Pauline Hanson

As it weathers the unfolding fiasco of Centrelink’s automated debt notices and front-page splashes about Liberal MP Sussan Ley’s Gold Coast apartment purchase, the government is enduring its toughest silly season since Tony Abbott got it into his head to give Prince Philip a knighthood.

Malcolm Turnbull, who explicitly invoked Newspoll to legitimise his move against Tony Abbott in September 2015, must now be feeling relief that the pollster hasn’t been on hand to put hard numbers on the blow to his public standing.

Any deterioration in the government’s position will have come off an already shaky base, with a slow but steady trend against the Coalition evident in polling conducted since its unconvincing re-election on July 2.

A detailed analysis of post-election polling featured on my blog, The Poll Bludger, suggests the government faces particular difficulties in Queensland, where it would stand to lose five seats from a uniform swing of just 2% (including Immigration Minister Peter Dutton’s seat of Dickson), with a further three to go if the swing blows out to 4%.

Based on published and unpublished state-level data from four polling agencies, the analysis suggests the Coalition is behind the eight ball in every one of these seats, with a swing across the state of around 6% on both the primary and two-party preferred vote.

This is despite Labor recording next to no improvement on its meagre 31% vote at the election, which was itself barely 1% higher than what it was reduced to in 2013.

The direct beneficiary of the missing Coalition vote is One Nation, who are tracking at around 13% in Queensland — which very likely understates the situation, as polls so often do where the populist right is concerned.

This represents a gain of 7.6% off the 5.5% the party recorded in Queensland last July, which it managed despite fielding lower house candidates in only 12 of the state’s 30 seats.

Pollsters are also finding support for One Nation to be comparable to the Greens in the other two states where they hold Senate seats, New South Wales and Western Australia.

The dependably liberal state of Victoria remains relatively weak for the party, and correspondingly strong for the Greens.

The other state where One Nation is not making as much of an impression is South Australia, which is down to Nick Xenophon’s cornering of the populist market there — an interesting accomplishment, given that it’s been achieved through regionalism rather than nationalism.

Taken together, the poll numbers suggest Labor would emerge with a modest but comfortable working majority at the proverbial election-held-today.

However, this assumes One Nation preferences will continue to divide more-or-less evenly between the major parties — and it appears both One Nation and the Liberals are calculating that this need not always be so.

The question of preference deals with One Nation did not emerge during last year’s election campaign, as its complement of lower house candidates (12 in Queensland, three in New South Wales) was too small for it to be worth anyone’s bother.

The party has lately been rectifying this deficiency with a vengeance, unrolling dozens of candidates in Queensland before Christmas ahead of a state election still over a year away.

Inevitably, this has been followed by a rash of news reports detailing extreme opinions the party’s new legion of spear-carriers has expressed on social media over the years — and, less foreseeably, by disendorsements and censorious pronouncements from the party’s upper echelons in response.

If the idea behind getting candidates in place is to lure the Liberal National Party into preference negotiations, chances are they will be in luck.

Former Victorian premier Jeff Kennett has become the latest Liberal luminary to suggest that Hanson’s outfit really isn’t as bad as all that, and that mainstream conservatives should accept the new reality that arrangements need to be made with her.

However, it remains unclear exactly how much the Liberals stand to benefit from an exchange of preferences — or, to describe it more accurately, an exchange of how-to-vote card recommendations.

An analysis by Antony Green suggests only a handful of One Nation voters have looked to the party’s how-to-vote cards in the past to decide which of the major parties to grant the higher preference.

The one occasion when One Nation preferences clearly broke in favour of the Coalition was at the 2001 federal election, which appeared to reflect the Howard government’s recently adopted hard line on asylum seekers, rather than anything cooked up in a back room by preference negotiators.

If the Coalition is to claw back the votes it stands to lose to Hanson through preferences, it would seem her supporters will require tangible reason to think its policies are more aligned with their own concerns than Labor’s.

That amounts to yet more pressure on Turnbull to pursue hard conservative issue positions at odds with his own socially liberal instincts.

 

Peter Fray

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