What started out as a conniption over the gift of a second hand car has quickly descended into scandal over gifts of second-hand information.
If Grech turns out to be the long suspected Treasury Mole – the one that brought us such hits as Cabinet dissent over Fuelwatch and leaked correspondence between RBA Governor Glen Stevens and Treasury head Ken Henry over the bank guarantee – while his fate is sealed with future meals of porridge, the Coalition was perfectly entitled to use whatever information came their way. Unless there was some really deep conspiracy going on where the Coalition was actively engaged in the procurement of sensitive information, they have nothing to fear but public opprobrium. And let’s face it, this is Australia – we don’t do deep conspiracy or scandal very well.
Berlusconi – with his 30 women, a transsexual TV star and a pile of coke – now that’s how you do scandal! We get stuck with bloody utes and leaked correspondence between policy wonks in blue suits.
The problem for the Coalition becomes one of how people will come to view this behaviour and how their actions will affect the framing of, to use that dreaded word, a “narrative”.
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There’s only been three polls taken that have measured the public perception of Turnbull’s personality traits – an Essential Report and Newspoll taken in September 2008 when Truffles first assumed the leadership – which make them little more than initial public first impressions. Then we had a Galaxy last month that measured a few of the same things.
Running through the results with Essential first, then Newspoll followed by the recent Galaxy:
Which of the following describe your opinion of the new Opposition Leader, Malcolm Turnbull?
There’s slightly different wording across the questions here which we need to keep in mind. The problem for Turnbull is the issue of trustworthiness – Newspoll had initial positive public perceptions on “trustworthy” running at 55%, however Galaxy last month had that coming in at a paltry 23%. Even though the questions are slightly different – Newspoll asking about each leader separately and Galaxy asking for a comparative measure – it still demonstrates that the public doesn’t particularly trust Malcolm Turnbull generically.
That’s bad news considering what is currently happening.
As this fiasco unfolds and if it’s demonstrated that Turnbull’s office had close links to Grech – that will simply reinforce the negative perception the public already has on the issue of trust. This begs the question – how important is “trust” as an issue for Oppositions? Unfortunately we don’t have enough data to say definitively, except that Opposition leaders can be more trusted than Prime Ministers and still lose elections, but an Opposition leader less trustworthy than the Prime Minister has never won an election as far as Newspoll questions on trust are concerned – and they go back to 1992.
What would be interesting is if we got an update to this set of polling questions, or at least some new questions asked on the issue of “honesty” (hint,hint pollsters).
As to whether this whole fiasco will have an impact on the polling, I’m in two minds – on the one hand a lot of this political insider stuff just blows over the heads of those people most likely to change their voting intention. We only have to look at how AWB or Children Overboard or Manildra or the early resignations of Ministers in the first term of the Howard government played out in the polls to see that scandal rarely lives up to its hype when it comes to changing public opinion.
Yet, on the other hand, Turnbull and the Coalition have some generic weaknesses where this stuff might not play well – female voters for instance. If we look at the Coalition primary vote among females using the Newspoll quarterly breakdowns:
That covers the period from the last election up until March. Since then, the Coalition have improved their polling position and unless the Coalition have equalled or overtaken the ALP with male voters over the last few months (in march, the ALP lead 44/39 among males), a large part of the recent would have had to come from female voters. Issues of honesty, trust and other personality traits play stronger among female voters – so the Coalition could stand to lose any recent gains from this cohort over what is currently happening.