Liberals teetering on the brink of irrelevance
Forget Malcolm Turnbull. The biggest casualty of the Utegate debacle might not be the individual but the organisation, with the federal Liberals now looking like the hapless state oppositions in NSW, SA, Victoria and Queensland which dutifully turn up every few years on polling day for some ritualised humiliation.
Turnbull has pulled off an unprecedented and unenviable hat-trick in the polls this morning. He’s copped it in the neck in Newspoll, his approval rating falling an unprecedented 19 per cent, the biggest single drop in Newspoll’s 25-year history, with the party vote dropping three points to give Labor a thumping 56 to 44 lead, two-party preferred. He’s been flogged by Nielsen, his disapproval rocketing up 13 points to a whopping 60 per cent. And he’s been caned by Galaxy, with more than half the voters saying he was at best deceitful over the Utegate affair.
The most telling current precedent for Malcolm Turnbull’s woes is the implosion of the South Australian Liberal Opposition over a similar hoax scandal.
Liberal Leader Martin Hamilton-Smith is expected to face a challenge, possibly within days, after his cavalier efforts in Parliament two months ago where he used a bundle of forged documents to accuse Premier Mike Rann of impropriety, only to issue a full and unreserved climb-down apology later that day. A poll published by Adelaide’s Sunday Mail yesterday showed that the voters had absolutely no tolerance for Mr Hamilton-Smith’s japes, and are ready to punish him at the polls. This against an incumbent long-serving premier who has collected a few scandals in his time and should by rights be under at least some kind of political pressure.
There was one paragraph in the Sunday Mail’s report on SA which you could soon insert into any analysis of the federal landscape: “Liberal MPs have been assessing support for a leadership change but so far no candidate has emerged with enough support to mount a challenge.”
Talking to one NSW Liberal this morning, the frightening scenario for the federal Libs is that they are in danger of getting onto the leadership merry-go-round which has made them look almost permanently unelectable in states such as NSW and SA.
NSW has come to resemble a recycling program for conservatives - since Labor was elected, the voters have seen Peter Collins, Kerry Chikarovski, John Brogden, Peter Debnam, and now Barry O’Farrell, who is there more because of a lack of alternatives than any impassioned support within the party. His handling of the job has been the subject of scorn by federal Libs who have not forgiven him for “trashing the brand” by voting against power privatisation in an expedient and tactically foolish attempt to maximise pressure on then-premier Morris Iemma. His latest outrage was to side with the Greens last week, in defiance or ignorance of years of Liberal Party policy, to prevent the publication of school performance rankings.
The federal Libs say they are waiting for “the dust to settle” over Utegate but the problem is they may have actually been buried by it and may not emerge for years.
The fractured nature of their outfit is underscored by the preferred leader question in Nielsen today: you’ve got Peter Costello, who’s quitting, on 37 per cent, Joe Hockey on 21 per cent, Malcolm Turnbull on 18 per cent, a full four points ahead of someone called Don’t Know on 14 per cent, with Tony Abbott bringing up the rear on 10 per cent.
The margin for error is 5 per cent - along with Don’t Know, perhaps worth a quiet flutter on a unity ticket.
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