Today is the day Malcolm Turnbull hoped would never arrive. Under his leadership, the Coalition has suffered 30 consecutive Newspolls in which it's trailed the Labor Party on a two-party preferred basis, 48 per cent to 52 per cent.
The Prime Minister’s enemies have been watching and waiting for Mr Turnbull to fail his own test. On September 13, 2015, at a press conference before the leadership spill, he declared that he was challenging Tony Abbott as prime minister, partly because “we have lost 30 Newspolls in a row”. “It is clear that the people have made up their minds about Mr Abbott’s leadership,” he said.
Monash politics lecturer Dr Zareh Ghazarian doesn't expect that Mr Turnbull will face a leadership challenge of his own. He cannot see any obvious alternatives to the Prime Minister in the Liberal Party ranks. “No one appears to have the numbers,” he says.
Mr Turnbull's rating as the best Liberal leader was 28 per cent (down from 30 per cent at the previous poll), then Julie Bishop (27 per cent), Tony Abbott (13 per cent) and Peter Dutton (9 per cent).
At the same time, he describes the 30th negative Newspoll as a “significant milestone”. When Mr Turnbull challenged Mr Abbott in 2015, he warned that unless action was taken to change the party’s leadership, Labor leader Bill Shorten would win the next election. Instead, Mr Turnbull became the leader and won the election by one seat.
The long run of bad polls since then indicate that Mr Shorten is in striking distance of the prime ministership again, Dr Ghazarian says.
“The polls have not moved; they're set almost on cruise control, 47 to 53 or thereabouts. You can’t interpret the pattern in any other way. Based on this trend, we expect a change of government at the next election,” he says.
Dr Ghazarian predicts that the immediate effect of the poll will be that Mr Turnbull “will be the target of many snide comments and of white-anting” by his political opponents.
Mr Abbott, for instance, plans to mark the day by cycling into the La Trobe Valley to make his case for a new taxpayer-funded coal-powered file station – a case that's unlikely to be greeted with enthusiasm by the Prime Minister. (The pro-coal lobby within the Coalition ranks calls itself the Monash Forum, after Sir John Monash, who helped develop the LaTrobe valley brown-coal fired power stations while he was chairman of the State Electricity Commission. The forum has no connection with the University.)
Yet history suggests that Mr Turnbull will fail to take a strong stance against Mr Abbott.
Mr Abbott took the party leadership from Mr Turnbull in 2009 after opposing Mr Turnbull’s support for a carbon emissions trading scheme. Mr Turnbull learned a hard lesson about the strength of the right within his party.
“Mr Turnbull had such a socially progressive approach before becoming prime minister,” Dr Ghazarian says. “But he's been hamstrung by the conservative members in his party. Becoming prime minister has been much harder than he thought it would be.”
Like Julia Gillard before him, Mr Turnbull now finds himself “the victim of the circumstances of his ascendancy”. Voters are once more turning against a government riven by internal divisions and an anxious backbench.
Dr Ghazarian doesn't believe the Government can do much to change its fortunes in the short term. The next opportunity it will have to “build momentum” will be the May budget.
“That could be the circuit-breaker the Government is looking for,” he says.
“The polls have not moved; they're set almost on cruise control, 47 to 53 or thereabouts. You can’t interpret the pattern in any other way. Based on this trend, we expect a change of government at the next election.”
In the meantime, issues such as energy security and the cost of living will continue to take their toll.
The rifts within the Coalition ranks have made it “quite easy for Mr Shorten to present Labor as the more unified and stable party”, Dr Ghazarian says.
“That is quite a remarkable turnaround,” from the days when Julia Gillard was the Labor prime minister, who was in turn being undermined by Kevin Rudd, the man she deposed.
In the eight years since Mr Rudd was replaced as prime minister during his first term in office, Australians have been consistently unimpressed by their political leaders, Dr Ghazarian says.
Mr Turnbull is probably the most popular prime minister to have served in the years since, he says. And while the polls may look rosy for Mr Shorten’s electoral prospects, it remains to be seen whether voters will be willing to forgive him for the role he played behind the scenes during the extended Rudd-Gillard power play.
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