Two of the nation’s least popular leaders in many a year have embarked on an adventure an overwhelming majority endorse. It may not be the making of Tony Abbott and Bill Shorten but it could ensure they leave a legacy beyond brutal partisan politics.
An Ipsos poll in the Fairfax papers has found an overwhelming majority of Australians, 85 percent, endorse giving our first peoples recognition in the birth certificate of our Commonwealth.
The same poll has the PM and the Opposition Leader deep in negative territory where their disapproval outweighs their approval.
Mr Shorten has nosedived 14 points in a month for a net approval of minus 20. Mr Abbott’s slide is not so precipitous but his net approval is minus 23.
The Newspoll paints a similar picture of an electorate not very impressed with either of the leaders on offer. No doubt the legacy of the toxic politics of the last hung parliament and its enduring polarised overhang in this one.
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All of that was not on view at a meeting on Monday of 40 indigenous leaders with the Prime Minister and Opposition Leader. Their mission was to find a path to a successful referendum that in Mr Abbott’s words, “completes the constitution”
He says “we need to end the echoing silence in our constitution” of an historical fact.
When our nation was formed Aborigines and Torres Straight Islanders were ignored. Worse, sections of the founding document spoke of race and empowered our parliaments to discriminate against people. Commonly taken to mean “the natives”, theoretically it could be applied to any race.
The real challenge is to come up with a formula which gives recognition, ends discrimination and attracts a majority of votes in a majority of states.
Mr Abbott wants it ready for the 50th anniversary of the 1967 referendum which gave Indigenous Australians the vote but didn’t finish the job.
Mr Shorten would like to see the hard work completed before the next election. That would give voters a year to digest the proposal before the poll was held. This, he says, would keep the issue clear of politics.
The fact is the Liberal leader is getting more flak from his conservative allies over the issue than his opponent.
Ironically, there is more chance of success if Mr Abbott is there to steer it through in these crucial stages.
So far he is sounding like a committed statesman to the project. But the survival reality check may come from the negative trend in the polls. That has the Coalition government staring down the barrel of defeat.
As The Guardian has tallied it, the Abbott government has not been ahead of Labor in two-party-preferred terms in any published poll since April 2014. There have been 151 of them.
Labor’s been ahead in 149 of the polls and on level pegging in two. This strongly suggests that while voters haven’t warmed to either leader, they have been disappointed with the government they elected in 2013.
Such a long-term trend suggests hardened attitudes. The “Recognition” adventure may not save Mr Abbott. It may enhance his memory.
Paul Bongiorno AM is a veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery, with 40 years’ experience covering Australian politics. He is Contributing Editor for Network Ten, appears on Radio National Breakfast and writes a weekly column on national affairs for The New Daily. He tweets at @PaulBongiorno