Does Turnbull’s strategy make sense?

Scott Steel at Pollytics blog does lots of good work crunching the pollsters’ numbers, and there is another interesting post today on the relationship between PM and Opposition Leader satisfaction and support for their respective parties. It’s worth reading in full, but the key findings include:

* the PM’s satisfaction rating has a much stronger relationship to the PM’s vote than does the Leader of the Oppositions satisfaction rating to their primary vote;
* PM satisfaction historically explains just over 50% of the variation of the Opposition’s primary vote – as the PM gains higher levels of satisfaction, the Oppositions primary vote starts dropping;
* the satisfaction rating of the Opposition [leader] has a pretty weak relationship to the government primary vote, explaining only 8% of the variation in the last 23 years worth of data.

On polling history,

Turnbull – like nearly all Opposition Leaders before him – is effectively a slave to the Prime Ministers own personal standing with the electorate.

This analysis seems right to me. But I am not at all sure that his conclusion about Turnbull’s leadership is the right one:

To be in with a chance of winning the election, Turnbull needs to bring Rudd’s net satisfaction level down into the negatives, about minus 10 – which, as it so happens, is about where Turnbull’s current net satisfaction rating sits.

But while doing that, he also needs to improve his own satisfaction level while reducing his dissatisfaction level. Can he achieve that through the constant negative harping that’s become a hallmark of his leadership so far?

All it’s achieved so far is to drive his own approvals into the ground without affecting Rudd’s approvals at all – it’s time for Turnbull to try something different. If he doesn’t, he will likely go down in history as the man that took the conservatives to their largest ever defeat.

Unlike Scott, I think there is strategy in this ‘constant negative harping’. Oppositions cannot do more than a modest amount to shift the political cycle, which at the current time very strongly favours Rudd. But they can position themselves to take advantage of that shift when it happens, by identifying its likely major causes and persistently criticising the government’s stance so that it is very clear who is to blame when things do go wrong. Plausible alternative policies reinforce the contrast with the government and establish Oppositions as credible alternatives.

I’m not suggesting that the Turnbull Opposition has such an alternative strategy fully in place. But I think there is an assessment in the Opposition that despite Rudd’s current popularity the government is in fact engaging in high-risk policymaking, and that this is the most obvious opening for the Opposition over the medium term. Labor could be seen as recession saviours, but there are several areas (only in year 2) that could turn very sour over the next 5 years:

* massive deficits that will financially cripple the Rudd government for the rest of its term and damage the economy
* an ETS that will exacerbate an already dire employment situation
* a national broadband system that will be an over-priced white elephant
* a workplace relations system that will drive up unemployment and increase union misbehaviour
* an ‘education revolution’ that will consume billions of dollars for little return

I’m not saying all these things will happen, but they are the risks embedded in current policy.

Simply agreeing with what the government is doing will get the Opposition minimal current credit with the electorate in the short term at the price of a clear long-term message about the Liberal alternative. There is a difference between what Liberal state oppositions have done, which is just ‘constant negative harping’ without a real theme or sense of an alternative, and a strategy which goes against the current mood to establish a message that could resonate at a later time.

15 thoughts on “Does Turnbull’s strategy make sense?

  1. Andrew, I agree with your assessment that there are substantial potential negatives which the opposition must highlight. They are doing a reasonable job at that, but I believe they are blunting the effectiveness of their message by being, at times, too negative. I believe that Turnbull needs to publicly give the government more credit where it’s obviously due (eg. beneficial infrastructure projects). I believe he also needs to articlulate a clearer and more consistent position on policies, in general.


  2. In the US there is some effort putting into the leader being positive while he has others attack the opposition’s weaknesses so that the leader is associated with being positive. A classic example of this was Swift Boat Veterans for Truth that were used to attack John Kerry. With a permanent opposition in Australia the situation is different, but there is something in this. Perhaps Bishop, Hockey and others should be used more to talk down the government while Turnbull remains more positive.

    There is also one point that could weaken the government that you have missed – scandal. The Belinda Neal affair, the North Queensland politician who tried to sell photos of the burning man and the current business with undeclared trips to China are all scandals that have not been exploited very well by the Liberals. The ALP has dodgy dealings in most states that could blow up at some point or other.

    Kevin Rudd’s main claim to fame before becoming Prime Minister other than being in front of every camera that was switched on was to attack the Liberals on the AWB affair. Today pretty much no one cares, but at the time it wore away at the credibility of the Liberals.

    The Liberals would do well to find something similar.


  3. Part of Malcolm Turnbulls strategy has nothing to do with Kevin Rudd and everything to do with Peter Costello. I think Malcolm Turnbull would be pushing a different set of policy alternatives (eg a carbon tax perhaps) if not for the fact that he needs to keep party members on side.

