Leo D'Angelo Fisher Columnist

Leo covers management and leadership issues, business trends and corporate strategy. He is a former senior business writer at The Bulletin and a former host of The Business Hour on 3AW.

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Voters’ remorse: Tony Abbott gets a shock as his leadership is found wanting

Published 25 November 2013 11:58, Updated 26 November 2013 11:52

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Voters’ remorse: Tony Abbott gets a shock as his leadership is found wanting

Tony Abbott’s honeymoon as the new prime minister hasn’t lasted three months. Photo: Andrew Meares

In Opposition, Tony Abbott gave every impression of believing that being prime minister was going to be a cakewalk; it was only because of Labor’s unruly incompetence that it made such a hash of government, the argument ran. Abbott, on the other hand, promised “purposeful, methodical, calm” government. The Prime Minister must be choking on his victory cake because government is proving a lot more difficult than he envisaged.

The on-again, off-again “budget emergency”; the indecision over the proposed sale of GrainCorp; the less than smooth sailing of its Operation Sovereign Borders policy; and the dog’s breakfast response to the Indonesian phone tapping fiasco: this is a government which is proving itself all at sea.

In case its bumbling progress was not humiliation enough for this L-plate government, the Fairfax Media/Nielsen poll, the first since the September 7 election, shows that voters have bucked convention and had a change of heart about their choice of government.

Voters usually stick with their choice well into a new government’s first term. After Kevin Rudd beat John Howard in 2007, it took the Coalition two-and-a-half years to get in front. It’s a different story this time.

Federal Labor, under the leadership of Bill Shorten, leads the Coalition in the two-party preferred vote: 52 per cent to 48 per cent. It’s the first time Labor has been ahead of the Coalition since October 2010.

Abbott will no doubt follow the time-honoured ruse of not commenting on (unfavourable) opinion polls – do opinion polls constitute an “operational matter”? – but he doesn’t have to utter a word: the numbers say it all.

As a snapshot in time, coming as it does so soon after the election, the opinion poll does not spell ruin for the new Abbott government. But make no mistake: this poll represents a rebuff for a government whose false modesty has never masked its cocksure arrogance.

Voters’ remorse

The Abbott government should be in no doubt about the import of this poll: it reveals an unprecedented case of voters’ remorse that should be taken as a warning that voters expect much more of this government.

In other words, the honeymoon is over almost as soon as it began. Labor’s 52-48 two-party supremacy over the government represents a post-election swing towards Labor of about 6 percentage points. Labor’s primary vote rose 4 points from its election result to 37 per cent and the Coalition’s fell 5 points to 41 per cent.

It would appear that voters regret their decision to reward Abbott for his small-target election campaign. They are certainly in no mood to accept that same small-target approach now that the Coalition is in government.

Voters want a clearer picture of the government’s intentions; they expect the government to keep the people informed; and they do not share the government’s view that it comes to office with a rock-solid mandate that leaves no room for revision or review.

A majority of voters have misgivings about the Coalition’s secretive asylum-seeker policy: 42 per cent approve of the government’s handling of the issue, but 50 per cent do not.

Voters are split on another Coalition policy priority, the abolition of the mining tax, with 46 per cent supporting its abolition and 47 per cent opposed.

But it’s on the carbon tax that the poll delivers the most sobering news for the government. It reveals that voters are not so black and white on the issue of abolishing the carbon tax. The government may have to admit that its mandate is more complex than it has so far been prepared to admit.

Mixed views

The Fairfax/Nielsen poll reveals that 57 per cent of voters believe Labor should vote to abolish the carbon tax. (A bill to abolish the carbon tax was passed in the lower house; it now faces a more problematic reception in the senate next week.) But the government is not on firm ground if it believes that this confirms its mandate.

According to the poll, 38 per cent of voters support retention of the carbon tax, suggesting that it’s not quite the hated tax that the Coalition has long claimed. And while the majority support the abolition, just 12 per cent, or approximately one in 10 voters, support the Coalition’s direct action policy. Twenty-nine per cent of voters support Labor’s proposal to move to a floating price emissions trading scheme on July 1, 2014.

In a video message to the electorate on Sunday, Abbott continued to press the opposition and the Greens to honour the government’s mandate.

“You voted to scrap the carbon tax, the House of Representatives has voted to scrap the carbon tax and now it’s up to the Senate to do the same, and I want this done by Christmas,” Abbott said, with the trademark lack of humility that may come to be one of the government’s biggest problems.

But the government’s insistence that Labor abandon the emissions trading scheme appears not to be shared by the electorate. The electorate plainly wants a solution, but it’s not convinced that the government has all the answers, despite handing it a resounding victory on September 7.

‘Inviolable mandate’

The Abbott government has shown little interest in deviating from what it considers an inviolable mandate to implement its election manifesto (such as it was). But this opinion poll may provide the wake-up call it needs to come to terms with the fact that government is a complex business, and solutions are more nuanced than it cares to admit.

Whatever he may believe, Abbott does not come to government with a blank cheque. The opinion poll has made this clear on a number of fronts, but Abbott will no doubt be taking particular interest in the preferred leader results.

The poll shows Abbott’s approval rating is 47 per cent and his disapproval 46 per cent. Bill Shorten’s approval rating is 51 per cent – and frankly he’s not had to work very hard to achieve that – and his disapproval rating is 30 per cent. It is the best debut for an opposition leader since Kevin Rudd in February 2007.

Tony Abbott leads as preferred prime minister by 49 per cent to 41 per cent, but he no doubt expected to be riding much higher in polls.

The reason he is not is that while he may not have earned the prime ministership in his lacklustre, small-target election campaign, the voters are insisting that he must earn it now.

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