Newspoll 56-44 2PP to the Government. Rudd leads as preferred Prime Minister by 45 points. Is the honeymoon over?
Malcolm Turnbull’s, that is. The one steady factor in recent Newspolls has been the decline in Turnbull’s satisfaction ratings and the increase in his dissatisfaction ratings. Even in December, in the so-called rogue poll that had the Government at 59-41 the weekend after the end-of-sitting debacle with the Nats, far more people were happy with Turnbull’s performance than unhappy. Since then, there’s been a steady drip of punters deciding they don’t like him.
Net satisfaction rating — a concept polling types have been using for years — is the new black in mainstream media polling analysis. Even Christopher Pearson, the resident galah of political commentary, blithely discusses Malcolm Turnbull’s declining net satisfaction level. One is loathe to go where preferred Prime Minister, preferred economic manager, preferred national security manager and preferred rock band manager* have all gone before as key predictors of political fortunes. Moreover, the poll was conducted on a seriously bad weekend for the Coalition, after Julia Gillard got her IR bill through over the Opposition’s objections, and Lawrence Springborg found a third way to lose to the Queensland ALP.
Nevertheless, Malcolm Turnbull is on a slippery slope and he’s running out of time to get a firm purchase and begin clambering back up. Why running out of time? Because the Liberal Party are an impatient lot. They want back into Government. Not for them the remorseless logic of history that one-term governments are rare as hen’s teeth. Not for them the painful reality that Peter Costello has never been liked by the Australian electorate no matter how popular the Government of which he was a member was.
Turnbull needs to change the political dynamic, otherwise he will be slowly sliced to death every fortnight as his numbers slide. And then the mutterings will start. You know how it is. We’ve seen it all before, too many times.
Turnbull has to offer something positive. When even Alan Jones complains you’re too negative, it’s time to find a new way of differentiating yourself from the ALP. The Liberals’ post-election policy development process has now been going for well over a year without seeming to bear any fruit. Meantime, Turnbull has almost wilfully played along with the Prime Minister’s simplistic and flawed dichotomy between the Coalition’s neoliberalism and Labor’s moderate centrism. Turnbull might object that he tried to be positive with his green carbon initiative, and it sank without trace. But that’s life in opposition.
There’s a template for how to be a successful Opposition leader. It’s Kevin Rudd in 2007, however much that might stick in the Coalition craw. John Howard in 1995 also offers some lessons, but time and the evolution of the media have rendered some of them out of date. The Liberals need to take a hard look at what Labor did right in Opposition and copy it.
For example, Rudd countered the problem of ripple-less policy announcements in 2007 by having large set-piece events, such as a housing summit and a climate change summit — at which he could make policy announcements, or more usually announcements about developing a policy at some point in the future. The benefit was that Rudd, rather than producing policies without context, appeared to be engaging in a genuine policy process aimed at a real problem. There was much less chance of such initiatives disappearing without trace.
And yes, it helped that he was leading in the polls at the time, but for much of 2007 the political commentariat thought that was simply a honeymoon and the magician Howard would pull off another victory.
The other successful element of Rudd’s strategy was to pick what he wanted to differentiate himself from the Howard Government on, but otherwise, tracked his opponent closely. This is traditionally called picking the fights you can win, and has much to recommend it. Criticism of “me-tooism” utterly failed to deter Labor. Turnbull’s strategy seems to be the perfect opposite — oppose everything, and occasionally offer grudging support. Doing that with such a popular government is simply a recipe for permanent opposition.
Most of all, Turnbull and his team have to engage in the same sort of lateral thinking, and fast, on the economy and produce some new ideas that demonstrates they’re using their heads rather than reflexively saying no to everything the Government says. Make the Government respond to them, not the other way around. Hell, even hold a summit or two.
Otherwise, Peter Costello, a man without courage, capacity for hard work or policy substance, will obtain the leadership having done nothing but destabilise his party since November 2007. And Turnbull, one of the finest minds ever to grace an Australian Parliament, will be lost to public life, before he’s even had a chance to show what he’s capable of.
*One of those I just made up — see if you can spot which.