At a time when it would have had pencilled in an upswing on the back of the G20, the latest round of polling will have come as a bitter disappointment to the Abbott government.

The worst of a bad bunch was this week’s Newspoll, which found the Coalition slumping to a 55%-45% deficit on two-party preferred — right back where it was in the aftermath of the May budget.

It was a sign of the alarm within conservative circles that Andrew Bolt felt moved to compose a 1000-word, 19-point action plan setting out where the government was going wrong and what it needed to do to rectify it.

In considering such reactions, it always pays to be alert to the hyperbole that characteristically accompanies poll movements, which are very often within the margin of error or are shown over long range to have been statistical anomalies.

Newspoll in particular is characterised by a certain volatility relative to comparable pollsters, and there seems little doubt that this particular poll overshot the mark.

But that’s not to say that the result appeared out of thin air, or that it shouldn’t be of concern to the government that a quality pollster should be showing it in such deep strife.

Taking a step back from the week-to-week polling noise, the BludgerTrack poll aggregate featured on my blog The Poll Bludger suggests that the government is presently entering a fifth phase in its polling fortunes, which might progressively be identified as the honeymoon, the reversal, the collapse, the recovery and the relapse.

The honeymoon was a pale thing by the standards of earlier federal governments, but it at least lived up to its name to the extent that the Coalition held the lead for the first and so far only time since it came to office.

The reversal came in November, for which the catalyst was the government’s abandonment of the Gonski reforms and the backflip that rapidly followed. No doubt to its own surprise, Labor at this point established a slight but durable lead just three months after it was resoundingly ejected from office.

The collapse was a clear consequence of the May budget, and for a time left the Coalition with polling numbers of a kind Julia Gillard had known all too well. Labor’s aggregated poll lead at this time was in the order of 54%-46%, and Prime Minister Tony Abbott spent a period of about a month consistently suffering disapproval ratings in the order of 60%.

The recovery in fact played out over two distinct phases, a point that comes through more clearly in Abbott’s own approval ratings than the voting intention numbers.

The first reflected Tony Abbott’s robust response to the MH17 disaster, which at least initially struck the right note with most of the electorate. The second was the flurry of concern about domestic terrorism that attended the Islamic State offensive in Iraq, the raids in Sydney and Brisbane on September 18, and the subsequent bolstering of anti-terrorism laws.

The causes of the subsequent relapse are not quite so easy to diagnose. Certainly the US-China greenhouse emissions agreement has left the government looking flat-footed and spoilt its G20 party, but the poll aggregation clearly indicates that the shift back to Labor had in fact been in train since late September.

The most likely explanation is that the recovery, the second phase of it especially, did not have much substance behind it to begin with. The reversion of the agenda to domestic concerns — for which catalysts were provided by the fuel excise increase and talk of revisiting the goods and services tax — might have been all that was needed to let the air out of the balloon, as I suggested might be the case at around the time the swing back to Labor began.

Of course, the government can always console itself with the thought that mid-term opinion polls are of little predictive value, and that the better part of two years remains to right the ship.

However, that’s of little comfort to Victorian Premier Denis Napthine, who finds the federal government adding ever more weight to his saddlebags as he prepares to face the voters in Victoria next Saturday.

Despite some signs of a narrowing from the limited public polling that has emerged over the past week, indications remain that Victoria will indeed be back under Labor control in a little over a week’s time.

If that is indeed how things plays out, the intensity of the recriminations directed at the federal Liberals by their state counterparts will be something to behold.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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