A funny thing happened on the way to reporting the Ipsos poll in Nine’s newspapers on Monday. The phone poll found that, following the federal budget, support for the political parties was as follows: Labor 34 per cent, Coalition 37 per cent, Greens 13 per cent and others 16 per cent.
The two-party-preferred vote (the total vote after the distribution of preferences based on the 2016 preference flows) was Labor 53 per cent and Coalition 47 per cent. This led Nine newspapers to judge Josh Frydenberg’s inaugural budget a political failure. The Sydney Morning Herald declared “Budget fails to save Coalition” while in The Age the message was: “Budget won’t save Coalition”.
However, on the same day Newspoll had the Coalition’s two-party preferred vote moving from 46 per cent (last month) to 48 per cent while Labor’s share declined from 54 per cent to 52 per cent.
The fact the Ipsos poll had recorded a swing to Labor of 2 per cent while the Newspoll had an equivalent swing to the Coalition led to some commentators opining about different assessments of the same reality. But what if the Ipsos poll also had indicated that the Labor lead over the Coalition stood at 52-48 after the budget? In such a situation, quite a few commentators would have concluded that both polls suggested the Coalition was in with a chance to win the election next month.
It so happened that the Ipsos poll in November last year had an identical primary vote count as its most recent one: Labor 34 per cent, Coalition 37, Greens 13 and others 16. However, back then Ipsos assessed the two-party preferred vote as Labor 52 per cent and Coalition 48 per cent. Now there may be an explanation for two sets of identical primary numbers leading to a different two-party-preferred vote. If there is, Ipsos has yet to provide one.
If both Newspoll and Ipsos have support for the major parties after preferences at 52 per cent for Labor and 48 per cent for the Coalition, then Scott Morrison is in with an opportunity to prevail over Bill Shorten on May 18. Just a chance but a chance nevertheless.
Most journalists are what these days is termed of “progressive” bent, which used to be called left of centre or left-wing. This is particularly the case in the ABC (which is a conservative-free zone) and Nine’s newspapers (The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age) along with many of those who write for Guardian Australia, The Saturday Paper and The New Daily. They generally vote for Labor or the Greens and happen to believe that the Coalition deserves office only if it is led by a fellow progressive such as Malcolm Turnbull.
This view was clearly stated by The Saturday Paper’s Paul Bongiorno, who said on Radio National Breakfast on April 5 that the Coalition “has gone into this campaign with its credibility in tatters due to the fact that the person leading it is not Malcolm Turnbull but it is Scott Morrison”.
Now Bongiorno’s assessment may turn out to be correct. But it is by no means self-evident. There are some considered Liberal figures who believe that if Tony Abbott had not been brought down by Turnbull as prime minister in September 2015, the Coalition would have done better in the following year’s election.
Under Turnbull’s leadership the Coalition lost 14 seats in July 2016 and survived with a majority of one. It was always likely that a first-term government, which had achieved a substantial victory at the previous election, would lose some seats. But not to the extent of 14 members of the House of Representatives. It’s possible that the Coalition led by Abbott, with the support of Nationals’ leader Barnaby Joyce (before he was involved in scandal), would have done better than Turnbull in western Sydney, northern NSW, northern Queensland, northern Tasmania and Perth. But probably not in Victoria.
If this is the case, then it stands to reason that Morrison has a better chance than Turnbull would have had of winning back some of the marginal seats that were lost to the Coalition on Turnbull’s watch outside of Victoria. This was the reason Queensland MP Peter Dutton moved against Turnbull following the Liberal Party’s dismal showing in the by-election in Longman in Brisbane’s northwest in July last year.
If the substantial Turnbull fan club in the Canberra press gallery is correct, then the former prime minister’s downfall last August will be an important factor in next month’s election. As it appears to have been in last October’s Wentworth by-election in eastern Sydney and last November’s Victorian election. However, the advent of Morrison to the Lodge appears not to have harmed NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian’s successful campaign in last month’s state election. And it’s likely that, come May 18, voters will be more interested in their economic and physical security than in the fate of Turnbull.
One of Shorten’s great achievements as Labor leader has been to keep his party united in opposition. Abbott achieved a similar outcome in opposition but was not able to carry unity into government.
The only empirical evidence available about the political support in Australia is contained in the opinion polls. Newspoll suggests that Labor has a comfortable lead but not an insurmountable one. The same can be said of the Ipsos poll if this week’s poll is assessed the way last November’s poll was assessed. In short, it seems there is a real contest at hand.
Gerard Henderson is executive director of the Sydney Institute. His Media Watch Dog blog can be found at theaustralian.com.au.