Amid the ever-present cloud, there is at least some sort of silver lining for the Turnbull government as it considers last week’s batch of opinion poll numbers.

The silver lining’s name is Bill Shorten, whose already soft personal ratings were found to have deteriorated further by two separate pollsters.

One was the Essential Research poll for The Guardian Australia, which recorded a five-point increase in the Opposition Leader’s disapproval rating since it last posed the question a month ago, while his approval rating was essentially unchanged.

The other was the first Ipsos poll for the Fairfax papers since May, which had Shorten down six on approval and up five on disapproval, while Turnbull’s lead as preferred prime minister widened from 12% to 17%, despite some none-too-rosy personal ratings of his own.

It may not be immediately obvious why Shorten’s standing should have deteriorated quite so much over the past month — although his change of heart last week on confirming his citizenship status perhaps offers a hint.

However, a clearer picture of what’s been ailing Shorten over the longer term can be found in Essential Research’s leader attributes series, in which respondents are invited to give leaders the thumbs up or down according to a wide range of criteria.

[Malcolm Turnbull needs to reconnect with voters. Bill Shorten can show him how.]

These results suggest Shorten’s problem is not so much that he is viewed with hostility, as that he fails to rouse much passion one way or the other.

The most recent figures emerged in late June, and they offered the superficially encouraging findings that 59% rated Shorten as hard-working and 58% thought him intelligent (although he scored only 29% for “visionary” and 31% for “trustworthy”).

However, results like these are actually par for the course for political leaders, whom the public are generally willing to acknowledge would never have made it to the top of the greasy pole if they didn’t at least have hard work and intelligence going for them.

The other side to this coin is that none has cracked 50% on “trustworthiness” since the honeymoon phase of Kevin Rudd’s first prime ministership (and then just barely).

For a more meaningful insight into how the current leaders stand, the chart below records the differences between their recent results and averages from all such polling conducted by Essential since the 2010 election, a period encompassing two Liberal and three Labor leaders.


Malcolm Turnbull continues to rate well on intelligence, although he is no longer reckoned to be especially “capable” or “visionary”, as he was during the first six months of his prime ministership.

So far as negative characteristics are concerned, few fault Turnbull for being aggressive or erratic, but a clear impression has emerged since early last year that he is “out of touch”.

For Shorten, on the other hand, respondents appear reluctant to attribute any qualities to him at all, either good or bad.

If he is not rated as especially intelligent, capable or good in a crisis, nor is he seen as out of touch, intolerant or arrogant.

Lest it be supposed that vague impressions are somehow the natural lot of the Opposition Leader, respondents between 2010 and 2013 had an all too clear view of Tony Abbott, deeming him aggressive, arrogant, intolerant and narrow-minded.

Of course, none of that did him much harm at the 2013 election — and all indications are that Shorten’s elusive persona will likewise be insufficient to dissuade voters from dispensing with a government in which they have lost faith.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey