In last week’s The Australian the key takeaways from the latest Newspoll was that Morrison is riding high, Albanese is more or less terminal and the Coalition are a certainty to win the next election.
Leaving aside Newspoll’s predictive shortcomings at the last election, a more honest reading of the current poll numbers would indicate that the Morrison Government has failed to build up any political capital throughout the pandemic and is exposed should the recovery falter in any way.
If one assumes that Morrison’s high polling numbers on the questions of “Better PM” and “Leader’s Net Satisfaction” translate into more primary votes, then the Coalition are arguably in serious trouble. The polling suggests that but for Morrison, the Coalition would be well in election losing territory with a primary vote well below that of the last election (i.e. 41.44%), which resulted in a wafer thin three seat majority (down to two after Craig Kelly’s resignation from the Liberal Party). The question is therefore can Morrison’s popularity be sustained at such high levels all the way to the next election?
If history is a guide then Morrison is currently enjoying a high water mark (in very unusual times) and his popularity on the aforementioned metrics will almost certainly fall to more normal levels over time, particularly as we get closer to an election. The highest Morrison scored on “Better PM” before the pandemic was 50%. He is currently on 61%. The highest he scored on “Leader’s Net Satisfaction” before the pandemic was plus 15%. He is currently on plus 32%. For most of his Prime Ministership Morrison has hovered around the mid 40’s for “Better PM” and his “Net Leader’s Satisfaction” has mostly bounced around being slightly positive and slightly negative, albeit with a high of 15% and low of -22%.
The higher you are, the further you fall, and the problem for the Coalition is they have built zero political buffer for the inevitable decline – even if only moderate – in the public’s perception of the Prime Minister’s performance. Arguably, Morrison is already past his peak. He enjoyed a plus 41% “Leader’s Net Satisfaction” in June/ July of 2020 at the height of the pandemic. That has since dropped to 32% and comes before any of the hard political decisions (e.g. Job Keeper) of returning to a “new normal” have been made much less felt. This should be cause for Coalition concern rather than hubris.
The Coalition (and The Australian journalists) would be wise to remember recent history. Bill Shorten was in a far worse position on the “Better PM” measure shortly after Malcolm Turnbull became Prime Minister, than as Albanese finds himself now. Turnbull was riding high with a 64% “Better PM” rating compared to just 14% for Bill Shorten. A deficit of 50% points. In contrast, Anthony Albanese finds himself comparatively speaking well off with a deficit of 35% points and he can blame a year of being sidelined by COVID-19. Albanese still has time to steady the ship but it goes without saying he needs to start laying the foundations for success.
By the time of the 2016 election Shorten had improved to 31% as “ Better PM” and Turnbull had fallen to 48% and as we know Turnbull scraped home with the slimmest majority possible (76 seats out 151). Between the 2016 and 2019 election Shorten more or less consolidated his gains on the “Better PM” metric but only inching up to 38%, and still trailing Morrison who polled 45% a day or two out from election day. He was nonetheless considered a shoe in by every political commentator in the country. All of which is to say that as horrible as things look right now for Albanese, at 25% “ Better PM” there is plenty of time for things to improve, he is not in as dire a position as Shorten was this far out from an election, and it is highly unlikely Morrison will continue to ride the current wave of “popularity” all the way to Election Day.
Notwithstanding the above, most serious political analysts pay scant regard to surveys on leader popularity / performance. These metrics help to sell newspapers but are not reliable indicators of voting intent. They fluctuate wildly, have high numbers of uncommitted voters, and seemingly lack correlation with the primary vote. Turnbull for example, undoubtedly scored highly early on from ALP and Green voters that would never have voted for a Coalition candidate.
Most political operatives focus on the primary vote, and as stated above at 42% the Morrison Government is sitting more or less in election losing territory. For example, the Howard Government lost in 2007 with a primary vote of 42.09% and the Abbott Opposition narrowly lost in 2010 with a primary vote of 43.32%. Granted the Morrison Government hung on in 2019 with a primary vote of 41.46%, but that was arguably a function of Shorten Labor overreach and required winning 23 out 30 seats in Queensland. They also won 11 out of 16 seats in Western Australia.
