM’s improved approval rating as a sign that his actions in recent days – on the Human Rights Commission, national security, foreign ownership and food labeling – have paid dividends.

The PM’s detractors will put the counter view, highlighting Labor’s continuing strong lead over the Government despite the Opposition having done very little to put forward an alternative. The growing fear among these MPs is that federal Labor will coast to office in 2016 on a low-risk, bare bones agenda in the same way its state counterparts did in Victoria late last year and Queensland last month. (And, incidentally, as Abbott’s coalition did at the 2013 federal election.)

The problem for those agitating for change in the Liberal leadership is that their clean hands strategy has robbed their campaign of any sense of momentum.

With none of the leadership contenders are prepared to declare their candidacy for fear of being seen as a spoiler like Kevin Rudd, they’re left to depend on an external circuit-breaker such as a prime ministerial blunder or a bad opinion poll to prompt colleagues on the need for change.

An additional complication for the opposing forces is the Turnbull-Bishop-Morrison triumvirate, which was so skilfully constructed to corral the entire anti-Abbott vote, has now splintered with Foreign Minister Bishop declaring she will also run for the leadership if the position were to be contested. Clearly this is the work of the arch conservatives in the Liberal Party, who’d rather eat ground glass than have Malcolm Turnbull return as party leader.

Recent television appearances by Turnbull, and his apparent numbers man Arthur Sinodinos, suggest the Communications Minister is alert to this obstacle. Turnbull went to some effort on ABC’s 7.30 last week to explain he and Abbott were on the same page when it came to marriage equality (that is, they both believed the party room should decide whether to give government MPs a conscience vote on the matter).

Sinodinos kept the Turnbull campaign rolling on Lateline last night. Firstly the senator emphasised he was “getting behind” Abbott to help the PM improve his behaviour and that ultimately the PM would be judged on his performance. Sinodinos then went on to defend Turnbull against conservative accusations of not being truly representative of the Liberal Party, noting Turnbull was a capitalist who believed in market principles and that, while he was “socially progressive” on certain issues, “so are many others in the party [while] others are more conservative.”

And so the subterranean campaign for the leadership continues, unaided at least this week by the Newspoll’s suggestion that while things are dire for PM Abbott, they’re no more or less dire than last week, or even last November.

Perhaps next week’s poll will be the one to seal the PM’s fate, or the one after that. Or perhaps Government MPs will finally find the cojones to remove the man that is leading them to electorate oblivion.

This article originally appeared at The Hoopla.

Image: AAP

Author: Drag0nista

Political columnist at The New Daily | Editor of Despatches & AusVotes 2019 | Author of On Merit, a book on the Liberals' *women problem*. Former Liberal staffer and industry lobbyist. Studying the entrails of federal politics since 1989.

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