Malcolm Turnbull’s popularity has taken another hit in the polls today, and it’s not totally surprising. He might think he’s being nimble over the budget and election timing, but it just looks evasive.
Another day, another opinion poll; this time it’s Fairfax’s Ipsos poll confirming the slide in the Prime Minister’s public approval ratings to a level described by one commentator as the “land of political mortals“.
Today’s Ipsos poll disagrees with findings from other recent polls that the Opposition has drawn level with the Government on a two-party preferred basis, claiming instead the Coalition is comfortably ahead at 53 to 47 per cent.
However, there is no dissent when it comes to Malcolm Turnbull’s popularity having come off the boil, with Ipsos charting a 14 percentage point drop in the PM’s approval rating to 55 per cent from a high of 69 per cent in November last year.
Another columnist ascribes half the plunge to disappointed progressives abandoning the PM for failure to deliver on totemic left-of-centre issues like same-sex marriage. The other half is apparently due to right-wingers having lost hope that Turnbull has the fortitude to deliver the tough measures needed for adequate economic reform.
However, Turnbull has more to worry about than being seen as heartless or without a spine; the PM’s seeming prevarication over the timing of this year’s federal election is also starting to make him look dodgy.
No one explains why better than the man himself, who as opposition leader in 2009 said of the then prime minister, Kevin Rudd:
His threat of a double dissolution and an early election proves to all of us what this budget is really about. It isn’t about protecting the jobs of Australians … It is about the job security of one man and one man only, a PM frightened of the consequences of his mismanagement, [who] now wants to cut and run before he is found out.
It wouldn’t take much of a stretch for the current Opposition leader, Bill Shorten, to level the same accusation at Turnbull.
In recent days the PM has been huffing about the need to clean up union corruption, claiming a double dissolution election is the regrettable consequence of the Senate crossbench’s continued rejection of legislation to re-establish the Australian Building and Construction Commission.
But Turnbull is not kidding anyone with this ruse, perhaps other than himself if he actually believes voters will swallow the line.
Ever since it became clear the Greens were prepared to support electoral reform including changes to Senate voting to stop preference harvesting, a DD election has offered an irresistible opportunity to the Government to throw open all Senate positions and clean out the crossbench from that chamber.
The rationale for doing so is that a Senate made up of only the major parties, the Nationals and the Greens would likely be more workable than one with a motley crew of crossbenchers extorting the Government with disparate niche demands.
Putting the lie to Turnbull’s exhortations, the Government’s agreement with the Greens to ram through the Senate reforms this week – but not consider the ABCC legislation – appears to confirm that wiping out the crossbench is a higher priority than securing a second double dissolution trigger.
Unlikely senatorial hero, Ricky Muir, is on to Turnbull’s game, and has announced plans to bring forward the Senate vote on the ABCC legislation. If the Government is to honour its deal with the Greens not to debate the bill this week, it will have no choice other than to block Muir’s motion.
That will be awkward considering how important Turnbull claims the ABCC to be. Additionally, Muir’s stunt may feed into voter concern that the PM is developing a habit of not being completely frank with us.
The same applies with the timing of this year’s budget. Turnbull may believe he is being nimble by subtly changing his language to accommodate the possibility of the annual economic statement being brought forward by a week.
An early budget is the best option to overcome challenges associated with calling a double dissolution election, such as the need to pass supply bills to ensure there’s enough money to run the public service until a new government is commissioned.
Yet by playing semantics with the media, saying only the Government is “working towards” a budget on May 10 or that the budget will be delivered “in May” rather than giving a specific date, the PM risks looking more deceptive than nimble. What Turnbull might see as keeping his options open looks more like evasiveness to the rest of us.
What’s more, the time for options may well have passed. With his own damning words from 2009 being brought back to haunt him, Turnbull is faced with the prospect of being seen as someone who “cuts and runs” if he calls a DD election.
And yet given his earlier backdown on increasing the GST, and ongoing dithering over a broader tax reform package, the PM may risk even more harmful criticism if he goes to water and calls off the “early” poll.
This is a problem completely of Turnbull’s own making. Only through decisive action can the PM extricate himself from the corner into which he has painted himself.