While the Coalition took a hit in its two-party vote after the leadership change, the next few Newspolls will tell whether Scott Morrison - who’s started better than many anticipated - restores the government to the 49-51% position of Malcolm Turnbull’s last days.
That would still leave Labor election favourite, not least because the government has no fat in terms of seats and the redistribution works against it. Plus, of course, the voters’ sour mood.
But the narrowing would put Labor nerves on edge. It would judge that if, come election time, it goes into a campaign against Morrison with a lead around 51-49%, the fight could be tougher than if the margin were similar but the opponent had been Turnbull. Turnbull was a poor campaigner; Morrison shows the signs of a good one.
Labor has had plenty of luck, but it needs to keep up the momentum, to look the positive alternative, not just a fallback for disillusioned voters.
This week again saw Bill Shorten on the move. His proposed funding to extend subsidised pre-schooling to three-year-olds is playing to Labor’s policy strength in education.
His other initiative – roundtables to hear the stories of more victims of the banks and other financial institutions – exploits the potent politics of a scandal that has gripped most people’s attention. Labor’s research tells it the public are red hot with anger about what’s come out at the royal commission.
The government accuses the opposition of disrespecting the commission by launching its own listening tour.
But it’s unlikely too many voters will see it that way. And the sessions, especially those in regional areas, will build on another strength. As leader Shorten has held town hall meetings all over the country. Such grassroots gatherings are useful for establishing Labor’s presence on the ground.
Between now and Christmas Shorten will be rolling out more policy. Meanwhile, the government continues working on removing negatives.
Morrison as treasurer had started on one of these when in July the government announced a new formula for distributing the GST revenue, rectifying Western Australia being disadvantaged under the existing one. To smooth the way, the Commonwealth threw in an extra $9 billion over a decade so no state or territory would be left worse off.
With several WA Liberal seats at risk, getting this sorted was urgent; the government decided not to haggle with the states for an agreement but to legislate the change.
But, despite the assurance there’ll be no losers, state treasurers on Wednesday conjured up possible adverse scenarios and insisted the “no worse off” guarantee must be in the legislation, a demand the federal government is resisting.
The legislation is expected to pass in the end, but only after more argy bargy. It is another example of how messy barnacle-removal can be.
Especially when it involves state governments that have elections pending: Victoria goes to the polls on November 24 and NSW on March 23. NSW treasurer Dominic Perrottet was particularly vocal on the GST guarantee.
The Berejiklian government has its elbows out more generally. It recently attacked the Morrison deal to give a pot of money to the Catholic (and other non-government) schools to buy peace. NSW complained this was unfair because it left out government schools and distorted the Gonski-based policy announced by Turnbull.
The Morrison and Berejiklian governments might be of the same stripe but, with both facing elections in the first half of 2019, their interests rub up against each other uncomfortably.
Each is on the nose. The thinking is that whichever goes to the people first could get a double hit, with NSW voters taking out their anger simultaneously against both administrations.
This is a big strike against a March federal poll in the eyes of federal Liberals, apart from the problem of partially overlapping campaigns. The NSW government would dearly like Morrison to run first but all the federal Liberal planning appears to be heading towards May.
“Morrison needs time,” is the mantra. Maybe. But there is a counter argument, even if it is not being run.
Morrison hasn’t received a honeymoon bounce in the two-party vote, but he has had good publicity. He’s been cast as a can-do guy. But will this fade as the months wear on?
By the time the government gets to the weeks before a May election, the arguments about policy will have deepened, and how will Morrison go then?
In particular, will the Coalition’s energy policy uncertainty be difficult to handle as the weather starts to chill and people look to another winter?
It is unlikely there will be serious good news on consumer prices. It’s early days but the new energy minister, Angus Taylor, has not at yet come across strongly or indeed been much in evidence. Will he be convincing when he’s put under pressure?
An election launched at the start of February for early March would come off a non-parliamentary period; one launched in April for May (with, incidentally, Easter falling awkwardly during the campaign) would come after parliamentary sittings, which often are difficult for the government.
A factor in the government’s standing over the summer will be the October 20 Wentworth byelection – the outcome will affect its morale and subsequent media coverage.
One reason for the May timetable is that the government needs to fit in a pre-election economic statement (because there would not be a budget before the poll). But though a squeeze, it wouldn’t be too hard to have that statement early.
The conventional wisdom is that a prime minister (who can choose the date, unlike a premier faced with a fixed date) will go when the evidence suggests they can win. This is trickier if a loss seems more probable than victory, whatever the date.
So the assessment becomes: when will the government be at its peak, whatever that peak might be?
Whether Morrison would be at his strongest in March or May is a moot point.
Authors: Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra