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Voters can see that nothing much has changed

Newspoll would suggest that Turnbull is stuck

A couple of quietly extraordinary things are happening right now, both relating to polls.

The first is that Newspoll is utterly stagnant [$].

This might not seem like a big deal, but you have to remember that we have just witnessed nine weeks of policymaking frenzy from a government not usually known for productivity. It started at the end of April, and since then we’ve had new 457 visa laws, new citizenship laws, action on parole for terrorists and a shift towards tougher language on national security; we’ve had the cancellation of Abbott leftovers, including health funding cuts and other zombie cuts; we’ve had a budget that was widely reported as a shift by Malcolm Turnbull to the centre ground, including a massive policy move on schools funding, a populist bank tax and a guarantee of funding to the NDIS; we’ve had a shock intervention on gas supply; we’ve heard talk of infrastructure, good debt and bad debt and a second Sydney airport; we’ve also seen some baby steps towards a climate policy.

The Essential poll has shown some small movement in the government’s favour, but so far it’s been within the margin of error; and Newspoll, which for various historical reasons carries more political weight, has really not moved at all.

The second extraordinary thing is that, so far, the Coalition hasn’t gone into full-blown panic mode.

I’m not suggesting it should. In fact, the opposite is the smarter approach. In budget week, Julie Bishop told MPs that the political impact may take a couple of months to be felt; we’re still three weeks away from that particular timeframe being exhausted. I wrote this at the time:

What happens next depends on the supply of that much-undervalued political quality: patience. The patience of the media, in not ratcheting up reporting to crisis levels, but much more so on the patience of Liberal MPs, in not giving the media ample excuse to engage in said ratcheting. My sense right now is this discipline just might be there.

So far it has been, with some occasional breakouts, the majority of them from one man. I could ask you to guess his name, but it wouldn’t be much of a game.

Why has there been no movement in the polls? That’s anybody’s guess. It could be that voters stopped listening to Turnbull a while back. It could be that he is yet to do much beyond fixing old mistakes and they’re still waiting to see where he actually wants to take the country.

Or it might be that they see through all the noise. That while professional politics-watchers note every minute movement, voters, who after all have their own lives to get on with, see through the daily mess to the structures that lie beneath; and they recognise that nothing much has changed. We have a government that remains fundamentally divided, with a prime minister unwilling to exercise his own authority, or at least unable to turn that authority into legislated results.

If the latter is the case, this week is crucial for Turnbull. At week’s end, parliament breaks until 8 August. If he does not get the Senate on side this week for changes to schools funding, he will plod on through Bishop’s two-month timeframe without anything more to show for his good intentions.

That goes some way to explaining why Tony Abbott’s mates are gearing up to make trouble on Gonski 2.0. Senator Chris Back, in an act of utter cowardice, is intending to vote against his own government on his way out the door. This might not matter so much if the Greens weren’t threatening to match Back’s act by buckling under the pressure of a union campaign. And former minister Kevin Andrews is saying that he might stand in the way of the amended legislation passing the lower house. 

This on a day when the governor of the Reserve Bank, Philip Lowe, pointed out how crucial investing in human capital (in other words, education) was to meeting the challenges and seizing the opportunities offered by technology.  

If the Coalition can’t find a way to bury its differences as its leader finally starts to make some headway on policy, then the damning judgement of voters is correct.  

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About the author Sean Kelly

Sean Kelly was an adviser to prime ministers Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard. He is the Monthly’s politics editor.

@mrseankelly
 
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