Richard Wainwright AAP Malcolm Turnbull
Image credit: Richard Wainwright/AAP.

Long-term Crikey readers will recall an amusing kerfuffle over polling in 2007, when Labor under Kevin Rudd took a truly colossal two-party-preferred (2PP) lead over John Howard’s Coalition that at one point reached 61-39. 

The Australian’s Dennis Shanahan, dismayed that he had to report such terrible news fortnight after fortnight, developed a variety of ways to downplay a looming Labor landslide. His main tactic was to dismiss voting intention as a reliable indicator of, well, voting intention, and instead argue that other indicators were more important — especially preferred prime minister, where John Howard trailed Rudd by a lot less.

Indeed, in the middle of the year, Howard reduced Rudd’s lead on that indicator to single figures, even though Labor still held a 55-45 lead. Every pro-Howard shift on preferred PM was lauded by Shanahan as the start of Howard’s triumphant comeback. Sadly, the comeback never materialised, and eventually Shanahan dumped preferred PM, where Rudd stubbornly maintained a lead, and started claiming other, more obscure indicators like “best at handling national security” as the “crucial” indicator that showed Howard would hang on.

These Comical Ali-like Shanahanigans induced widespread mockery, though in the absence of social media that mockery tended to play out in outlets like Crikey. But despite Shanahan’s humiliation, the idea that some leadership-based indicator is a more reliable indicator of how people might vote than how they say they will vote dies hard — despite electoral experience beforehand and since then. John Hewson was preferred PM to Keating in the six Newspolls leading up to March 1993 and he lost. Paul Keating was preferred PM over John Howard in the five Newspolls before the 1996 election and he lost. Julia Gillard held a double-digit lead over Tony Abbott ahead of the 2010 election and still nearly lost. Kevin Rudd led Abbott as preferred PM in all but 2 Newspolls, and Abbott only led him by two points at the death — but Abbott still won by a landslide.

However, the Coalition’s recent polling travails have seen preferred PM once again dragged out to do God’s work, by Shanahan’s successor (after an interregnum of common sense from Phillip Hudson) Simon Benson. Last month, Benson declared, “Bill Shorten’s leadership is poised to come under renewed internal pressure, with Malcolm Turnbull opening up the largest margin over his political rival in more than two years …”

Shorten’s leadership, of course, is rarely not under pressure in the pages of the national broadsheet, but the problem was always what would happen if Turnbull’s lead as preferred PM fell… which it promptly did in the poll reported today. Cue collapse of stout party. “The Turnbull government lacks policy coherence, party unity and remains crippled by a failure of political management,” Benson wrote today. “The consensus is that it is sleepwalking to likely defeat.” More tellingly, Benson abandoned the main Shanahanigan, preferred PM. “The critical message from the electorate is this: the relative popularity of both leaders, or lack of it, is no longer the key driver of votes.”

“No longer”? It never was. Voters vote the way they do because of health services, the management of the economy and jobs, and education. They’ve repeatedly voted in governments — sometimes by a landslide — despite preferring the other side’s leader.

And far from “sleepwalking to likely defeat”, the Newspoll result is hardly bad news for the Coalition. It again confirms that the government, especially since getting rid of Barnaby Joyce, has closed Labor’s big 2PP lead that marked last year and early this year — and it is within striking distance, even though we know the government is in deep trouble in Queensland. The Coalition’s challenge is to make up as much ground again as it has since the start of the year, and the worry is that its recent momentum has stalled. But with an election not until autumn/winter next year, there’s plenty of time.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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