There’s no respect for tradition anymore: you can’t buy Cobbers* in milk bars, there are no more milk bars, and the Oz no longer spins the Newspoll like a whirling dervish in search of enlightenment. For shame. For years, during the height of the Howard years, the spinning of the Newspoll was a fortnightly festival that would bring millions together. How we would all cluster round the paper and delight to see what stray metric the editors would choose as the “key indicator” to distract attention from the way the rodent was swelling with the Ratsak Kevin ’07 had laid down. “Better economic manager”, “Nicer tie”, etc, etc — anything would serve.

Now? Well, now they play it straight, with a scrupulous assessment by Phillip Hudson — of numbers so bad for the Coalition that not shouting “oh my god, Jesus!” amounts to a sort of spin in itself. Today’s Newspoll has Labor fully recovering its primary vote to 39%, bringing it level with the Coalition — and giving it a further two-party preferred lead, 54-46.

Those are diabolical numbers, but they get worse for the Coalition. Labor’s been bumping along at about 36.5% average over the last six months, with the Coalition at 40%. Labor’s now been on 39% for a month, and the Coalition has dipped to meet it. Furthermore Labor’s rise hasn’t come at the expense of the Greens, who have risen 1 point to 13%, but from both “others” — Palmer United and independents — and from undecideds.

Why is that so bad? Well, Newspoll contains an implicit asymmetry. The Coalition is assessed as a single party, when it is two; Labor and the Greens are assessed as two parties, when no one believes that the Greens would ever support a Liberal Party or Coalition government.

So if you assess primary vote as left-/right-of-centre, then the left leads the right 52% to 39%. If you strip out the Nationals’ 5% or so, then Labor leads the Liberals as the major party by 39% to 34% on a primary vote. Either way you look it, and allowing for a 10%-20% leakage of Green preferences to the Liberals, the state of play is not simply that Labor is leading on two-party preferred, it is that the support that Tony Abbott’s Liberal Party won in 2013 has been hollowed out — and they are now squandering some of the suburban working middle-class vote that Howard managed to win off Labor in the early 2000s.

Nor is there any joy for the right in the subsidiary figures. The satisfaction rating favours Abbott over Shorten — 33% to 29%, the dissatisfaction rate the reverse — 61% to 57%. Shorten has started to trend upwards, Abbott downwards. And as preferred prime minister, they’re equal, at 38% each, after four months in which Abbott enjoyed a 4% lead.

There’s no mystery about these figures. Look at the line graphs and it’s neat as a red-and-blue bowtie, with the knot being the 2014 budget. At that point, after the Coalition simply dumped a range of commitments to preserve Labor policies and reversed them, the red and blue line crossed over, and they haven’t gone back since. The extension of that result has been due to the Bronwyn follies, but if the right attributes too much to that then they’re kidding themselves. The electorate voted in Abbott in the manner of hiring a new manager to replace the previous one. Abbott recognised that in his campaign, then failed to in crafting a budget or starting new culture wars. That was it for enough of the electorate to decide they’d been duped — and to feel pretty raw about those doing the duping. Fool me once … you … you …you can’t fool me twice, heh heh.

Labor could still lose the next election during the campaign — but even that is looking less likely. Abbott can now not merely not fuck up, he would have to pull out something utterly audacious and sell it successfully. Since a vast amount of energy in the last campaign went simply to restraining Abbott from fucking up — 15-minute walkarounds before being re-corralled by Credlin and Co. to be calmed down and refocused, over and over, for 12 hours a day — the chance of there being anything extra in the kick are not great.

Shorten, whatever his faults, may well benefit from the contrast with Abbott. Those who once admired Abbott’s energy and brio are now recognising what those of us closer to it saw — the radiated heat of a roiling Bessemer forge of 20th-century religious-political obsessions and personal neuroses, constrained from lethal hot-metal flood only by the thickened walls of his ego-shell hardbody.

Shorten’s mildly depressing lassitude and his uncanny resemblance to Droopy Dawg, by contrast, may scarf up some of the ordinariness that Howard managed to deploy against Keating in 1996 and Latham in 2004. Shorten is a schlub, and most of us are. We will vote for someone unlike us, above us — an Obama, a Thatcher, a Whitlam — if we believe that they satisfy basic conditions of rationality, that they see the same world we do, but are more effective within it. Once we believe them to be working off their own fantasy projection, nothing will persuade us back to them, and the most ordinary person can beat them. Cue Shorten. Cue schlub. Vote schlub.

