A disastrous Newspoll showing the Coalition trailing Labor 45-55%, One Nation gaining ground, and Malcolm Turnbull’s ratings falling will fuel the alarm and anger in the Coalition as it returns to parliament in the wake of Tony Abbott’s outburst.
Abbott will cop much blame for the result. But the worsening in the Prime Minister’s personal numbers also suggests his recent more aggressive performance hasn’t impressed the public as much as it did his colleagues.
The poll, in Monday’s Australian, showed a further deterioration from the 46-54% two-party vote of three weeks ago, which had been the worst result of Turnbull’s prime ministership. One Nation has increased its support from 8% to 10% over the three weeks.
The poll was taken Thursday to Sunday, so Abbott’s provocative Thursday evening speech and TV interview - warning of the risk of a “drift to defeat” and setting out his alternative agenda including a call for lower immigration - would have fed straight into it.
Turnbull’s net satisfaction has plummeted by nine points, from minus 21 to minus 30; Shorten’s net satisfaction has dipped by four points, from minus 22 to minus 26. Turnbull has also lost ground in his lead over Shorten as better prime minister – 40% (down two points) to 33% (up three points).
The Coalition’s primary vote has fallen one point to 34%, with Labor increasing one point to 37%. The Greens are on 10% and “others” are on 9%.
Parliament resumes not only with the government’s division on display but with Labor having ammunition after last week’s decision by Fair Work Australia (FWA) cutting Sunday penalty rates for the hospitality, retail, fast food and pharmacy sectors.
Abbott’s intervention has been condemned by colleagues, but his former chief of staff Peta Credlin defended him at the weekend.
She said that as a former prime minister he had every right to make a speech “outlining what he thinks the Coalition needs to do to win back its supporters and govern in Australia’s national interest”, although she was critical of his also doing a media interview.
“Of course, it would have been easier for everyone if he’d given his counsel in private, but the PM has made it clear he doesn’t want Abbott’s advice so it is hard to criticise him for speaking publicly,” she wrote in the Sunday Telegraph.
She said Abbott had come back from a large number of marginal seat visits “so he has no illusions about the anger among Coalition supporters and party members”.
Credlin wrote that despite what Turnbull said, Coalition supporters didn’t believe he “has a conservative bone in his body”.
“Regardless of his promises, Turnbull’s problem has always been a lack of authenticity,” she wrote.
“It comes down to this: Malcolm Turnbull is desperate to hold on to power and Tony Abbott is desperate to hold the Liberal Party together. It’s not necessarily the same thing.”
On Sky Credlin said “there is absolutely no relationship” between Abbott and Turnbull: “it was manufactured to get everybody through the campaign so no one could accuse Abbott of being a wrecker.”
Credlin also said she did not believe Abbot wanted the prime ministerial job again: “I think he would have a hard time reconciling around that cabinet table with people like Christopher Pyne and Julie Bishop and others who would very likely stay in the senior ranks.”
Finance Minister Mathias Cormann, an Abbott loyalist to the end of his prime ministership, who on Friday strongly criticised Thursday’s intervention, told Sky he had “thought it was important to send a very clear message. … to essentially signal that enough is enough.” He said that “obviously private messages hadn’t been heeded”.
His Friday criticism of Abbott was not co-ordinated with Turnbull’s office, Cormann said. “It was off my own bat. …I made the judgement it was necessary and appropriate to say what I said.”
Bill Shorten on Monday will give notice of a private member’s bill to protect penalty rates. The bill would prevent the decision of the Fair Work Commission from taking effect. It would also ensure that penalty rates could not be cut in future if that resulted in a cut in take-home pay.
In a letter to Turnbull on Sunday, Shorten said at least 600,000 people would be hurt by this pay cut and the brunt of the decision would be borne by low income earners.
Calling for the government to intervene to head off the cuts, Shorten wrote that “a decision not to intervene is a decision to endorse the proposed cuts to pay. There is no doubt that this decision will cause genuine financial hardship. It is simply unacceptable to reduce penalty rates without compensation.
"You have a window to act before the commission issues its determination and the opposition would work with you to ensure this devastating cut to low paid workers’ income never occurs,” Shorten wrote.
The government, aware the pay cut is likely to rebound on it, is stressing it is the decision of the “independent umpire” rather than a government decision.
It also points out that when workplace relations minister, Shorten brought in an amendment that referred to penalty rates being included in the review of awards.
But Shorten said in his letter that his 2013 amendments were intended to ensure the FWC took into account “the need to provide additional remuneration for employees working outside normal hours”.
“It was clearly the parliament’s intent that the award review process would not ever result in a cut to worker’s pay.”
On Friday the Greens flagged a private member’s bill to prevent the FWC decision from coming into effect.
Authors: Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra