Politicians of all ilks will tell you that the only poll that matters is the one that happens on election day. But let me share a little secret. They’re lying.
There isn’t a politician in Canberra or on Spring Street who doesn’t obsessively watch opinion polls and use the results to justify leaders revolts or whip themselves into a state of crisis.
Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull arrive for Question Time at Parliament House in 2015.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen
When their jobs are on the line every three to four years, honestly, who can blame them?
Turnbull was rolled shortly after he reached that milestone of 30 Newspoll losses which was the threshold he used to challenge his predecessor Tony Abbott.
Labor relied on internal polling to justify dumping Julia Gillard for Kevin Rudd when it looked like he could win back marginal electorates ahead of the 2013 election.
So, fuelled by a glimpse into what the common people are saying, the latest survey results published in The Age on Wednesday dominated conversations inside the major parties as the results were dissect and spun to suit certain narratives.
The findings by Resolve Political Monitor revealed the Andrews government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic has come at a cost with Labor’s primary vote slipping six percentage points since the November 2018 poll.
The drop in support hasn't dented the government's election chances. In fact, an internal analysis of the data by Labor which includes preferences, has them ahead 53-47 on a two-party-preferred vote.
That doesn’t mean the Andrews government has nothing to fear.
Labor insiders confirm their own polling shows a similar trend. While they are still expected to win, a growing number of voters who supported Labor in 2018 are walking away from the government but are unwilling, at this stage, to vote for the Liberals.
Labor’s internal research shows the slip in support is what some are calling the torture effect whereby voters, particularly those heavily impacted by lockdowns, become more willing to turn their back on the government every time the state is sent back into lockdown.
Concern about the Andrews’ government’s handling of the coronavirus is reflected in this week’s poll.Credit:Chris Hopkins
The torture analogy comes from the fact that the most effective torture comes from a repeated routine of deprivation and despair. So every time the government enforces a new lockdown, voters are further deprived and eventually they lose hope, abandoning the government.
Labor believes that those 6 per cent of voters that have turned on the government since the last election are overwhelmingly found in outer-suburban Melbourne and are those people who are unable to work from home as their employment relies on the economy opening up.
“Labor is losing skin in these outer areas and if they keep locking us down, they will lose them for life,” one Labor party insider warned.
However, the state opposition has been unable to capitalise on Labor’s dip in support even though it remains the only jurisdiction in Australia where support for the incumbent government has slipped during the pandemic.
That statistic alone had Michael O’Brien’s critics in a lather on Thursday, claiming it was another reason for change at the top.
Under O’Brien’s watch the Coalition has only improved its primary vote by 1 per cent, from 35 to 36 per cent. An impossible position from which to win an election.
But Liberal MPs who think replacing O’Brien with former leader Matthew Guy, considered a more conservative option, should be warned that such a scenario would be welcomed by Labor.
The latest results found that only 14 per cent of voters expressed a positive view of O’Brien compared to 22 per cent of Victorians who felt negatively towards him, resulting in a likeability score of minus eight.
But under his watch support for the opposition has remained stable throughout the pandemic meaning it has held onto its base.
Labor’s internal research shows swinging voters identified as being centre and centre-left are more likely to vote for O’Brien, who favours a more moderate brand of Liberal politics like Ted Baillieu, the only Victorian Liberal leader to beat Labor in the past 25 years.
By contrast, Matthew Guy remains popular with the party's rusted-on conservative base, who make up about one third of voters
Labor has spent years researching Guy and believe his more conservative approach could potentially woo back some of those disgruntled suburban voters it has lost in the outer suburbs, potentially allowing the Liberals to win back a seat like Cranbourne, in the south east.
But in order to remain competitive in Victorian politics and one day, even win an election, the Coalition needs to win back voters in middle-ring suburbs like Bentleigh, Mordialloc and Eltham. Once marginal, they have become heavily populated, gentrified and experienced an influx of tertiary-educated professionals who are unlikely to be wooed by a more conservative leader.
The scale of Labor’s win in 2018 meant it will be hard for the Coalition to win next year no matter the leader, and a boundary distribution which is expected to abolish two seats in Melbourne's east, could make it even harder.
Annika Smethurst is state political editor.
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