Just because we’re on a roll here, there are other ways that things can get worse for the Liberals. Take this weekend’s announcement that the Greens will be running in the seat of Higgins, Jason Ball, the local footballer who’s been the first Aussie rules player to come out. That’s a brilliant choice, because Ball is an immensely attractive character — courageous, clearly smart, unpompous in manner. He’s from a mainstream cultural current, but representative of a changing world. He embodies values that everyone can agree on (even if they disagreed with some of the content).

As the Greens modify their philosophical base, and as seats like Higgins change, their old haute-bourgeois centre diminishing as professionals (especially culture-knowledge-policy class professionals) move in, the Greens become competitive. The Coalition as it stands — led by Abbott, and with figures like Bernardi having a prominent voice within it — have no chance of gaining whole tranches of these new voters, even if their tax policies start to hugely advantage them. The Greens can, especially in areas where a resistance to Labor remains. There are Liberal votes that a Greens party with a leader like Di Natale can get that Labor led by a former union hack could never get. The rise of a direct Liberal-to-Green vote channel from its current low level will be the big electoral shift of the next five years.

Given this deliciously dire situation, what should Labor do to cement it, once the option of staying out of the way while disaster unfolds no longer presents itself? Quite aside from trying to talk to the country about a changing world, and the fact that the country is going to have to be very advanced indeed if it wants to continue as a settler-multicultural nation-state-continent with a population the size of four Chinese cities you’ve never heard of, there is more ahead. Simple quantitative change — the Gina Rinehart “work harder, peasants” — won’t do it. We’re going to have to be world leaders, and advocates, for living on a different basis, one less governed by abstract and utterly distorting measures of human activity and life such as GDP. The centrality of full-time work is going. Automation is now being joined by meta-automation, in which the process of automation is itself automated. The robots won’t be here tomorrow, but the process will effect the base of economy and society from now on in. Labor, by making itself the party of this, could not restore itself to the position of being the “natural party of government” that it enjoyed in the 1980s, it could push the right parties to split and recombination, with a new conservative party formed out of the Liberal right and the rotting remains of the National Party.

The other contribution to that would be to foreground itself as the party of rational institutional reform. The Abbott government had the chance to do this, but they threw it away and decided to become the last student political outing for their ageing principals. From time to time, a dozen Libs will capture the SRC of Arthur Fadden University or similar, because the left was too stoned to get its nomination forms in on time. Then they make the rugby captain the women’s officer, and turn the queer safe space into a boxing gym, etc. That’s what this government is like. Everything, from science policy to curriculum to the arts, is gimmicky, destructive, manic and defined by its opposition to a fantasy hegemonic left. Greg Sheridan’s memoir of late ’70s student politics should be shelved in the current affairs section of bookstores.

The public have noticed this, implicitly and explicitly. Institutions that Labor kept hands-off or made hands-off have been repoliticised. There is real anger, for example, among teachers and parents around the chucking of the whole curriculum process and the start on a new one, when the last new curriculum is yet to be fully implemented. The result is that schools have started to freewheel because uniform curriculum implementation has collapsed. The success of people like Pyne and Brandis has been that people notice things, negatively, they didn’t used to. The Abbott government is building its own grassroots opposition by a reverse politicisation process. Labor should talk to this: offer a genuine hands-off curriculum authority, restored hands-off science policy, and so on. There is a real appetite for this. The Abbott government has greatly misjudged the appetite for new culture wars. That period is over.

But of course to say all this may be pointless. For a 54-46 two-party preferred is very good for Labor, but on the edge of being dangerous. For the only thing that can give the Coalition a more-than-outsider chance at the next election is for Abbott to go — and if the polls hit 56-44 and stay there for more than a month, then Abbott surely is gone. By that point, backbenchers will be thinking not about victory, but about loss minimisation, and saving their own necks and careers. That’s the point at which they would wear the Rudd-Gillard comparisons — for the chance to get the two-party preferred back into the zone. And at that point, with a more dynamic leader, there is every danger that Bill Shorten starts to look like, well, a schlub. And Labor would pull defeat from victory. Because that’s tradition. Ain’t that right, cobber?


*Chocolate-coated hard caramel, which would sometimes emerge from your mouth with a tooth embedded in them. There’s a metaphor there. If anyone can think of it, please send it in

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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