Time for a Turnbull reset

Malcolm Turnbull has a one-off (if not entirely deserved) opportunity to reinvent his government, re-set voter expectations, and deliver policies befitting, dare we say, an innovative Government.

Against the backdrop of an opinion poll today and several over the past fortnight suggesting the gloss has started to come off Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, the PM could benefit from using last week’s dumping of the GST increase and the weekend’s ministry reshuffle to reframe the Government and reset his re-election strategy.

Most of the polling organisations are back in the field since the summer break and have published at least one poll since then. Overall the surveys show the Coalition Government remains in an election-winning position but voters appear to be less thrilled with PM Turnbull than they once were.

On February 1 Newspoll reported the major parties’ primary vote had increased since December but there was no change in the overall two party preferred vote (Coalition 53 per cent to Labor 47 per cent). Just over a week later the Essential Poll found a slight drop in the Coalition’s vote but no change in the 2PP (51:49).

The same day the Morgan Poll reported no change in the Coalition’s primary vote, but slight increases in Labor’s vote and that of the Greens, which resulted in the Coalition losing 2.5 percentage points after the allocation of preferences.

Meanwhile, late last week, ReachTEL saw the Coalition drop slightly and Labor increase slightly in both primary and 2PP votes, with support after the allocation of preferences at 54 per cent for the Coalition and 46 per cent for Labor.

However, the change in Turnbull’s personal support has been more marked over the same period.

Newspoll noted a drop in the PM’s approval rating of eight points to 52 per cent from November to December, which has barely moved since then. Essential claims Turnbull’s satisfaction rating has dropped five points over the same period, to 51 per cent. And the ReachTEL poll conducted four days ago found voters’ satisfaction with the PM dropped from 53.6 per cent in January to 39.2 per cent.

Today’s Ipsos poll suggests something similar, reporting Turnbull’s approval rating has dropped 7 points since November to 62 per cent. Ipsos also records the biggest change yet in the parties’ primary vote over the period, with the Coalition dropping four points to 44 per cent since November and Labor increasing by three points to 32 per cent. After the allocation of preferences, this leaves the Coalition ahead of Labor at 52:48 per cent.

It’s unsurprising Turnbull’s star appears to have reached the apex of its trajectory given only two other prime ministers (Hawke and Rudd) achieved such popularity, and both men ultimately crashed back to earth.

What is less clear is why some voters appear to be having second thoughts about Turnbull.

Is it simply that the electorate has recovered from the initial relief that Tony Abbott is no longer PM and begun to apply scrutiny to the new guy? Or is there a concern developing that the new administration is not living up to the heightened expectations created by the switch away from Abbott?

There is some evidence to suggest the latter, considering the Government has fallen short of the “economic competency” rhetoric used by Turnbull in his leadership pitch against Abbott, including the commitment to have an adult discussion with voters about the reforms needed to repair the economy.

The manifestation of that commitment was the PM and Treasurer’s subsequent refusal to rule out any economic reform options, leaving the Government exposed to what appears to have been a successful GST scare campaign from the Opposition.

Having promised a considered dialogue on economic repair as the nation leisurely strolled towards a national election at year’s end, the tax reform conversation was instead cut off mere weeks into the election year. This left the business community questioning the Government’s fortitude and voters wondering whether the dreaded tax (increase) was truly dead or simply resting.

Shattered voter expectations and lingering suspicions are demonstrably electoral poison; the Rudd, Gillard and even Abbott experiences attest to that political reality.

This is why Labor is playing heavily on the line that Turnbull has abandoned his progressive principles to placate the conservative forces within the Government and thereby save his political skin. The Opposition senses that expectations of progressives flirting with the idea of voting for Turnbull could be the PM’s Achilles heel if he is judged to be wanting.

Accordingly, the PM must now reset voter expectations if he is to maintain the Coalition’s still-healthy lead over Labor.

The Government still benefits from a tendency by voters to see Labor as economic spendthrifts, although the Opposition is trying to neutralise that bias with revenue-raising policies that tap into anti-corporate sentiment within their voting base. Labor’s new policy on negative gearing is also tailored for the same audience, which is resentful of cashed up boomers pricing younger generations out of the housing market.

A cohesive economic reform argument is needed from the Government to prevent Labor’s us-versus-them revenue measures from getting political traction.

Conventional political thinking sees the upcoming May budget as the time for the Government to set out that argument, moving soon afterwards to call a full-term election for September or October.

But with the abandonment of the GST increase, and there no longer being an attendant need for a lengthy lead-up to the election in order to sell the change to voters, other election timing options become more viable.

This could include postponing the budget and calling a double dissolution election in May for early July, although as the ABC’s Antony Green explains, this would require a longer than usual election campaign.

The benefit of such an approach would be to clean out the independents and minor party MPs from the Senate, made possible by the Greens agreeing over the weekend to support the Government’s proposed Senate voting reforms.

A double dissolution election with the new Senate voting arrangements would likely see more Greens elected to the upper house, but Turnbull could view this as preferable to the existing fractured crossbench, particularly given the Greens’ new pragmatism and willingness to work with the Government on some issues.

A fresh Senate could therefore pave the way for a completely different, dare we say innovative, Government policy agenda.

With new election timing options, a new ministry and a new economic agenda by virtue of it now excluding major tax reform, Malcolm Turnbull has a one-off (if not entirely deserved) opportunity to reinvent his government, re-set voter expectations, and deliver policies that meet them.

However, he must do so while juggling the potentially troublesome ascendancy of the Nationals within the ministry, led by the mercurial Deputy Prime Minister, Barnaby Joyce. Turnbull must also deal with the ongoing subversive agitations of the Abbott camp, which will no doubt welcome every downward blip in the Government’s standing as measured by the published opinion polls.

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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