Talk about a serious case of “the vibe”. Australians returning from a period overseas who turned on Insiders last Sunday might have got the impression that Labor and Julia Gillard were all the rage politically and it was the Coalition in difficulties – particularly the Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott.
Journalist Kerry-Anne Walsh assessed the previous week’s national politics and said there was “relief” in Labor’s ranks that the Prime Minister had got some “climate change reform” through Parliament. Fair enough. She went on to say Gillard “seems to be more confident”. A reasonable claim.
But then Walsh went over the top. She maintained the Prime Minister was “surging ahead” while “Tony Abbott seems to be falling back”. What was the evidence for this? Well, Walsh referred to “a definite vibe”. That was it. And what about the polls?
Last Tuesday’s Newspoll showed a 3 per cent increase in Labor’s primary vote – from 29 to 32 per cent – and that Labor had narrowed the gap in the two-party preferred measurement from 46/54 to 47/53. Gillard’s satisfaction rating had improved slightly and her preferred prime minister rating had risen from 36 to 39 per cent.
Certainly the poll should give encouragement to Labor and Gillard. But that’s about it. The same poll had the Coalition with a primary vote of 44 per cent. Abbott’s satisfaction rating, at 34 per cent, was slightly ahead of Gillard’s and he led her by a percentage point on who would make the better prime minister. It is most unusual for an opposition leader to head a prime minister in this category at any point of the election cycle.
Yet the poll led Walsh to declare Gillard was surging ahead while Abbott was falling back. On November 8, the day the poll was released, Deborah Cameron said on 702 ABC Sydney that “the polls seem to indicate that people love someone with an idea who sticks to it”. No, they didn’t.
The Herald/Nielsen poll, published in yesterday’s Herald, is consistent with Newspoll. It indicates an increase in Labor’s two-party vote, from 43 to 45 per cent, but that the primary vote remains at 30 per cent. While Abbott’s approval rating is slightly higher than Gillard’s, the Prime Minister is level with the Opposition Leader as preferred prime minister.
On any objective analysis, the combination of Newspoll and Herald/Nielsen – along with the Morgan and Essential Media polls – indicate Labor is recovering somewhat from a low base and the Coalition is performing well. Yet this is not the tone of recent media commentary, much of which suggests Tony Abbott has stumbled.
Let’s face it. Many journalists support what is termed action on climate change. Others do not like Abbott’s social conservatism. Support for Labor and the Greens is higher within the media industry than among the public.
Then there are commentators who object to what they regard as Abbott’s negativity. However, such criticism overlooks two points. First, to oppose a policy is not necessarily negative. To use a historical example, those politicians who opposed Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War are not assessed today with reference to their negativity.
Second, in recent Australian history, no opposition leader more ruthlessly said “no” than Malcolm Fraser in response to the policies of Gough Whitlam and his Labor government. Fraser’s Coalition opposed legislation in Parliament and even blocked supply in the Senate. Yet in December 1975, Fraser won one of the greatest electoral victories on record.
In 1975, many members of the Canberra press gallery were sympathetic to Whitlam Labor and despised Fraser and the Coalition. What many tended to overlook was that Fraser represented majority opinion within the Liberal-National joint party room and had the backing of most Coalition voters.
It’s much the same today. Most Liberal MPs oppose a carbon tax which will evolve into an emissions trading scheme. An absolute majority of National Party MPs hold the same view. The Liberal frontbencher Malcolm Turnbull is much loved by some journalists and much admired by many a Greens and Labor voter. However, he has limited support within the Liberal Party and even less within the Coalition.
Barack Obama’s most welcome visit to Australia will remind Coalition MPs that the US has no intention of introducing a carbon tax or cap-and-trade scheme any time soon. Nor does Canada. Nor do other competitors of Australia such as Brazil, South Africa and Russia.
In view of this, it is difficult to imagine how a Liberal Party leader could get sufficient support to back Labor’s carbon tax among fellow Liberals. Such an initiative would almost certainly fracture the Coalition.
In all probability, it’s still two years until the next election. Labor may well recover. But victory will depend on the successful implementation of the carbon tax and reasonably good economic conditions. It will not result from a vibe.
Gerard Henderson is executive director of The Sydney Institute.