For those whose political memories stretch back as far as six years, events in federal politics in the first two months of this election year have had a distinctly familiar ring about them.

As the year began, there was a seemingly ironclad conventional wisdom that the government was headed for a comfortable re-election on the back of the Prime Minister’s formidable personal appeal.

However, Malcolm Turnbull’s aura of invincibility has been dented over recent weeks by a series of soft opinion poll results, culminating in the surprise finding by Newspoll on Monday that Labor had drawn level on two-party preferred.

Of the various factors in play, the biggest is the government’s growing sense of paralysis on tax reform. This reached crisis proportions after Treasurer Scott Morrison’s poorly received appearance at the National Press Club last week, which generated enough hostile coverage in the popular media to do real damage to the government’s image among the electorally crucial cohort of half-engaged swinging voters.

It would perhaps be going too far to say that Turnbull has squibbed the greatest moral challenge of our time, or that his good government has lost its way. Nonetheless, there are uncomfortable parallels between his present situation and that faced by Kevin Rudd as the wheels began to fall off his prime ministership in the first half of 2010.

As Turnbull would not need reminding, 2009 had ended with the Liberal Party dispensing with his services as leader over his insistence that the Rudd government’s Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme be passed through the Senate.

On a purely political level, this paid handsome dividends when Rudd baulked at the option of putting the matter to a double dissolution, then announced that the government was putting the scheme on ice for three years.

Combined as it was with various other policy retreats that were designed to “clear the decks” ahead of a looming election, the effect was to make Rudd appear irresolute and directionless, just as Turnbull does right now.

The similarity has been reflected in opinion polls, at least to the extent that Newspoll has recorded the complete disappearance of a 53-47 lead the Coalition had enjoyed three weeks previously.

Going back to Rudd’s time, trend analysis shows Labor was on about 55% of the two-party vote before the CPRS backdown in April, before sagging to around 51% in the month before the leadership change in June.

It should be observed that there is an important lesson to be learned here about the dangers of over-reacting to an individual poll result. Two weeks before Rudd was dumped, those plotting against his leadership were granted a gift in the form of a Nielsen poll showing the Coalition charging to a 53-47 lead — clearly a rogue result when viewed with the benefit of hindsight.

So it’s important to remember that the tied Newspoll result has not been corroborated by any other pollster, and is 2% worse for the Coalition than overall poll aggregation suggests. Even so, it has taken the Coalition just one month to drop from around 54% to its present level of 52%, and it’s very far from clear that the trend has finished playing out.

Luckily for Turnbull, whose array of internal enemies is easily as impressive as Rudd’s, the government has already used what must surely have been its one and only leadership change card for the term.

Furthermore, a report in the Fairfax papers last week suggests Coalition sentiment falls well short of the alarmism that Labor succumbed to in 2010, with internal polling encouraging a view that the backlash is “containable”.

However, the size of the swing being contemplated — apparently enough to cost the Coalition “at least 10 seats” — would have alarming implications for a strategy of pursuing a double dissolution to strengthen the government’s hand in the Senate.

It has been widely assumed that the government’s Senate reform legislation passes muster from the perspective of self-interest, since a diminished role for preferences would play to the Coalition’s advantage of having the highest base primary vote.

But it may yet prove that the Coalition made a costly concession in agreeing that voters should be directed to number at least six boxes above the line, in response to minor party concerns that one-only votes would stack the deck in favour of the major parties.

The risk for the Coalition is that tight preferencing between Labor and the Greens will produce a solid left-of-centre voting bloc — much as it did when former premier Campbell Newman was unexpectedly poleaxed in Queensland early last year — while right-of-centre micro-party voters vent their anti-establishment sentiments by allocating preferences only to other micro-parties.

With polling suggesting the Greens have bounced back strongly from their weak showing in 2013, it’s entirely possible to see a strong flow of preferences from Labor delivering them as many as 12 seats at a full Senate election.

Given the state of his party internally, Turnbull would have a very rocky road ahead of him if all he could show for his vaunted double dissolution strategy was a reduced majority in the lower house, no gains in the Senate, and a crossbench that skews further to the left than what’s there already.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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