This time four weeks ago, Malcolm Turnbull enjoyed surging approval ratings and a slow but persistent improvement in voting intention that had put the Coalition within striking distance on the BludgerTrack two-party poll trend. The story of his journey from there to here begins with the Super Saturday by-elections, a fact that future historians may find a little puzzling. Objectively speaking, the results in the two seats where the Coalition took on Labor were disappointing rather than disastrous: in Braddon they held their ground, which in most circumstances would be regarded as a pretty solid result, while the swing of 3.7% in Longman was well in line with the by-election norm.
One part of the problem for Turnbull was that expectations had not been duly managed — not least by Peter Dutton, who apparently put it to a radio interviewer shortly before polling day that the Liberal National Party had Longman in the bag. Instead, Longman produced the one genuine surprise of Super Saturday, in the LNP’s failure to crack 30% on the primary vote – a result surprisingly few thought to attribute to the troubled campaign of Trevor Ruthenberg. The lesson drawn by a critical mass of the state’s marginal seat MPs was that they would not survive the next election unless a solution was found to One Nation, which could not be accomplished with Malcolm Turnbull as leader. Since most of the support the party has lost to One Nation will be coming back as preferences, the argument presumably goes that One Nation’s strength is also driving voters to Labor, as it seemed to do in Peter Beattie’s heyday.
The first polls conducted after Super Saturday told of only minor damage to the Coalition on voting intention. The Newspoll and Essential Research polls conducted just under a fortnight ago both had the Coalition down two on the primary vote, but Newspoll had most of it returning through the filter of a strengthened One Nation, leaving Labor’s two-party lead unchanged at 51-49, while Essential ticked a point in Labor’s favour to 52-48. However, the real difference lay in Turnbull’s personal ratings: Essential continued to show roughly equal approval and disapproval, while Newspoll had his net rating going from minus 6% to minus 19%.
The most recent poll, from Ipsos, concurred with Newspoll in finding Turnbull in freefall: his net approval rating (always unusually positive from this pollster) went from positive 17 to minus 2. However, the poll also provided the first strong indication of the rot extending to voting intention, on which the Labor lead surged from 51-49 to 55-45. Given the pace of events last week, it’s important to bear in mind that the field work period was Wednesday to Saturday. Turnbull’s latest energy policy formulation was made known overnight on Saturday and endorsed by the party room on Tuesday; talk of resignations and floor-crossing dominated political reporting over the next few days; and Turnbull’s damaging backdown on a legislated emissions target came late on Friday. The latter, at least, would clearly have been too late to have had any real impact.
Prior to Super Saturday, the leadership showdown the media-polling complex was gearing up for was not Turnbull versus Dutton, but Shorten versus Albanese: Newspoll and YouGov Galaxy by-election polls stirred the pot with voting intention questions for a hypothetical Albanese leadership, and duly recorded stronger results for Albanese than Shorten. No such exercise has yet been conducted involving Malcolm Turnbull, whether against Peter Dutton or any other challenger, a fact that may have had an impact on how the leadership crisis has played out to this point. The omission will presumably be rectified over the coming days.