After a harder backlash against the budget than was apparently anticipated, Coalition MPs may well be finding a spring returning to their steps after the most recent round of polls.
This week’s Newspoll in The Australian recorded Tony Abbott’s approval rating at an almost respectable 41%, and both Newspoll and ReachTEL effectively had the government at level pegging on voting intention (although Essential Research and Morgan continue to have Labor well ahead).
This comes at a time when it might have been expected that the lift in Abbott’s stocks after the MH17 disaster would be cooling off, based on how the polls behaved in response to similar events in the past.
The reason it hasn’t is that the media space continues to be dominated by issues that fall under the broad umbrella of “national security”, namely Iraq, domestic terrorism and asylum seekers (a contentious classification in the latter case, but it works as such for the government on a political level).
Iraq hasn’t traditionally been a plus for the Coalition, but things seem quite a bit different this time due to the limited nature of the engagement, revulsion at the activities of Islamic State, and very different public attitudes towards the present and previous incumbents of the White House.
Since the start of the month, five polls from four pollsters have gauged attitudes on Iraq commitment, with most finding a solid, though by no means overwhelming, balance of support in favour of the government’s position.
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However, a fair bit has depended on the wording and ordering of the questions. When ReachTEL first asked respondents if they would support sending planes and then asked about sending troops, it seemed many felt their hawkishness had been given a sufficient workout the first time around. Only 32.8% took the opportunity to up the ante by supporting a troop commitment, with 44.1% professing themselves as opposed.
More significant than the specifics is the simple fact that Iraq is keeping the hard edge of international affairs at the front of voters’ minds. When Essential Research asked last week whether respondents felt the government was good or poor in its handling of 11 issue areas, the only one for which it scored a net positive result was “relations with other countries”.
Even on the traditional Liberal strength of “managing the economy”, poor outrated good by 6%. Tellingly, a recent poll by McNair Ingenuity found the popularity of Foreign Minister Julie Bishop had soared during the government’s time in office, whereas that of Treasurer Joe Hockey had plummeted.
So it has unmistakably been to the government’s advantage that foreign affairs and terrorism concerns have dominated the news media, a point illustrated by the charts below.
The first is an area chart derived from iSentia’s weekly reports on the five dominant federal political issues, which assign scores based on volume of press, radio, television and internet coverage. These numbers have been aggregated into fortnightly results as far back as budget time in early May. The chart shows how the dominance of domestic issues, represented by the dark blue area, has made way for a series of national security concerns, shown in various shades of green.
The chart on the right displays the combined share of coverage of the four national security issues in green, alongside the Coalition’s two-party vote as recorded by the BludgerTrack poll aggregate in blue.
Given the picture painted by the chart on the right, the events of the past week seem to bode well for Abbott so far as the next round of polls is concerned. The problem for the government is that, barring a major international catastrophe, it can only be a matter of time before domestic concerns reassert themselves.
This point is illustrated by the experience of the 2001 election, which history remembers as a triumph for John Howard on the back of the Tampa episode and September 11. What’s often forgotten is how modest his win ended up being. After surging to a lead approaching double figures between September 11 and the start of the campaign a month later, the Coalition’s two-party preferred advantage at the November 10 election was a remarkably narrow 50.95% to 49.05%. This was despite Labor being starved for oxygen by the war in Afghanistan, which dominated the news for much of the campaign period.
Three years later, when the unfolding disaster in Iraq had made international affairs a lot less favourable for Howard, a campaign built around interest rates delivered him five extra seats and a swing of 1.8%.
Despite the more flattering headlines Abbott has been given by recent poll results, the deeper issue remains. Two years are left to him to build a saleable narrative from his government’s currently shambolic record on domestic issues, if he is to avoid a place in the history books as one-term Tony.