Morrison woman problem
Image: Mitchell Squire/Private Media

The Coalition has fallen behind Labor in Newspoll for the first time since last summer’s bushfires. The narrative of Scott Morrison’s invincibility could be starting to break.

The poll comes after a fortnight in which Morrison and senior ministers have responded with a disappointing lack of empathy to the Brittany Higgins and Christian Porter sexual assault allegations, and just as thousands around the country are set to march for gender equality.

It’s a sign that despite the Morrison government’s poor record on gender equality and its stunning failure to read the room could start to cost it.

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The women problem

While the latest Newspoll doesn’t break down by gender, and Morrison’s personal approval ratings haven’t suffered a major blow, the government’s latest dip reflects the wide public opprobrium — particularly from women — over its handling of sexual assault allegations.

Brittany Higgins’ story and the allegations against Porter have both started a broader conversation about male privilege and a toxic, misogynistic culture in politics — one which the Coalition has responded to with stubborn indifference.

Morrison continues to oppose a public inquiry and defend “innocent” Porter. Coalition MPs lash out at “trial by media”, but most refuse to engage with the protesters surrounding Parliament House today.

In that context, it’s worth re-examining the Coalition’s historic problem with female voters. At the last election, 35% of women gave the Coalition their first preference (compared to 45% of men). It was the biggest gendered voting gap in more than 30 years.

That election happened right after prominent female Liberal MPs quit, citing sexist abuse and gendered bullying as factors driving their exit from politics.

The last few weeks — characterised by a PM mumbling platitudes about being a father of daughters and an absent Minister for Women — have only further re-emphasised the narrative of a Coalition boys’ club, out of touch with female voters and unwilling to touch issues around gender equality.

Newspoll isn’t the only data point highlighting anger at all this. An Essential poll at the start of March (before Porter had been named), found two-thirds of respondents, including a majority of Coalition voters, thought the government was more interested in protecting its reputation than protecting women. Another poll from The Australia Institute found a majority of respondents supported an independent inquiry into the Porter allegations.

Taken all up, the government looks to have gone missing in the middle of a Me Too moment — and voters are starting to notice.

The polling was never that good

The recent Newspoll will generate its share of shocked reactions but it really shouldn’t.

Conventional pundit wisdom has always been bullish about Morrison’s chances of winning the next election on the back of the government’s pandemic management. Apart from the time Morrison took an ill-fated Hawaiian holiday, the polls have had him comfortably ahead, and he still leads Albanese as preferred PM.

Still, while polling — as the last election told us — can mislead, there’s plenty of data showing the narrative of a Morrison landslide is flimsier than assumed.

The Coalition and Labor have been level on a two-party-preferred basis since the start of the year. Essential had Labor narrowly ahead through 2020. And their latest offering found fewer voters trust Morrison in a crisis, and more think he’s out of touch with ordinary people.

Polling won’t tell us the outcome of the next election, possibly a year away. But it does give us a good snapshot of a moment in time. And right now, as the wave of Australia’s second Me Too moment is breaking, the Coalition have gone missing. Their longstanding gender problem is dragging them under.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief
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