To borrow a term from Malcolm Turnbull himself, his unpopularity seems to be the result of Turnbull’s Terrible Trifecta. More of that later.
There’s not much need to emphasize Turnbull’s contemporary unpopularity – it’s all over the air waves and the papers. It takes only a few metrics to quantify it. He leads a Coalition that Possum’s Pollytrack currently shows has an average TPP vote of only 40. Pollytrack shows 60/40 in Labor's favour across several polls, and Pollytrend showing a steady trend away from the Coalition. The latest Newspoll PPM ratings show 67/18. As primary votes are running at 47/36, it means that half of Coalition voters don’t prefer Turnbull as PM. Presumably most of them prefer Kevin Rudd. Finally, for the first time in Newspoll, Turnbull’s satisfaction/dissatisfaction rating is in negative territory: 39/42. Essential Research gives a similar result. Possum has this to say about the most recent Newspoll: “Turnbull’s satisfaction dynamics have an eerie longer term linear quality to them; you can almost run a straight line through them starting from his November 2008 satisfaction figures and ending on today’s. Since November, Turnbull is losing around 100,000 people a week in terms of the number of folks that are satisfied with his performance across the Australian electorate. With his dissatisfaction levels it’s even worse, with around 115,000 people a week becoming dissatisfied. The difference between those rates, that 15 thousand people or so, represents the rate at which the Undecideds are breaking against him. Turnbull’s problem isn’t any given Newspoll; it’s his longer term performance that’s grinding him into the dirt...” In today’s Pollytics, where Possum analyses voting trends by gender, he concludes: “The lunge away from Turnbull and toward Labor ... is singularly a female voter movement, with the Coalition currently getting their equal lowest level of female voter support since these Newspoll breakdowns started in 1996 - blowing out a 12 point female voter advantage to Labor.” [more]
Why is Turnbull so unpopular in the polls, particularly among female voters? In any dynamic system there are always multiple causes, but forced to name just one, it would be ‘Negativity’. Add to that ‘Arrogance’, then ‘Disingenuousness’ to complete Turnbull’s Terrible Trifecta: Negativity-Arrogance-Disingenuousness.
Negativity: Columnists, commentators on TV and radio, bloggers and talkback callers comment on Turnbull’s consistent negativity. According to Turnbull and his colleagues, nothing the Government does is ever right. They bungle and botch at every turn. Their policies are always flawed, and never as wise and circumspect as the Coalition’s. They are slaves to the age-old Whitlamesque habit of spend, spend, spend, and debt, debt, debt, ideological flaws they cannot shake off. They consistently make bad situations worse. They regularly make the wrong calls – talking up inflation and then talking down the economy. They never seem to get it right, but what do we expect of Labor anyway? They never could manage money; they certainly can’t manage a trillion dollar high-speed economy.
Here’s just a small illustrative sample from media releases taken from the Liberal Party website over the last couple of days:
Kevin Rudd's economic mismanagement
Rudd's broadband gamble
Mr Rudd’s inability to manage our economy, running up enormous debt resulting in higher taxes and higher interest rates in the future
$800 million loss in income for Universities while Government spends $3.9 billion on Pink Batts
Competition for housing finance hits all time low under Rudd
Drought report a reminder of the damning delays in water infrastructure
Urgent inquiry demanded - Why was the boat left stuck on a reef for four days?
Rudd government withholds information on boat arrivals
Defence inquiry a futile exercise
Kevin Rudd’s Jekyll and Hyde economic performance
And let’s not forget “Labor’s terrible trifecta of higher unemployment, higher debt, and more days lost to strikes.” What strikes Turnbull is referring to is not stated. The media seems to have missed them.
Of course some of the criticism might be justified, but it is astonishing that Rudd and Labor seem to get so little right.
Now if the polls reflect reality at all, those polled simply don’t believe Turnbull. The people see a Government that keeps them informed every day about what’s happening, particularly regarding the global economic downturn, and that is active in shielding Australia as much as it can from the dire consequences. Of course Turnbull says the Government has got it all wrong. The people seem not to agree with him. Comments on The Political Sword to the previous post Why is our PM so popular? are telling. Dave55 says “Most people are pragmatic, unless they have really been screwed over by a particular policy, they will weigh up the overall picture they get from the Government. That picture at the moment is one that is acting to minimise the harm to Australia from things that happened outside Australia - so far, these things seem to be working or at least working a lot better than in other countries“. Janice says: “While his critics slam him over his boring oratory skills, ordinary voting Australians see him [Rudd] as speaking openly and truthfully in plain understandable language.” Rx says: “For what it's worth, I think he's [Rudd] doing a bloody good job under most trying circumstances. A global financial crisis and hostile spiteful media have caused barely a stumble. In fact they seem to strengthen his resolve and dignity.” The public tires of continual carping criticism, especially when it sees what it believes is a Government actively intervening in the nation’s interest. BH comments: “Pity that the Libs can't see that we don't like their continual denigration.”
