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Last week’s half-successful bid to replace Malcolm Turnbull with Peter Dutton was everything its backers purport to despise: an ideologically driven project imposed on an unwilling public by out-of-touch elites.

The immediate cost has been measured in polls conducted over the weekend, notwithstanding that public opinion at the present moment of agitation is an obviously imperfect guide to what will happen at an election now sure to be some time away.

The one national poll so far has been the Newspoll published overnight in The Australian, which has the Coalition primary vote at 33% — a depth it has only plumbed on two previous occasions out of the 724 polls published under the Newspoll name since 1985, both of which were in Kevin Rudd’s honeymoon period in early 2008. It is also clear that the mugging of Turnbull has left Labor looking pretty good by comparison: their vote is at 41%, its equal best result since the 2010 election, matched in that time only by the first poll after the Prince Philip knighthood fiasco on Australia Day in 2015.

More than ever, the question arises as to what the plotters were hoping they might achieve. One of the spear-carriers for the Dutton insurgency, ACT Senator Zed Seselja, was asked by Leigh Sales on 7.30 to explain the electoral rationale for ousting a leader who had been, by any fair standard, doing passably well in the polls. Seselja’s response consisted of a list of rationales for abandoning the political centre: that the Coalition was losing primary votes to One Nation; that the Longman byelection showed this would cost seats in Queensland; and that any election victory needed to stand on the foundation of “securing your base”.

Like all the most dangerous ideas, some of these have germinated from a seed of truth.

Testament to Peter Dutton’s appeal on home turf is provided by two polls from his seat of Dickson, one from before the leadership change and one from after. The Weekend Australian carried a Newspoll survey conducted mid-week showing the One Nation vote in Dickson would have been cut in half if Dutton became Prime Minister, suggesting he could potentially have saved three to five seats in Queensland.

There is also an encouraging result for Dutton in Dickson among the three ReachTEL seat polls published today by Fairfax, albeit that this pollster heavily over-estimated Liberal National Party support in Longman.

A ReachTEL poll conducted last Wednesday for the CFMMEU found One Nation voters to be all but unique in being more likely to vote Coalition if Peter Dutton became leader, and even without Dutton, today’s Newspoll has One Nation support down two points in Turnbull’s absence. However, the far more striking fact of Newspoll is that any conceivable gain to the Coalition from One Nation has been dwarfed by a 6% shift from the parties of the right to Labor.

Another of today’s ReachTEL seat polls suggests something approaching a catastrophe looms for the Liberals in Victoria, with a near double-digit swing recorded against coup plotter Michael Sukkar in his loseable eastern Melbourne seat of Deakin.

Such would seem to be the cost of “securing the base” —  a concept which, like a lot of the conservatives’ thinking, draws rather too much inspiration from the United States. In that country, political strategists have every reason to obsess over the need to encourage supporters to turn out on election day, stimulate grass roots campaign activity and marginalise third party spoilers.

But here, compulsory voting means the base comes pre-mobilised, and preferential voting means votes lost to minor parties mostly trickle back home (with, admittedly, a certain amount of leakage).

That leaves two scenarios in which prioritising the base would make sense in the Australian context. One is when the base is deserting to a minor party in such numbers as to pose a direct threat to one’s own seats — something that has nowhere been suggested of One Nation. The other is when an electoral catastrophe of such scale looms that saving a rump of normally safe seats is the best that can be hoped for.

As of a fortnight ago, that too was clearly not the case. But thanks to the calculations of the likes of Zed Seselja, it may have become so now.

Peter Fray

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