    Personally I think the Liberals should take a risk on a revenue neutral carbon tax because economically it is no worse than their current position (ie support for carbon trading) and politically Liberal party support for a carbon tax would stick a terrific wedge between the ALP and environmentalists. The low tax crowd would still mostly choose the Liberals over the ALP whilst the greenies would suddenly see the Liberals as being tougher on CO2 than the ALP.


  4. Rudd initially positioned himself as a younger, alternative Howard that was going to stick around for longer. Malcolm Turnbull could do more since Rudd’s essay to position himself as the real Howard-lite, and this would be more in tune with what I think the political cycle is actually favouring at the moment.
    But Malcolm Turnbull’s not Howard-lite, and has too much going for him to simply portray himself as such the way Rudd dishonesty did. He has his own agenda, by the looks of it, closer to classical liberalism than Howard’s and Rudd’s big spending social conservatism.
    This is good for those like me, except I don’t think it will work. The demographics of the Liberal Party heirarchy and party room won’t let a socially liberal Republican reconstruct the party in his image. Instead, because these members are mostly the older ones, they’ll lose the next election: some of those will lose their seats, and those that don’t will be replaced with younger faces in the ~2013 election.
    The best Malcolm Turnbull can do is improve the swing to the Liberals in 2010 to set them up for a possible win in 2013, but I highly doubt he’ll be leader then.


  5. Steve J,
    The one element that has been almost completely absent from this government has been the wiff of scandal. Good luck trying to find something to rival the AWB fiasco. Joel Fitzgibbon looks pretty shaky but remember that Belinda Neal and James Bidgood are backbenchers. As to general Labor dirt, there’s plenty of it there but almost none of it is coming up around federal politicians at the moment.


  6. I am not sure how much impact scandals and cock-ups have when they really don’t have much to do with most people’s experience of government (ie government services) – all of Neal, Fitzgibbon and Bidgood fall into this category, as for that matter does AWB. They provide drama for the media, but even if voters are unimpressed they have the bundling problem – they have to eventually choose between one of two packages, Labor or Coalition, which means that major issues and overall performance will drive most voters.

    On the positive/negative approach, I agree that oppositions should not just oppose for the sake of it, but the positive approach should be based on the positive alternative rather than agreeing with the government.


  7. The liberal party is stuck in a time warp and can’ be reformed, it will spit Turnbull out as a failed leader, which is unfortunate, but this is the way it is.

    Possum’s sight has analysis of greater interest, the Liberal support base is dieing, literally, if it doesn’t work out how to appeal to 50% of people under 50 it has no future. I don’t think you have to be very bright to see that support is not going to come arguing against social change that has been happening and will continue to happen.

    Turnbull used to believe in things that would make the Liberals electable, unfortunately the party he leads contains too many that believe control of the party comes first, winning elections second.


  8. Good point on scandals Andrew. One thing i would add is that these things tend to have an effect when they feed into existing perceptions. AWB may have had a small impact on the Howard government if it confirmed for some voters that Howard was mean and tricky or some such. It is harder for the coalition to get Rudd in this way as he hasn’t been around long enough to have negative perceptions to reinforce.


  9. thewetmale – I agree that scandals that are relatively minor in themselves can be damaging if they feed into wider perceptions. The Major government in Britain suffered from sleaze, with every new example compounding the damage of the last. But I doubt this was a big factor in the fall of Howard, other than indirectly in Rudd using AWB to build his credibility in the eyes of the media and his party.


  10. The trouble is Andrew is that people stop listening when all they know someone is going to do is carp and whinge. The reality is that the Rudd Government will not be 100% wrong 100% of the time. The opposition need to acknowledge this and start criticising constructively and give credit where it is due..


  11. Turnbulls main problem is his party doesn’t agree with him on lots of issues. Massive electoral defeat is the main way to purge a party of the old out of touchers who don’t want to innovate and come up with new ideas. Fire causes new growth after an intervening black period.

    Rudd seems to be keeping some issues in reserve or taking a long time to deal with them. IR, education, Indigenous issues, health?, etc…. Lots of what are normally considered labour’s strong issues have been talked about, but very little action taken.

    Is he saving some items to campaign on next time (only 18 months away)?

    e.g. further IR adjustment, Republic


  12. Turnbull used to believe in things that would make the Liberals electable, unfortunately the party he leads contains too many that believe control of the party comes first, winning elections second.

    Charles , could you back this up with some evidence please?

    I think Turnbull would make an excellent PM and the party was right in voting him in.

    I really don’t understand how you can assert the party hates Turnbull, yet the party elected him.


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