Unwarranted negativity is a killer – it saps the public’s confidence and satisfaction in any leader who uses that negative weapon.
Turnbull is said to be supremely intelligent, and so must know this. Why then does he persist? A regular commentator on The Political Sword has some answers. Bushfire Bill says: “The Libs seem to think there's a latent antagonism to Labor that is waiting to burst out of people, if only the right trigger point can be found.... In short, it's Chris Uhlmann's famous ‘House of Cards’ theory. Chip away at the ones on the bottom and the whole thing will suddenly come tumbling down. The whole Lib approach is to short cut policy and diligence on the way back to power by re-achieving government with a conjurer's trick, a clever move that will see the scales fall instantly from the public's eyes, revealing the Rudd government for what it really is: a bunch of amateurs who fart in front of the Queen. So we get the Hostie story, the toxic bore description, Heiner, the continual gotchas and, shock horror, endless recantations that Rudd is not Howard and never can be.”
That sounds right. And it’s not just Turnbull who utters these negative mantras, other front-benchers do. On last Thursday’s ABC TV’s Q&A Helen Coonan repeated the ‘What has the Rudd Government ever done’ mantra. Bloggers say the same. This week one said on The Australian’s House Rules Blog “Name me one OUTCOME from this Dud government. Apart from a huge debt I can’t see one promise delivered, not one.” When I referred him to the Government Watch page on The Political Sword where media releases and speeches are placed, 350 for March alone, he replied “Mate I feel sorry for you if you think that an RSS feed from the Australian Labor Party website, where it places its media statements, is anything more than propaganda.” So there you have it. Turnbull hopes that attitude will spread until it engulfs the majority of punters, who will then turn to him for salvation.
Arrogance: It would be hard, even for his most ardent supporters, to deny that Turnbull is arrogant, although they would probably prefer to call this characteristic ‘self-confidence’. His bearing is one of ‘I know best’, and if he feels he’s not convincing his audience, he’ll tell them again and again he knows best, and will quote his business or banking experience to back his claim. Only this week he insisted that the Government’s new NBN won’t be financially viable, quoting his experience in establishing Ozemail to prove the point. QED. No figures or appraisal necessary. He just knows. Who’s to argue?
Macca, commenting on The Political Sword says: “Turnbull has turned into one of the politicians that just annoy me every time he talks - I want to listen to him because I want him to snap out of his political opportunism but he always disappoints and I end up switching off.” Of course Turnbull may not be arrogant. All those telling anecdotes may be wrong; that imperious look may not be arrogance at all – it may be simply all in our imagination. But if the many commentators who read his verbal and non-verbal signals as arrogance are right, it’s a lethal companion to negativity, and for that matter disingenuousness
Disingenuousness: The third leg of Turnbull’s Terrible Trifecta. By the term I mean not being candid or sincere, dissembling, duplicitous. Much of what has been said earlier in this piece is evidence of this attribute. So much of Turnbull’s negativity is deceitful. He’s simply misrepresenting the truth. He must know that, or worst still has begun to believe his own spin. Only this week, on release of the unemployment figures of 5.7%, Turnbull said that Rudd’s ‘cash splash’ had done no good and that instead of creating jobs, jobs had been lost – his implication being that the fiscal stimulus had resulted in job losses. He implies this so bald-facedly, yet he knows that it’s incorrect, he knows why jobs are being lost, particularly in the mining states, he knows that the retail sector has appreciated the first phases of the fiscal stimulus, and he knows that there is no evidence that the fiscal stimulus has caused job losses. The people see through his dissembling, and mark him down for it.
Turnbull seems to be relying on the economy steadily worsening, unemployment rising towards 10% and with it anger rising too, anger that would be vented in many ways, not least against those in Government. Then he believes the people will conclude they have been duped by an incompetent Rudd Government, and that a change back to competent economic managers, the Coalition, is the only solution. Indeed just this week he announced that only when he becomes Prime Minister at the next election would the economy be in safe hands.
Instead of Turnbull’s Terrible Trifecta, another choice for him and the Coalition would be to develop decent policy options and plausible alternatives to Government policy; introduce them modestly rather than insisting they are the only way to go; stick to the facts and avoid deceit. Public respect, now so profoundly lacking, might then be gradually restored. But at the moment Turnbull seems hell-bent on leading his colleagues, like lemmings, right over the cliff. Does he know how close to the edge he is?