Among political insiders, I detect some relief that the two-party-preferred Newspoll gap between the Turnbull government and the Shorten opposition has narrowed and as a consequence a sense that some normalcy may be returning to federal politics.
Unlike much of the Liberal party base, insiders quite like the current government because it doesn’t challenge centre-left orthodoxies in the way the Howard government did, and the way the Abbott government did to an even greater extent. That’s why, in the mainstream media, the Turnbull government often gets a better press than it deserves.
The fact that the forthcoming federal election could now go either way, despite the government’s loss of 36 consecutive polls, is by no means the most significant Newspoll finding.
For Australia’s long-term future, by far the most telling result is the consistently low primary vote for both major parties. Since September 2016, the government has not once secured Newspoll support at 40 per cent or higher. In fact, it’s even longer since Labor did better than 40 per cent but that doesn’t matter so much because the Greens consistently score about 10 per cent and those votes reliably go to Labor on preferences. When both major parties are on the nose, the Liberals have the bigger problem because minor parties on the right don’t consistently deliver preferences to the conservative side of politics.
With Labor moving further to the left (advocating more spending, more taxing and more regulating) and with the Liberals in many ways following them (with more spending, taxing, and regulating too – only less than Labor), what the polls really indicate is an opening for a new party of the right provided its leadership is credible. When Labor moves to the left, its base cheers. When the Libs remain Labor-lite, its base may eventually desert it.
Last week, Newspoll showed a whopping 72 per cent wanted to cut the permanent migration intake but that’s not the policy of either major party. Last week, Newspoll also showed that 48 per cent wanted out of the Paris Agreement on climate change (with only 38 per cent in favour of staying in) but, likewise, that’s not the policy of either major party.
When our big political parties consistently ignore what ordinary voters want, they are at huge risk. But the risk is much greater for the Liberals because what the voters want on immigration and on climate change are more right-wing policies, not more left-wing ones; and if the Liberals don’t provide them, eventually some other group will.
Consider what’s happened overseas. In Italy, the Christian Democrats that had dominated government since the second world war now hardly exist and the latest Italian government is a novel coalition of new anti-immigration and anti-EU parties of both the left and right. In Germany, the once dominant Christian Democrats are now governing in coalition with their former arch-rivals, while the official opposition is an anti-immigration party that’s much further to the right. In France, the Gaullists and the socialists that alternated in power for 50 years are both on life support with a previously relatively unknown newcomer in the presidency.
In Britain, anti-immigration sentiment that both main parties largely ignored was at least partly responsible for the Brexit vote. And in the United States, Donald Trump first beat the Republican party establishment and then the Democratic party establishment promising ‘to build a wall and drain the swamp’.
This is the age of disruption, in politics as much as in economics. Parties that ignore their baseline supporters are vulnerable to being disrupted almost to the point of extinction and, at least in Australia, it’s the Liberal party that’s most susceptible.
If the federal Liberals hardened their position to cut immigration substantially, and if they rejigged their energy policy to favour cutting price over cutting emissions, the risk of being usurped on the right would greatly recede.
But that will never happen while Malcolm Turnbull remains their leader. What the polls suggest is that a centre-right party with a centre-left leader might gain some votes in the short term but only at the risk of being replaced altogether when something finally emerges that’s more appealing to conservative voters.
Disruption is easier in political systems with a popularly elected presidency or with legislatures elected by proportional representation than it is in Australia. Here a prime minister needs the support of at least half the members of the House of Representatives and they, in turn, need the support of half their electors on a two party preferred basis. Even parties with 20 per cent of the vote can end up with almost no representation in the Reps. But if dissatisfaction with the political establishment is high enough, even in a country like Australia it will eventually be swept away.
What’s saved the Liberal party so far is that its competitors on the right have lacked authority and plausible alternative policies, while the Labor party has moved to the left rather than to the centre. As Speccie columnist Mark Latham’s fraternisation with Pauline Hanson’s One Nation shows, sooner or later, some figures who were once politically important will join fringe parties if there are key issues that the big parties ignore.
The longer Turnbull lasts as leader, the more likely it is that the Liberal party will split or that it will face a serious competitor on the conservative side of politics. Hence a Turnbull victory at the next election could be more dangerous to the Liberal party long term than a defeat that would enable them to rethink and regroup in opposition under centre-right leaders like Peter Dutton or Tony Abbott.
Emeritus professor of politics and history at Griffith University, Ross Fitzgerald AM is the author of 40 books, including the political/sexual satire ‘So Far, So Good: An Entertainment’ (Hybrid)