Newspoll has delivered a sweeping new setback to Malcolm Turnbull, with a big cut in his “better prime minister” rating and Labor increasing its two-party lead to a massive 55-45%.
The blow comes as the government and opposition prepare for a byelection in the Sydney seat of Bennelong, expected to be on December 16, following Saturday’s resignation of Liberal backbencher John Alexander, who said he was a likely British citizen.
The Coalition will be particularly panicked by the fall in Turnbull’s rating as better PM, from 41% to 36%. Bill Shorten’s rating rose a point to 34%. Turnbull’s two point lead over Shorten is the narrowest margin there has been between them.
The government has always looked to this measure to argue Turnbull’s strength against Shorten, even in the face of the bad two-party results.
In the 23rd consecutive Newspoll in which the Coalition has trailed, the ALP increased its two-party vote from 54-46% a fortnight ago, and its primary vote from 37% to 38%. The Coalition’s primary vote went down a point to 34%. The escalating citizenship crisis has dominated the two weeks.
Turnbull’s net satisfaction worsened slightly from minus 28 to minus 29, while Shorten’s improved from minus 24 to minus 19. Pauline Hanson’s One Nation rose a point to 10%; the Greens fell a point to 9%.
Bennelong, once held by John Howard, is on a margin of a little under 10%, making it safe in normal times but potentially vulnerable in the present chaotic climate.
Alexander said that although he had not received formal confirmation from the British that he was a UK citizen via his father, “the probability of evidence is that I most likely am.” He will recontest the seat.
With Barnaby Joyce and Alexander both out of parliament the government will be operating from a minority position when the House of Representatives returns on November 27. It has 74 of the 148 occupied seats, 73 on the floor when the Speaker, who only has a casting vote, is excluded. Though the government is not at risk of a no-confidence motion, thanks to having sufficient crossbench support, Labor will make the House as difficult as possible.
Turnbull said the byelection date was “a matter for the Speaker” but the government wanted it “as soon as possible”. Labor started campaigning in the seat on Sunday.
Both sides became more shrill at the weekend in their claims about the alleged dual citizens among the ranks of their opponents.
The government is threatening to refer at least two ALP MPs, Justine Keay and Susan Lamb, to the High Court, and perhaps more. It could not do this on its own, with its present numbers.
In response, the opposition has issued a “hit list” of Liberals, including Julia Banks, Nola Marino, Alex Hawke, Tony Pasin and Ann Sudmalis.
A Labor source said that if Malcolm Turnbull “wants to fire this missile, we’ve got the ammo to go nuclear.” Turnbull was “locking and loading the gun at his own MPs”.
A number of Labor MPs moved to renounce their dual citizenship before their nominations but did not get their confirmations until afterwards. The ALP claims they should not be referred to the court, because they took reasonable steps but given the High Court’s black letter approach in its recent decisions, it is not clear how it would treat such cases.
Turnbull, who is trying to manage the unfolding crisis from a distance during his Asia trip, said: “Bill Shorten has got to stop running a protection racket for his own dual citizens”.
Turnbull said Labor had welcomed the court’s literalism. But “the worm has turned and now we see one Labor MP after another who could not pass that literal test.
"Now, if Labor says they’ve got counter arguments, terrific. Let them make them in the court.
"There is no question that Labor has a number of members who not only were, but knew they were … foreign citizens at the time they nominated for Parliament. That makes them ineligible.”
Manager of opposition business in the House of Representatives, Tony Burke, said the difference between the Labor and Liberal MPs was that “Those who are in the spotlight for the Labor party took reasonable steps before the nomination date. Those who are in the focus from the Liberal party took no steps at all before the nomination date”.
Burke on Sunday was campaigning in Bennelong, where Labor is homing in on the seat’s ethnic component.
Following the Queensland Liberal National Party preferencing One Nation in many seats for the November 25 state election, Burke said a petition was being launched “to demand that Malcolm Turnbull end the preference deals with One Nation.”
Labor will also make the government’s proposed toughening of the citizenship law an issue in Bennelong.
“A prime minister with any authority would be able to stop a preference deal with One Nation. John Howard would have been able to stop a preference deal with One Nation,” Burke said.
“But Malcolm Turnbull, a prime minister with no authority and a government with no majority, has failed to stand up for the people who live here. Make no mistake, when you attack multicultural Australia, which is exactly what One Nation is all about, you attack the community that lives here in Bennelong.”
Authors: Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra