The recovery of the government in the polls creates the problem for Bill Shorten that even if Labor holds both Longman and Braddon this weekend, and the government fails to take back Mayo, that may not be enough to shift the pressure back onto Malcolm Turnbull.
As William Bowe’s BludgerTrack poll shows, the Coalition has been slowly — veeeeeery slowly — seizing back ground from Labor over the course of the year, and now trail the opposition by just four points on a two party preferred basis. Some individual polls, such as today’s Ipsos Fairfax poll and recent Newspolls, have the 2PP lead down to two points.
At some point in coming weeks there will, surely, be a 50-50 poll or even a narrow lead for the government — while, as Bowe has noted, Malcolm Turnbull has been unlucky not to get a statistical outlier in his favour over the last 18 months, the tightening dramatically improves the chances that a “Turnbull seizes lead!” headline isn’t far away.
Of course, the Liberals have tightened their lead before, over the first half of 2017, only for it to blow out again in the second half to the point where a panicky Prime Minister looked finished. But that happened in the turmoil of the citizenship saga, which was badly handled by Turnbull (“and the High Court will so hold”, right?). As Crikey noted at the start of the year, Labor can’t rely on Turnbull shooting himself in the foot forever. That looked a forlorn prediction within a few weeks as Barnaby Joyce and Turnbull proceeded to have a public slanging match over Joyce’s affair. But getting rid of Joyce has — as Crikey suggested back then — turned out to be a blessing for Turnbull. Joyce was a deeply toxic presence within the government, with his rotten policy ideas given the full authority of the deputy Prime Ministership. Unencumbered by Joyce’s denialism and all-round stupidity, Turnbull has had a freer hand on the crucial issue of energy and can operate as the undisputed leader of the government, given Joyce’s replacement Michael McCormack is almost invisible.
If having Joyce out of the tent has, to use LBJ’s analogy, actually seen a reduction in the amount of piss inside it, Turnbull has also benefited from Tony Abbott entirely overplaying his hand. Even supportive right-wing colleagues have started to realise that Abbott is a hypocrite and a wrecker only interested in destroying Turnbull. On virtually every issue, Abbott can be relied on to urge the government to do exactly the opposite of what he himself did when Prime Minister. The 2009 lightning that delivered Abbott the leadership and, eventually, the Prime Ministership, will not strike twice, and Abbott increasingly looks a sad, lonely figure chucking bombs at his replacement that smoke and fizz but fail to create any impact.
With two of the biggest sources of headaches curbed in their capacity to inflict damage, Turnbull has been able to run a government that is by no means any more competent or malicious than last year — his war on the ABC, and his attacks on civil liberties, are substantially worse now — but which isn’t anywhere near as hellbent on advertising its flaws to voters. The spotlight has inevitably swung onto Shorten, and in recent months Labor’s captain, who overall has been an excellent opposition leader, hasn’t looked particularly flash. And this Saturday may not be the end of his trials, even if Labor emerges the winner.