This week’s Newspoll must be a worry for the Coalition, showing as it does the same 2PP of 58/42 as the poll in early February. Since that poll the Opposition has made a display of what it believed was economic responsibility by opposing the fiscal stimulus package, a move it hoped might bolster its economic credibility. However it prudently acknowledged that it ‘might take a hit in the polls’ for opposing a Government move that would likely be popular with the people. The fact that today’s poll was no worse for the Coalition has predictably been interpreted by some of its members as reassuring, especially after last week’s party dissonance.
But there seems to be something else happening. After the Newspoll of December 5-7 where the 2PP was 59/41 in contrast to figures around 55/45 for months, there was the suggestion that that poll was aberrant, as occasionally an individual poll can be. That feeling was reinforced when the next one came in at 54/46, a return to the Newspoll ‘norm’. Since then though two polls have been at 58/42, so three of the last four Newspolls, taken over the last three months, have been around that figure. Does this mean that the trend is towards a resetting of the Newspoll norm to around 58/42? Other polls over the last month or two give even poorer results for the Coalition: Essential Research this week was 62/38 and Morgan 59.5/40.5. Possum’s Pollytrack shows 59/41 and his All Poll Average 58.6/41.4. They are all in the same ball park, despite varying methodologies. [more]
Even more disturbing for the Coalition is Malcolm Turnbull’s personal ratings, which are steadily declining. His net satisfaction rating (satisfaction less dissatisfaction) is now just 5% after being above 25% early in his term as leader. This compares poorly with the PM’s net satisfaction rating of over 40.
In the preferred PM stakes Malcolm Turnbull has plateaued at 20% after a high of 25% soon after taking the leadership, while Kevin Rudd has stayed over 60% for the last four months after dipping below 55 briefly after Turnbull took over as leader. Only 16% of those polled remain undecided.
As Dennis Shanahan, hardly a pro-Labor journalist points out in his piece Numbers look grim for Turnbull, “all of the Newspoll trends spell doom” for the Opposition leader.
Which brings me to Turnbull’s wildcards. Known as someone who ‘thinks outside the box’, someone who is reputed to ‘push the envelope’, to get himself out of difficulties or to achieve an unlikely success, he has recently selected two unanticipated positions – the first was to oppose the fiscal stimulus package, the second to up the ante on carbon targets to ‘trump’ the Government. With the polls as they are, I suppose he felt that he needed to do something spectacularly different to improve his and his party’s position. His opposition to the stimulus package was always a long-term high-risk strategy. Only time will tell whether it will eventually pay off. Raising the stakes over the ETS is a short-term but even more risky strategy. But I suppose he thinks – what the heck!
It remains a mystery why the Government initiated a House of Representatives enquiry about the most appropriate carbon mitigation scheme after all the work it had done on this over the previous eighteen months, and even more of a mystery why it terminated the enquiry within one week on the grounds of it being ‘politically manipulated’, a reason that doesn’t have a ring of authenticity. Anyway, those moves, which have now resulted in the establishment of a Senate enquiry, seem likely to produce a valuable although unintended benefit. There is a need to expose all the facts, to reveal all the opinions, conflicting though they might be, so that the best way of proceeding can be ascertained. This will likely benefit the Government more than the Opposition.
So what are the hurdles for the Coalition in promoting its new carbon position?
The first hurdle will be the terms of reference of the Senate enquiry. The Opposition is comfortable with the Government’s terms of reference for its own enquiry, but will it be comfortable with the Greens’ likely more stringent terms of reference that would ensure all the climate change facts and figures are on the table and any models rigorously tested? Whether they can agree is still to be ascertained. Let’s see.
The next problem for the Coalition will be that it will need to be able to support its own ideas for carbon mitigation. By saying it will set a higher carbon target than the 5% to 15% of the Government, requires it to show how. Turnbull says that he’s already said how in his ‘January speech’ on the subject, but so far no detailed supporting modelling has emerged. As he’s always asking for the Government’s modelling, he can hardly escape giving his own. Its ‘biochar’ and reafforestation proposals will need modelling of their costs and benefits. The ideas might be sound, but would they be feasible and cost-effective? Already Penny Wong is saying that the tree planting needed in the Coalition model would require planting acreage half the size of Tasmania every year for ten years at a cost $60 billion by 2020. The enquiry will sort that out. The advantages of biochar will need to be documented. The Opposition places great store by it; others say it would play but a small part. If the Opposition has the facts and figures right so that we can consider more feasible options, they will earn a pat on the back; if not, they will look silly.
A further problem resides within the Opposition itself. There is a persistent belief that it still harbours climate change sceptics, and even among those who accept its reality there are many who have no sense of urgency about tackling it. So any move to give the impression it wants to take decisive action on carbon mitigation and to be seen as ‘green’, will be held back by its sceptics and the indolent. They will find it harder to walk the walk than to talk the talk.
Another problem for the Coalition is the propensity of some of its members to float alternatives, such as a carbon tax, without the party having given it due consideration, and without really understanding it. Andrew Robb got himself into an awful tangle last night on ABC TV’s Lateline trying to explain to Tony Jones the carbon tax concept and whether the Coalition was considering it.
A further problem for the Liberals will be the Nationals. When the Government recently suggested a modest scheme to plant trees as carbon sinks, the Nationals protested loudly at the consequent loss of farming land, insisting it would bring ruin to farmers. Already at the current Senate estimates hearings Ron Boswell’s outbursts have given us a foretaste of things to come. Today Barnaby Joyce said on ABC 774 Melbourne radio that he has “a big concern about the ETS, full stop”. He insists it will have no effect on the climate, yet will result in the loss of 50,000 mining jobs and consequently over 200,000 other jobs in Queensland alone. He dismisses carbon sequestration as not yet available. He thinks the Senate enquiry will be pretty useless. How does such an attitude line up with the Coalition’s move to have an enquiry?
So on many counts Turnbull will need to be politically intelligent to manage his high risk gamble. Is he up to it?
If the Government is astute, it will go along with the enquiry, accept the Greens’ wider terms of reference, put the Coalition’s ideas and models under the blowtorch, to which its own scheme will likely be subject, and harvest an extended range of options, perhaps some modification of its own scheme, and in the process convert this issue from an adversarial contest to one where there is at least some cross party consensus which would give any resultant scheme much more validity and strength.
Whether the Government would be able to tolerate significant changes to its CPRS or additions to its armamentarium is questionable. It would be wise to do so, hedge the risks inherent in introducing any scheme by having the other parties support it, at least in part, and neutralize Turnbull’s high-risk strategy of raising the carbon target stakes.