Can Turnbull court the progressive vote and maintain the hardline asylum seeker policy?


Given Malcolm Turnbull based his leadership pitch on the Coalition’s poor opinion poll standing under Tony Abbott, he will be relieved to see what appears to be a dramatic improvement in the Government’s fortunes, according to the Ipsos poll in today’s Fairfax newspapers.

Less than a week ago, a 50:50 per cent two-party result in Newspoll suggested voters were yet to be convinced the shift to Turnbull meant an improvement in the Government’s policies – that perhaps he really was only Abbott in a nicer suit, as Labor was suggesting.

Today’s Ipsos results suggest those doubts may be lessening, with a two-party preferred result of 53:47 per cent in the Government’s favour – a 7 per cent swing to the Coalition since just before Turnbull became leader. The latest Ipsos poll gives the Prime Minister a 68 per cent personal approval and a 67:21 per cent lead over Bill Shorten as preferred PM.

Perhaps most significant, Ipsos suggests 7 per cent of primary votes shifted from Labor and perhaps even the Greens to the Government since Turnbull was made leader.

It would appear some progressive voters are beginning to like what they see in the new PM.

This is potentially devastating for Labor if, as the Australian’s Paul Kelly wrote on the weekend, Turnbull can “neutralise Labor’s social appeal and then destroy it on economic management and trade union fidelity”.

Turnbull will, however, need to remain conscious of the social conservatives in the community as he does so. So far, Turnbull has done a reasonable job balancing the community’s demand for a strong position on terrorism with the pressing need for a less aggressive approach in order to protect social cohesion.

The PM’s deliberately more inclusive language on tackling Muslim extremism – embracing the Muslim community and reframing terrorists, not Muslims, as the threat to our national security – has been a welcome relief to many progressives.

However, it will take more than a change of language for the PM to shift the majority view of Australians about asylum seekers or, for that matter, address the concerns of progressive Australians over the mandatory detention system.

Just as the ascension of Turnbull has provided an opportunity to change both the tenor and substance of the national conversation on terrorism, progressives hoped the new PM’s arrival would bring a more humane approach to the treatment of those euphemistically referred to by the Government as irregular maritime arrivals.

These hopes have perhaps been enhanced by the Australian community’s positive response to the decision to accept 12,000 Syrian refugees following the publication of the heart-rending images of drowned Syrian toddler Aylan Kurdi.

While an opinion poll at the time of the child’s death found 57 per cent of voters said Australia should increase its refugee intake to accept the Syrians, 54 per cent said they also supported Operation Sovereign Borders, including boat turn-backs and offshore detention. And 45 per cent of respondents said this policy made them more likely to vote Liberal.

Against this backdrop, refugee advocates have redoubled their efforts to make a connection between detained asylum seekers and Australian voters. Even though they have published photos, letters and drawings from the detainees, refugee advocates still haven’t been able to achieve the same tragic resonance as the chord struck by the pictures of the drowned child.

This may change with the story of the Somali asylum seeker, known by the pseudonym Abyan, who reportedly asked for an abortion after allegedly being raped on Nauru. More than 60,000 people signed a petition established on Abyan’s behalf, seeking her transfer to Australia to undergo the procedure.

Not long after PM Turnbull and Border Protection Minister Peter Dutton indicated in response to the growing public interest that Abyan’s case was being attended to, medical staff at the Melbourne’s Royal Children’s Hospital called on the Government to end mandatory detention of children.

Government backbencher Russell Broadbent backed the RCH staff, saying it was unacceptable to have “women and children in detention, behind razor wire in this country or locked away on an island”, and that the protest was not that of lefty activists but a sign that the views of the broader Australian population had shifted on the issue.

If that is the case, and Australian voters are indeed softening their stance on the detention of women and children, it will be interesting to see how the PM chooses to show leadership on the issue.

Fairfax’s Peter Hartcher writes today that the Ipsos poll result gives Turnbull “the blessing of enormous public goodwill – and the curse of impossible expectations”.

This is especially the case on the question of asylum seekers, where Turnbull is faced with two mutually exclusive and conflicting expectations. In satisfying one Turnbull can only disappoint the other.

Turnbull gave no ground on the issue last week when answering a question from the Greens’ Adam Bandt in Parliament. Even though he spoke in a regretful tone, the PM claimed Australia’s necessarily tough regime prevented people from dying at sea, as they had done under previous policies including those in which the Greens were complicit.

As for the pseudonymous Abyan, she was summarily returned to Nauru on Friday – without the termination – after reportedly missing a doctor’s appointment.

According to her lawyer, the distraught woman wanted access to a counsellor to discuss her options and also needed to recover her health before undergoing the procedure. In contrast, the Government claimed Abyan had changed her mind or implied she was stalling to give her lawyer time to secure a court injunction to keep her in Australia.

Progressives around Australia will be following Abyan’s case closely over the coming days and weeks to gauge the credentials of our shiny new PM. No doubt they will also be making their views known in the next round of opinion polls.