To say that this has been a heated week in Australian politics would be an understatement. So far, the Liberal Party leadership crisis has seen Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s tenure coming to an end, effectively putting the federal government on shaky ground. In days to come, Australians will witness the chain reaction of this unprecedented turn of events, which will most definitely move the election date much closer than what had been originally planned.
Given that the challenge of the PM’s leadership was justified by the Coalition’s continuously poor performance in the polls, Neos Kosmos turned to Independent Poll Analyst Andrew Catsaras, for his insight on Turnbull’s performance and the chances that the Coalition has under a new leadership. But even for a polling expert, it is hard to make sense of the current political situation and goings-on in the Liberal party.
“There is no polling basis for this, at all,” he says, explaining that it is not important how many weeks a party is behind, but the magnitude of the difference.
“When Malcolm Turnbull challenged Tony Abbott, back in 2015, the Coalition was consistently well behind by 10 points in the two-party-preferred vote, so he did have an argument, because they were heading for a big defeat,” he says.
“When Turnbull was elected as leader he got a huge surge in popularity for the Liberal party and was heading for a comfrotable victory, but the problem for him was that he didn’t deliver as a Prime Minister; people expected him to be a centrist PM, as opposed to a conservative. He didn’t deliver that, and this is why he nearly lost the election, it was a very close vote.
“Since that time, the polls have gone in Labor’s favour, however in the last few months the polls had improved for the Coalition, to the point where they are only a couple of points behind, about 51 to 49 per cent, which is much much closer to what Tony Abbott had achieved, and they were in a position where they could become competitive in the next six months or so.”
LABOR WINNER OF LIBERAL LEADERSHIP CHALLENGE
Another rationale presented as a reason for leadership change points to the recent byelection and the marginal seats of Queensland that would be key to which party will win the election. Despite Labor’s good performance in the by-election, the party still needs to pick up six or eight seats in the state, with slim chances. The only time that Labor managed to perform well in Queensland was under Kevin Rudd, who is a Queenslander.
Part of the reasoning behind Peter Dutton’s challenging the leadership is that the Coalition would have an advantage in this crucial state. Mr Catsaras is not ready to accept this viewpoint.
“There is no evidence at all, in polling information, to say that Peter Dutton would perform better than Turnbull,” he says, pointing out that this notion is based on the fact that the former Home Affairs Minister is a Queenslander.
“This is only an opinion, but I would suspect that even if he did pick up support in Queensland – which is debatable – he would lose more than that in the other states, because he’s just not a particularly popular or well-liked person.”
But what about the PM-designate, Scott Morrison, who emerged victorious from the leadership spill and will now lead the Coalition into the election? Mr Catsaras doesn’t think that he can make much difference to Turnbull.
“Julie Bishop might have had better chances, because she’s a woman and has a better profile, but my view is that had Malcolm Turnbull stayed, the chances of Labor winning would not have been as great as they are now, after all this turmoil,” he says, pointing to the negative effect this spill will have on the voters, who are always weary of party politics and backstabbing.
At this stage, it doesn’t matter who the Liberal party leader is, because fewer voters will support the Coalition for a number of reasons, Mr Catsaras estimates.
“A lot of them will go over to Labor,” he says; “whether they go over to Labor as a first preference, or as a second or third preference, it doesn’t matter – Labor’s two-party-preference numbers will improve, they will win, and they will win with a pretty good majority, because of this turmoil. Whereas I thought they might be looking at 78 to 80 seats, now they may end up with 85 to 90 seats.”
LEADERSHIP CRISIS ALL ACROSS THE SPECTRUM
If this week of political turmoil proved anything, it is that there is an ongoing crisis of leadership all across the political spectrum. This is evident in the polls, where no party leader seems able to inspire voters – but maybe it also signifies the need to stop focusing on personalities and pay attention to policies.
Mr Catsaras doesn’t see this happening soon.
“The first point is that people do want to believe in leaders,” he says. “They want to have hope in leaders. We saw that with Kevin Rudd, we saw that with Julia Gillard, and we saw that with Malcolm Turnbull; we didn’t see it with Tony Abbott, because he doesn’t inspire any hope. Bob Hawke, back in 1983 did, Gough Whitlam did, there are leaders who people want to believe in; Obama is an excellent example, also Trudeau in Canada and Macron in France. These people do inspire hope. The difficulty is that sometimes those expectations are too high, or those people are incapable of delivering what they would like to do because of limitations. Obama couldn’t deliver nowhere near what he wanted because of the US congress, for instance; Julia Gillard inspired hope for being the first woman PM, but she was disappointing and undermined a lot by Kevin Rudd; Malcolm Turnbull hasn’t delivered, partly because he was so worried about the conservative wing of the party.
“At the current situation, Bill Shorten, who’s more likely to become PM, doesn’t inspire any enthusiasm or hope for something better; that may in fact help him because the expectations from him as leader won’t be that high. He’s actually had a lot of ability and I think he’ll try to govern like Hawke, as a consensus leader. He won’t inspire hope, but that could change.”
Still, this does not look very inspiring; the question is why is there such a dissonance between what voters want from their leaders and what the party system actually delivers. For Mr Catsaras, this is a systemic issue.
“The type of people who should be getting into politics, who have those sorts of capabilities, aren’t getting in because it’s very hard to break through and get selected to run in seats, unless you are a creature of the parties – you have to come from the unions, or be a political staffer and work your way up through the ranks, you force your way into the Parliament,” he says.
“You have to grease so many palms and do so many favours, that people who might have that sort of vision – and particularly women – are just turned off from going through that process, which attracts a certain type of person, a transactional politician, who does deals to get things done.”
LEADERSHIP IN A GLOBALISED WORLD
Speaking of ‘deals’, one cannot avoid bringing up US President, Donald Trump.
“I’m no fan of his,” clarifies the analyst, “but from his constituency’s point of view, he does deliver. And this is what these conservatives in Australia and Europe are trying to do.
“We live in a globalised world and there is a very high level of anxiety in people, who see there are no jobs in factories; they want things to go back to the 1960s and that is not going to happen. All governments in the world face this problem and that is a dangerous thing for democracy, because it leaves a vacuum.
“People like Trump, crazy right-wing conservatives, fascists, they fill that vacuum; they use people’s anxiety and present people with simple solutions, they blame immigrants, imports, ‘African gangs’, whatever. That is a major issue.
“A leader of the progressive side would need to understand that anxiety and convey that to the people, not give false hope, but get into people’s shoes. Whitlam, Hawke and Keating, they all did it – Rudd and Turnbull didn’t do it; that’s where the problem lies now, but it’s much more difficult now than 30 years ago. We live in a much more globalised world, and things change more quickly.
“That’s why you need people in democracy to stand up. It’s like what the ancient Greeks used to say: if a man says he has no interest in politics, we don’t say that he minds his own business, we say he doesn’t have any business being here at all.
“That’s a really important lesson, that democracy is a really important thing that all people should participate in, in all levels.”