It is doubtful Labor will make the same mistake twice and it will be a tough ask for the Coalition to hold all 23 seats in Queensland and 11 in Western Australia. Given the parlous state of the Liberal Party in Western Australia the Coalition could lose government in that state alone.
Under reported in the current Newspoll, presumably because it didn’t fit the predetermined narrative, was the continued improvement in the Labor primary vote which increased to 37%. This is 4% above what Bill Shorten achieved at the last election (albeit about the same in Newspoll terms) and if accurate would likely result in a Labor victory. The Coalition primary vote in turn has dropped from a high of 44% in July 2020, at the height of the pandemic, to 42% now and is consistent with the high water mark for both Morrison and his government being in June/July last year at the peak of the pandemic. This is what spells danger for the Morrison Government.
For a start we must be careful about comparing apples with oranges, i.e. actual election results to Newspoll surveys. Interpreting Newspoll depends a lot on whether they have corrected what seems to be over counting of the Labor primary vote and consequently under counting the Coalition vote. Newspoll surveys are not election results and have been wide of the mark in recent elections. For example, in the days leading up to the 2016 election Newspoll had the Labor primary vote at 43% and the Coalition on just 36%, whereas the actual result was 34.7% Labor and 42.04% Coalition. In 2019 it didn’t fare much better predicting a Labor primary vote of 37% to the Coalition’s 38% the day before the election. The actual result was a primary vote of just 33.34% to Labor and 41.44% to the Coalition. Hence, the silver lining for the Coalition is perhaps the extent to which Newspoll error seemingly exaggerates Labor electoral support.
That said, even just looking at the Newspoll trend the key takeaway is that the Morrison Government has failed to make significant primary vote gains throughout the pandemic, standing in stark contrast to the State Premiers, which have consistently polled comparatively higher (i.e. “ Better Premier”) than the Prime Minister and have converted that support into insurmountable primary vote gains.
Having largely outsourced the pandemic risk to the States, and in the process elevated the status of the Premiers (and Territory Leaders ) through the creation of a National Cabinet, Morrison has marginalised his own government. His risk averse strategy has ensured that any political dividend in terms of containing the novel coronavirus is being attributed to the responsible State/Territory governments.
Worse still, the creation of a National Cabinet has effectively emasculated the Prime Minister and reduced the Federal Government to a by-stander role as each State / Premier has gone their own way on everything from hotel quarantine, testing and tracing regimes, school closures, border closures, lockdowns, and the definition of hotspots. Far from leading the nation in a time of crisis, Morrison has been routinely enfeebled, consistently playing the role of the dog being wagged by the tail.
Conservative apologists and defenders of Morrison in the media are quick to cite the constitution and issues of Federal-State subsidiarity to explain away Morrison’s unwillingness to reign in what are arguably recalcitrant state premiers. This conveniently ignores most of the past 50 years (probably more) of political history that has seen the Commonwealth ride roughshod over state jurisdictional providence, intervening and centralising pretty much anything and everything it could get away with. With the aid of the High Court the Commonwealth has employed all sorts of interventionist legal or constitutional arguments and when all else has failed his simply resorted to exercising its superior financial power (i.e. vertical fiscal imbalance) to get its way.
This has not happened during the COVID-19 pandemic. The reality is that Morrison (and his Cabinet) has deliberately chosen not to lead during the pandemic. The Morrison Government chose not to implement a federally designed and operated hotel quarantine system, not to implement a federally designed contact tracing system (other than the useless Federal Government App), and not to design and implement a uniform standard of testing they were nonetheless paying for.
The Morrison Government opted from day one to do as little as possible throughout the pandemic, confining their role to not much more than closing international borders early, funding a vaccine for later, and stumping up for Job Keeper in between. The basic premise of Job Keeper was relatively sound but poorly administered. Not once did the foreseeable consequences of emboldening state lockdowns or border closures seemingly occur. If it did it was rendered moot by Morrison’s acquiesce to every state / territory action without federal funding penalty.
