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Malcolm Turnbull's 30 days on Newspoll death row

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(Image via @lhilakari)

Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership is safe for now. However, as political editor Dr Martin Hirst reports, he will be forever stained by his 30th Newspoll loss in a row.

MALCOLM TURNBULL increasingly looks like a very worried man.

It’s not surprising really; last weekend he was at an AFL game in Sydney and, when his face was projected onto the big screen, the crowd let out a mighty roar.

Well, it was a sustained booing noise, really, and the Fizza looked very, very uncomfortable.

Today he is looking – and no doubt feeling – a lot more uncomfortable. It’s easy enough to shrug off a few, perhaps light-hearted, boos at the footy; it’s a lot harder to ignore your 30th Newspoll loss in a row. Hard indeed, when your initial claim to the prime ministership was that your hapless predecessor had reached that magic number. But that is indeed the precarious position Malcolm Turnbull finds himself in this week.

This week, Turnbull closed the gap a little on Shorten, but really only within the statistical margin of error. The ALP still holds a four-point lead – 52-48 – over the COALition. The shift in Turnbull’s favour is not enough to overcome the Opposition's substantial two-party preferred lead over the Government.

He’s safe for now. But not, perhaps, for much longer. According to reported comments, the main leadership contenders – Peter Dutton and Julie Bishop – have spent the last few days pledging their loyalty.

And we all know what that means … the leadership speculation will continue and so will the internal plotting against Turnbull.

Now, he’s also facing the difficulty of having a formal faction of backbenchers – the so-called Monash Group – who will be meeting regularly to agitate against the Government’s coal and energy policies. It’s not difficult to believe they’ll also be discussing Malcolm’s failures of leadership too.

Je ne regret, rein?

In late 2015, Malcolm Turnbull cited then Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s 30 Newspoll losses in a row as one of the reasons he launched his challenge. Now he is rueing the day. In the lead up to his 24th consecutive loss in the poll numbers, Turnbull was widely quoted as saying he regretted making the 30-loss issue so prominent.

“I do regret having said it,” Turnbull admitted today during a live internet radio interview with News Corp columnist Miranda Devine:

“Only because it allowed people to focus on that, rather than the substantive reasons [for my challenge]. The substantive reasons that I stated were related to economic leadership and governance.”

Instead, Turnbull has claimed that his challenge to Abbott was based on the latter's poor communication practices and his failing economic policies. That was in December last year. Now he has added to his tally of failures and equalled Abbott’s disastrous record.

Rumbling, mumbling and bitter backstabbing

The speculation about a challenge to Turnbull has dogged him for most of the past 12 months. It has never really gone away, since the shock near-defeat the COALition suffered at the 2016 election. Turnbull has perhaps only survived because he has stopped governing the country and turned his administration into a protection racket for his greedy, incompetent and criminally-corrupt cabinet colleagues.

Turnbull vs Shorten

The one bit of consistently good news for the Prime Minister is that he has retained his status as preferred Prime Minister over his rival Opposition Leader Bill Shorten. Though even on this metric he is losing more than he is winning. The gap between Shorten and Turnbull is narrowing and this is despite the “Kill Bill” strategy adopted by the News Corp media.

The numbers here are also instructive. Turnbull’s lead is very narrow in the preferred PM stakes — 38 to 36. So much winning, yes? If we factor in the margin of error bias, it is clear that Shorten and Turnbull are neck and neck.

It is Turnbull’s neck in the noose, not Shorten’s.

“No challengers”?

On the eve of the Newspoll results, the Liberal Party was already preparing the spin — there would be no challenge to Malcolm Turnbull. As I said, that’s true for now.

While this is the public position of Turnbull allies like Minister for Defence Christopher Pyne (with friends like this …) it may not be enough to quell the speculation, particularly around Minister for Home Affairs Peter Dutton.

In a sign of his own unrequited ambitions, Dutton shrugged off his principles – and his “dead to me” mantra – to give an interview to The Guardian. The Member for Dickson put on the record his desire to be prime minister “one day”, but did not put a time-frame on his ambition.

“Of course I want to be prime minister,” Dutton tells Guardian Australia. He pauses for half a beat: 

“One day. I think it’s best to be honest about that, that’s an ambition long-held and is only realistic if stars align and an opportunity comes up.”

30 Newspoll losses in a row might just be that “opportunity” that “comes up”.

There may only be one brief glimpse of comfort in all of this for the Prime Minister — the division and uncertainty that has paralysed the Liberal Party for most of Turnbull’s time in office shows no sign of abating any time soon.

Dutton is deeply unpopular. If he turns up on the big screen at a footy game, there’s likely to be a stampede as people clamber into his corporate box to tear him to shreds. Personally, I cannot see Dutton doing much – if anything – to arrest the slide in the COALition's popularity. Even after the recent redistribution, Dutton’s Queensland seat, Dickson, is on the slimmest of margins — 1.7 per cent. This is well inside the predicted swing to Labor we’re likely to see at the next Federal Election.

Do you really think the Liberals will want to head into an election with a leader who is likely to lose his own seat?

Well, maybe. They did it with Howard in 2007. If they think Dutton can rally the conservative vote for the COALition and proverbially “save the furniture”, nervous backbenchers may be convinced to switch, rather than fight.

Finally, given the likelihood of a COALition loss at the next election, Turnbull might well take heart in the tale of his own rise to power. On the occasion of his first tilt at removing Tony Abbott, he didn’t even have to put his name forward. His colleagues were prepared to vote for an empty chair. Maybe they can be persuaded to do it again.

The vote, won by Abbott, was as bad as it could be without running over to a defeat. By 61-39, Abbott’s colleagues gave him their opinion of his leadership. There was no challenger. Whatever Turnbull’s aspirations, he had not come forward. There was no one opposing Abbott, yet 39 members of his Government had voted for an empty chair rather than for the Prime Minister. 

Malcolm Turnbull is a dead PM walking. He is on death row awaiting the executioner’s tap on the shoulder. He might survive one or two more Newspolls, but he won’t be leading the COALition to the next election.

You might even say that’s the Liberals’ desperate plan to beat Shorten.

You can follow political editor Dr Martin Hirst on Twitter @ethicalmartini.

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