A case of mistaken identity
After a bitter year, voters might have trouble spotting the difference between our leaders
The problem with voting, goes the old joke, is that you always end up with a politician.
My guess is that that sums up how most voters are feeling right now. Newspoll’s approval ratings for the two leaders, Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten, show that both men have been below zero – the point at which more voters disapprove than approve – since March last year. In fact, since April last year, there has only been one poll in which that figure has risen above minus 10 for either man.
If you glance at Newspoll’s graph of the numbers [$], you’ll immediately notice something else. Since February of this year the approval ratings of both leaders have mirrored each other very closely, rising and falling at similar times and in similar patterns.
This reminded me of a column Laurie Oakes wrote in 1980. “There was an interesting opinion survey published last year which showed that many voters had confused Mr Fraser and Mr Whitlam in their minds. They had an image of one political leader – tall, arrogant, aggressive. And they did not like this Fraser Whitlam figure much at all.”
No two political situations are ever entirely alike. Gough Whitlam was not leading the Labor Party at the time of that survey. And I tend to think that Shorten and Turnbull are sufficiently different not to be confused. On the other hand, both are middle-aged white men, about as far apart in age as Whitlam and Fraser were. Both still have their (grey) hair. And according to the internet they’re both 1.78 metres tall.
Still, my feeling is not so much that voters can’t tell Turnbull and Shorten apart, as that they have stopped looking closely enough to bother making distinctions. When their feeling about politics improves, they give credit to both men. When they are feeling more disillusioned, the blame gets distributed equally.
And why wouldn’t they feel that way? The sad truth is that over this year neither side has done enough to distinguish itself. Turnbull used his budget to deliver the National Disability Insurance Scheme and Gonski – confusingly, two Labor programs. Labor, confusingly, couldn’t bring itself to agree. Earlier in the year, both sides made dog-whistling arguments on skilled migration: Turnbull’s slogan was “Australia first”, while Shorten’s was “Australians first”. Same-sex marriage was delivered by a Liberal government, but in the most embittered and confusing of circumstances, with both sides making partisan arguments until the very end. Citizenship was a pox on Turnbull’s house, until it was a pox on Labor’s house. Turnbull was dragged kicking and screaming to a banking royal commission, but he was dragged there: Labor policy is now Liberal policy.
I don’t want you to think I’m resorting to the tired old argument of the disillusioned: that the two parties are exactly alike. They’re not. Start with corporate taxes and penalty rates and go from there.
But at the end of an exhausting year, the challenge for both sides lies not in convincing political commentators, who are forced to follow this stuff in detail every day. It’s in making the case to voters, who have recently been given very little reason to pay close attention. And in the past few months those voters have been given one show, on eternal re-run: non-stop politics, where every effort is made to gain even a tiny advantage out of every situation.
It is true that Shorten has been much better at politics. Turnbull, on the other hand, is generally hopeless at politics. But both of these impressions end in the same place: two men who look like they’re focused above all on playing the game of politics as well as they can.
We have just lived through the nasty Bennelong byelection. At the weekend, John Alexander retained the seat. As I wrote last week, a swing around this size – not that far from what was predicted, though much less than Labor wanted – means the byelection is unlikely to have a massive political effect. As a predictor of a national election I don’t think it’s very meaningful.
At the same time, today’s Newspoll had Labor still ahead 53-47 [$]. So it’s an interesting situation. The government, if it has any sense, will be worried by the fact it remains a long way behind in national polling. Labor, if it has any sense, will use Bennelong to question the idea that a national polling lead will automatically translate into an election win. Again, I don’t think the result leads to any easy conclusions – you can’t say Labor wouldn’t win an election held today – but that’s the point. Baseball bats were not obviously present. You’d still bet on Labor to win, but you might be slightly more nervous about your cash than a few weeks ago.
For our two major political parties none of this will be comforting. For the rest of us, though, it might end up being a good thing. What is the one way the political parties can make clear to voters how they differ from other parties? Policy.
That may be more important for Turnbull, given he’s prime minister. And given Turnbull’s propensity to make mistakes, and the fundamental problems that remain within his party – internal division won’t have gone away off the back of a few good weeks – Shorten might choose to wait before making big announcements, on the assumption the Coalition will trip over itself, as it usually does. But this would be a dangerous game, with the chance that Turnbull might rebuild while Shorten stands still. The other point to bear in mind is that Labor leaders tend to be elected on a wave of excitement, and often with significant policy platforms.
My hope is that both leaders go into Christmas having realised that the current Turnbull–Shorten figure isn’t much liked, and firmly convinced that 2018 calls for something completely different.
I’m pleased as punch to tell you all that Paddy Manning will be taking over this column in the new year. He’s been a journalist with the ABC, Crikey, The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, The Australian Financial Review and The Australian, and has written three books, including Born To Rule: The Unauthorised Biography of Malcolm Turnbull. You’ll be in excellent hands. Meanwhile, see you tomorrow!
Sean Kelly’s final post for The Monthly Today will be this Friday. The e-newsletter will return, with Paddy Manning, on Monday, 29 January.
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“In the circumstances, a swing of more than 5% against the government could hardly be considered a triumph. Still, a win’s a win, and given that the alternative would have been catastrophic, Turnbull can be forgiven for a spot of relieved gloating.
Unsurprisingly, both sides claimed a victory of sorts, their supporters loyally cheering their respective leaders – although it was interesting that while Laborites chanted for ‘Bill’, the Libs opted for ‘Turnbull’ – perhaps they felt that using his first name would have been offensively familiar for their patrician prime minister.” READ ON
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