In 1996 Paul Keating went into the federal election with 45 per cent of voters preferring him as prime minister over the 40 per cent who preferred opposition leader John Howard. Yet Howard won the election convincingly. The election result in 1996 was strikingly similar to last week’s Newspoll that gave the Bill Shorten led ALP 53 per cent of the two-party preferred vote to Malcolm Turnbull’s Coalition’s 47 per cent.
A quick look at the history of Newspoll’s preferred prime minister statistics shows this is not an aberration. John Hewson went to the 1993 poll as preferred prime minister but the incumbent Keating won a handsome victory. In July 2013 Kevin Rudd was preferred by 53 per cent of us compared with the meagre 31 per cent who wanted Tony Abbott. And we all remember how that election, a few months later in September, turned out.
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Malcolm Turnbull hopes his meeting with the boss of the country’s biggest energy company has convinced him to keep the Liddell power station open past 2022 or find someone else to buy it.
It’s stats like these that are consoling some Labor people around Parliament House in Canberra in the light of the big drop in Bill Shorten’s preferred prime minister figure (down from 33 to 29 this poll) despite the ALP’s 19th consecutive month of leading the two-party preferred vote, with that margin increasing markedly in recent months.
Providing these figures hold, Bill Shorten looks like he will romp in at the next election. On this week’s Newspoll, with its 2.5 per cent swing to Labor, Shorten would win 13 seats, giving him a seven-seat majority over the Coalition and able to govern without needing the five independents.
There is a growing confidence among the party’s senior people that this will happen, whenever the election is. They point to the government’s constant gaffes and own goals, its lack of policies on, for instance, critical issues such as energy, and its destructive internal civil war, all of which point to making the Turnbull government increasingly unelectable.
Against that, Shorten has presided over a tightly focused team that is displaying the kind of discipline that once would have seemed impossible for a faction-ridden Labor Party. He has also committed several acts of political bravery, promising policies such as winding back negative gearing and moving on capital gains tax and family trusts that conventional wisdom once would have seen as political suicide.
In other words, Shorten seems to be running a tight show, with a good team and a suite of policies that the punters like or agree are needed.
In politics, anything can. And often does.
Back in 2001 Kim Beazley was sailing towards the prime ministership when a boat called the Tampa appeared in the Indian Ocean and a few weeks later two planes flew into the World Trade Centre in New York. Labor’s primary vote, which had been as high as 45 per cent in June, collapsed to 38.7 in the November election.
Who can say what the political impact would be of a local terrorist attack, an outbreak of war or, heaven forbid, a nuclear exchange on the Korean Peninsula?
In such circumstances would voters opt for continuity or would they see Labor as more competent to protect us? We simply don’t know.
But hoping no such calamitous events happen, and our next election is business as usual, it’s Shorten’s to lose.
And the biggest challenge for the Opposition Leader seems to be not to maintain his tight ship but to make himself more likeable.
You hear it all the time, people saying, “There’s something about Bill Shorten I just don’t like”. The party’s polling shows it, as does the government’s.
People can’t necessarily put their finger on precisely what it is. Some will say it’s his voice, or his delivery, his lame zingers, or the way he shouts when he’s giving a speech. Others say that he’s not trustworthy, or that he is unauthentic. This unease, this dislike, is widespread. The question is, given Labor’s commanding lead in the polls: does it matter?
It’s an article of faith in US presidential politics that to win, a candidate must have “the Elvis factor”. He – and maybe this is why Hillary Clinton could not get over the line – needs to be a bit of a bad boy, but with a streak of something appealing. A loveable rogue, like Bill Clinton or George W. Bush. I’m not sure if Donald Trump fits this pattern, so perhaps the mould has been broken.
Do Australians feel such a fervent need to like their prime ministers? Do we prefer competence? Lack of BS? Someone who knows where they want to take the country, and can take us with them?
Even an initially very popular prime minister like Kevin Rudd was not really liked. You have to go back 30 years, to Bob Hawke, to find a prime minister who was really liked and politics was different then, and Hawke was hugely popular before he even entered politics.
Most people, even – perhaps especially – a lot of Labor voters, initially liked Malcolm Turnbull. A great many people still want to be able to like him but their overwhelming feeling about the Prime Minister is one of disappointment. He has let them down, he has not delivered, he has not performed well.
Malcolm Turnbull is preferred as prime minister to Bill Shorten (46 per cent to 29 per cent) but the punters are not satisfied with the way either man is doing his job. Both leaders have a satisfaction rate of minus 20.
His senior colleagues maintain that Shorten is growing on people. Now just one month shy of four years in the job, voters are getting used to him, they say, as they get to know him and his family, to appreciate that he is offering relevant policy alternatives to the chaos that is the federal government.
Tanya Plibersek, the deputy leader, has assumed responsibility for Labor’s policy development process and for instituting the internal cultural changes that were needed to ensure the party puts behind it the instability of the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd years. This division of labour is designed to enable Shorten to concentrate on being the Leader, especially the retailing of himself to people around the country through the 53 town hall meetings he has done so far.
He plans to keep doing them.
They “energise him”, several people told me.
These meetings, the most recent of which was last week in Bundaberg, have given him a great deal of self-confidence as well as plenty of first-hand stories about the economic and other experiences of everyday Australians that he is able to put to good use when doing media, especially his recent one-on-one interview on ABC’s Q&A.
His best route to popularity, say his colleagues, is for people to get used to seeing him just continuing to do the job. People will see that stability has replaced the revolving door of leadership that led to Labor being turfed out in 2013, and they will begin to appreciate Shorten’s substance over Turnbull the show pony.
The trouble is that this is not being reflected in Shorten’s approval ratings and that makes some in the party nervous. As does Shorten’s inability to get Labor’s primary vote above 38 per cent. This means Labor needs the minor party preferences to flow exactly as the polls currently predict in order to win.
There are a lot of “what ifs” involved which is probably one reason Malcolm Turnbull still confidently asserts he can win the next election.
What can Bill Shorten do?
Given the Leader of the Opposition’s job is to oppose the government, Shorten is obliged to be constantly negative, something voters don’t like.
“He gets marked down just for doing his job,” says a colleague.
Shorten has tried to counter this with his face-to-face engagements, relentlessly travelling in order to meet as many punters as possible. It paid off during the 2016 election campaign when a relaxed and smiling Shorten, totally at ease with people, produced warm and positive media images. And came close to winning the election.
Shorten has two things in his favour: this track record of almost winning and the fact that while he might not be liked, he is not Tony Abbott. He is not hated.
He needs to win trust by constantly presenting himself as alternative prime minister. Travelling to South Korea and Japan with Penny Wong, the shadow foreign minister, the first time he has been to an international political hotspot as Opposition Leader, is a good move.
He needs to engage people with how he will deal with Australia’s economic problems, especially wages and energy. He needs, in the words of a Labor elder statesman, to be able to tell a story.
And if he wants people to really listen, he needs to stop shouting. He’s not Ben Chifley on the back of a truck addressing a rally. It’s 2017 and no matter how many town hall meetings he does, most people’s exposure to Bill Shorten will be on television where if he lowers his voice and talks with, not at, us people might start to respond.
This article was first published in the Sydney Morning Herald on September 8 2017