Far from the The Australians assertion that Morrison is riding high, the latest Newspoll result simply shows that the Morrison Government has not benefitted from the COVID pandemic in the manner that all State / Territory governments have, especially the Labor states. Morrison / Frydenberg have arguably misjudged the politics of the pandemic that has empowered Labor states, at its own expense, and will make the re-election of the Morrison Government more difficult. The two states the Morrison Government most needs to hold – Queensland and Western Australia – are emphatically stronger for Labor thanks to their response to the pandemic that Morrison enabled.
Albanese is hence not nearly as terminal as many may think. If anything the pandemic has spared him the spotlight of being a seemingly failing leader and consequently bought him time to regroup . The opportunity is therefore his for the grasping. Whether he can grasp the metaphorical nettle or not only time will tell. Jettisoning Shorten’s disastrous policies at the last election will only hold him in good stead as has been reported the expectation at the next Labor conference. Bandwagoning with popular state premiers will also hold add value (assuming they stay popular where it matters) and something Morrison has gifted.
Morrison on the other hand has all the challenges ahead. Locking down (by states) is easy. Opening up is hard. The vaccination program is the Morrison’s Government’s most obvious challenge and metric. It needs to be rolled out efficiently, it needs to be effective, and more than anything it needs to trigger a return to a more normal way of life and commerce. Hence, it needs to result in a shift in Federal-State pandemic responsibility.
With the roll out of the vaccination program Morrison will be increasingly unable to sit on the fence regarding recalcitrant state governments dragging their feet on international travel arrangements, state border closures, and city / state lockdowns at the first sign of COVID infection. The Morrison Government will now be forced to define what they failed to do at the start of the pandemic – notably, define the relevant metrics as to how we live with COVID-19 – i.e. infections, illness, hospitalisations, ICU rates, deaths and so on, balanced by off-setting costs and how the vaccine mitigates these risks.
Having ceded the political ground the Morrison Government has consequently lost the political narrative of the pandemic to State Premiers thus far. Despite Morrison’s personal uplift in polling it is underwhelming in comparison to the uplift most state premiers have received including Daniel Andrews (say no more). Should Albanese-Labor capitalise on state government popularity the prospects of the Morrison Government look average to say the least, regardless of what Newspoll commentators opine.
The bottom line is the initial Morrison uplift in Newspoll (July 2020) during the height of the pandemic has failed to lift the primary vote of the Coalition. In fact, the Coalition primary vote has declined from 44% to 42% between then and now. The Labor primary vote has in contrast increased from 33% to 37%. Regardless of Newspoll accuracy the trends are going the wrong way for the Morrison Government. The Morrison Government will need to hold all seats in Queensland and Western Australia which is unlikely given the current popularity / strength of both Labor leaders and governments.
The Morrison Government has not made anything of the pandemic from a policy point of view. It has not advanced any policy reform whatsoever at a time in which it could have brought a few things onto the table (i.e. workplace reform, health, tax reform, energy reform) at a time in which it had leverage. It’s aversion of political risk paralyses government policy. The absence of government policy is what keeps Labor and Albanese in the game.
Contrary to Newspoll commentators the upside is all with Albanese. Reject the policies of Shorten (which he seemingly is doing), ride the coat-tails of popular state premiers in Queensland and Western Australia, and get some political airtime post-Covid, and he looks an even bet (like every other poll within the margin of error) to win the election.
The downside risks are all with the government. Having failed to bank the pandemic upside, they risk public frustration with the recovery. Worse still, having run a protection racket for the states during the lockdowns vis-a-vis the National Cabinet, Morrison can be rest assured Dan Andrews and co. will throw him under a bus for every failing going forward. Morrison unleashed the tiger with the National Cabinet. It will haunt him to Election Day with a buffer he failed to build.