Two weeks ago, when Newspoll showed the Coalition ahead 51% to 49% two-party-preferred, Dennis Shanahan in The Australian described it as “an election-winning lead”.
Bryan Palmer’s reaction at Ozpolitics was “B-llocks!”, while I said in Crikey that it was “a brave call”. Today’s Newspoll hasn’t shifted much: it’s still 51-49, but this time with the ALP in front. But Shanahan is now more circumspect, saying only that “Labor has regained a narrow lead”. The approval ratings and beauty contest numbers also show little change.
While incumbency in the states still seems to be an overwhelming advantage, it’s not doing quite so much for the Howard government in Canberra. The overall trend of the polls this year has been fairly level, but with the government generally trailing and if anything slipping a bit further behind. That shows up also in Newspoll’s question on the Labor leadership, in which Kim Beazley has jumped ahead of rivals Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd.
Since it’s hard to see any change in Beazley since the last poll (or indeed in the last decade), the most obvious explanation is a perception among Labor voters that their chances for the next election are improving, so leadership change might not be necessary. Even so, at a little over 12 months out, the government’s position is pretty strong. If there was a real shift away from it, it should be showing up much more dramatically than this in the polls.
Beazley shouldn’t be written off, but it’s very likely that in an election year there will be some movement back towards the government. And even if Labor comes through with a 51-49 result at an election, that might not give it a majority: in fact, that’s exactly the result Beazley got all those years ago in 1998.