Malcolm Turnbull

Of all the difficulties the Turnbull government faces as the new year begins in earnest, perhaps the most menacing is the Centrelink debt recovery debacle, which threatens a drumbeat of negative publicity that will long outlast its present issues over parliamentarians’ entitlements.

A poll conducted last week for GetUp! by ReachTEL found half of all respondents saying the Centrelink issue had made them less likely to vote for the Coalition, with even two-in-three Liberal voters allowing that the government’s efforts would be better spent on corporate tax dodging.

In happier circumstances, the government might have hoped that support lost among those directly affected would have been more than balanced by the much-touted improvement to the budget bottom line.

But in the wake of the census debacle, few are willing to extend the benefit of the doubt to a government grappling with its second IT disaster in a matter of months — to say nothing of the optics involved in battlers being menaced by a government with a demonstrated weakness for extravagant expenses claims.

In any case, progressive tightening to benefits over the course of three decades, combined with mounting disquiet over the light-to-non-existent tax burden faced for multinational companies, means welfare recipients are not the soft political target they once were.

This was becoming apparent even at the tail end of the Howard years, when stricter critieria for the disability support pension — sold to the public as “Welfare to Work” reforms — contributed to a fatal collapse in electoral support on the metropolitan fringes and in struggling regional towns.

So far though, disquiet among Coalition MPs has been fairly muted — with the interesting exception of Tasmanian Senator Eric Abetz, who yesterday allowed that the process “may not have been as robust as it could have been”.

[How to dispute a Centrelink debt]

Abetz is not commonly noted as a champion of the underdog, but it’s surely significant that he’s the leading Liberal in a state where unemployment is permanently mired well above the national average.

In spite of everything, the evidence of the two national opinion polls published over the past week is that the government’s position on voting intention is little worse than it was when the story began to emerge before Christmas.

The first Essential Research poll of the year found no change to Labor’s 53-47 lead on two-party preferred, and the 54-46 lead in the ReachTEL poll was based on an unrealistically strong flow of minor party preferences to Labor.

However, it may be that the problems the government has encountered to this point will ultimately prove to have been the tip of the iceberg.

So far the data matching scheme has targeted Newstart and Youth Allowance recipients — benefits primarily received by the young, who are proverbial for their lack of political clout.

But reports this week suggest the next targets will be disability support and, particularly dangerously, the aged pension — recipients of which are already cranky over the tightened assets test that took effect at the start of the year.

The electoral dimensions of the issue are illustrated by the tables below, which identify the 15 electorates with the highest proportions of voters on the benefits targeted so far, followed by those next in line.

The first table may help to explain why, so far at least, the issue doesn’t seem to be giving too many Coalition MPs sleepless nights.

The highest concentrations of those on unemployment benefits tend to be in low-income areas of the big cities and remote regions with high indigenous populations.

[Oi ScoMo, cracking down on welfare cheats isn’t that simple]

The former account for the most reliable Labor territory in the country, while electorates encompassing the latter usually bring together white conservative and indigenous Labor voters, with the former being decisively greater in number.

But when pensioners come in to view, real problems start to emerge — especially for the Nationals, whose rural and regional heartland is distinctive for being whiter, poorer and older than the big cities.

A couple of the seats on the list are marginal in the classic sense of the word, notably the north coast New South Wales seat of Page, which has gone with the winning party at every election since 1990.

But the real story may be that traditionally Nationals-voting pensioners in regional areas constitute the latest in a long line of golden opportunities for Pauline Hanson.

*To read more from Crikey’s William Bowe, visit The Poll Bludger