At first glance, Monday’s Newspoll results are pretty dismal for Bill Shorten. Scoring a measly 14 per cent as preferred Prime Minister, Mr Shorten has equalled the second-lowest rating ever achieved by an Opposition Leader.
Does this mean the Labor leader is a dead man walking? Not necessarily.
Mr Shorten certainly won’t be too thrilled about matching the worst polling records of other poorly performing Opposition leaders, such as Labor’s Simon Crean and Malcolm Turnbull during his first stint as Liberal leader.
He can at least take comfort from not having plunged to the record 7 per cent achieved by the Liberals’ hapless Brendan Nelson.
More importantly, and as Mr Shorten was at pains to point out to the media, the latest Newspoll results align with most of the other opinion polls that suggest Labor’s overall support is holding up surprisingly well against the Turnbull charm offensive.
Initially taking a hit when Mr Turnbull first replaced Tony Abbott as Prime Minister, Labor has so far managed to sustain a primary vote in the low 30s, which after the allocation of preferences still gives it a fighting chance.
Mr Turnbull and the Government’s recent polling success is at least partly due to voters’ relief at having a Liberal Prime Minister who is polite, articulate and intelligent.
However, the PM’s propensity to somewhat patronisingly over-explain has led to the term “Malsplaining” being coined in political circles, to sardonically describe the PM’s inclination to talk his way out of sticky situations.
Labor has twigged to this pithy epithet, deploying it in the parliament and on social media in the hope voters will become tired of the PM’s verbosity, particularly when it’s deployed for politically dubious means.
After attempting various ways to pierce Mr Turnbull’s shiny exterior – including attacks on his wealth and tax arrangements – Labor has defaulted to the tactic that worked so well for Tony Abbott against Julia Gillard: wedging the PM between loyalty to colleagues and accusations of poor judgement.
Mr Abbott put pressure on Ms Gillard over two parliamentarians: Labor MP Craig Thomson, who was accused at the time of having misused his credit cards when a union official; and Peter Slipper, the Liberal MP-turned-independent-Speaker who became embroiled in a sordid scandal with former staffer James Ashby.
Having recruited Mr Slipper into the Speaker’s role to protect Labor’s numbers in the hung parliament if Mr Thomson was forced to resign, Ms Gillard stuck loyally by Mr Thomson and Mr Slipper, despite the allegations against both men. As a result her judgement was brought into question by the then-Opposition Leader Tony Abbott, and this played a big part in voters questioning Ms Gillard’s competency as PM.
Repaying the favour, Labor has found a chink in PM Turnbull’s Teflon-coated armour, pressuring him to choose between loyalty to key numbers man Mal Brough, and defending himself against claims of poor judgement in appointing Mr Brough to the ministry in the first place.
There is, of course, a weird symmetry to this situation given the current point of contention is Mr Brough’s role in the Slipper affair.
While much of the media attention was on Mr Shorten’s poor preferred PM result this week, Labor would have been paying closer attention to the change in Mr Turnbull’s net approval rating in the Newspoll, which was a drop of 16 percentage points to 22 per cent. This suggests Labor is on to something with its pursuit of Mal Brough.
Yes, it must be said, Mr Shorten’s net approval rating dropped also, by seven percentage points to -38. So there’s no avoiding the unfortunate reality for Labor that its leader has a presentational problem.
But as Mr Abbott demonstrated in 2013, an unpopular Opposition Leader can still win government if voters conclude the Government of the day – or its leader – is incompetent. Labor only has to find a way to demonstrate this. Or perhaps it already has.
Paula Matthewson was media adviser to John Howard in the early 1990s and then worked for almost 25 years in communication, political and industry advocacy roles. She is now a freelance writer and communication strategist. Paula has been tweeting and blogging about politics, the media and social media since 2009 under the pen name @Drag0nista.