Sunday, August 26, 2018

Australia - So What The Bloody Hell Was That?

For the fourth term in a row, the Australian Prime Minister following the previous election has failed to survive the term without being removed by their own party.  This is quite a streak given that in the previous 41 terms only two PMs have been deposed in the same way.   However this week's removal of Malcolm Turnbull has had a novel outcome, with the PM replaced not by his initial challenger Peter Dutton, but by a supporter, Scott Morrison.

Among the many takes that I think needs more careful analysis is the claim that Dutton failed to become Prime Minister just because that side of his coup attempt was tactically botched.  For sure, the Dutton camp frequently seemed to have a bad grasp of both numbers and tactics, whinged when faced with a reasonable request to prove support for another meeting so soon after the first, and were not helped by their man's recycled 17-year-old ALP thought-bubble of removing the GST from electricity.  Dutton's erratic demeanour didn't help either.  But I think there has been too much attention on how badly the Dutton plotters played their hand and too little on it being a weak hand to begin with.  It was a weak hand on two fronts: parliamentary stability and potential electoral impact.  

We'll never know how serious the threats from various MPs (the Australian names Turnbull, Bishop, Laundy, Banks, Chester and Hogan) to quit either the government or the parliament had Dutton won the ballot were.  It stands to reason that a win for the primary challenger would have been more damaging in that regards than a win for Morrison (which it seems will still cause Hogan to nominally quit the government and Turnbull to resign his seat fairly soon - unless either of those involved are talked out of it).  It's not clear an immediate election would have been forced - Dutton might have been able to have the parliament prorogued pending any by-elections and then carry on pending any possible fall of his government on the floor.  But these were murky waters at the best, and who knows what other tricks Turnbull would have played to try to frustrate Dutton's appointment.

Because the coup attempt blew up so quickly, spanning only a week from mutterings of a challenge to the final result, we have been poorly informed by polling here. The only poll known to me that canvassed hypothetical voting intention under a Dutton prime ministership did so only in Dutton's home seat of Dickson (Newspoll), finding an unsurprising two-point 2PP rise, mainly because of primary vote gain from One Nation.  Some commissioned polls did canvass whether voters said they were more likely or less likely to vote a certain way, but those polls do not say how much more or less likely, and are prone to dishonest responses.  Nonetheless they produced striking figures in terms of Coalition-supporter disapproval of the proposed change.  If the large preferred-PM lead for Shorten over Dutton in Morgan's SMS poll is any guide (and this is debatable as this is a dubious form of polling) the impact of installing Dutton could well have been a further serious loss of 2PP support for the Coalition irrespective of the impact of the coup.  (This may now happen anyway, but now it is more likely to be attributable to the mess itself if so, rather than to perceptions of Morrison himself.)

Perhaps those involved in the Dutton push knew better based on polling they had access to, but my feeling is that they either didn't know how the party would fare or didn't care. Moreover unlike some past coups, we did not see any internal polling claiming the party needed to switch to the challenger (or any challenger), probably because none existed. As far as the electoral argument for Dutton went, it boiled down to Queensland marginals (which while important, won't save you if you are losing marginals everywhere else) and the rest was all particularly Trumpy - that just hitting the supposed right buttons on immigration and listening to One Nation voters would save you from everything else.  

Strange justifications emerged from normally sensible MPs in the kind of fever that seems to overtake these events.  For instance, I have high regard for Mathias Cormann after his excellent handling of Senate reform among other things, but his claims that Peter Dutton would best "unite the nation" were either propaganda or else showed a serious lack of awareness.  Dutton is detested to a degree rivaled only by Abbott on the "progressive" left based on their view of his form on refugees, social issues and race politics.  He may somehow have united the party, he may have won an election, but he is a divisive figure who - somewhat like Keating though for very different reasons - would never have been welcomed across the board.

Was Removing Turnbull Justified?

The 2010 removal of Kevin Rudd in favour of Julia Gillard was electorally unjustified.  By the standards of history the claimed polling evidence that Rudd was headed for defeat was flimsy, and I suspect that some of the plotters were much more concerned that he was probably headed for victory.  The Gillard camp did a poor job of explaining that coup at the time, but their evasions look like masterpieces of clarity compared to what we have seen from those involved to explain the removal of Turnbull so far.

That's even though the polling-based case for removing Turnbull, while iffy, wasn't as threadbare as the case for rolling Rudd in 2010.  Turnbull had trailed in aggregated 2PP polling throughout the term, and a run of unusually competitive polling was showing early signs of reversion to the term mean following the Super Saturday results.  Historically, trailing for so long doesn't have the close relationship with outcomes one might expect, because the two governments behind for longer in polling, Menzies 1951-4 and Hawke/Keating 1990-3, both wonBut there were special circumstances in both those cases that showed no sign of applying to this one under Turnbull.  

The non-polling justifications from those involved for rolling Turnbull have been confused and weak.  The suggestion is that he was not capable of uniting the team, but in fact he was self-effacing to a fault in caving in for the sake of party unity.  The team - especially the right on energy - chose to refuse to be united.  

A strong case against Turnbull based on personal style and campaigning skill defects (none of which voters without a strong commitment to the Liberal Party will care much about) has been made by Richard Alston (paywalled), and it is a lot more coherent than anything we've been hearing from those involved.  One thing I would add to this is that when Turnbull did do his own research on specialised issues, I often found that he would not go far enough, but would carry on as if he understood the issue better than the experts anyway.  I also shared Alston's view that Turnbull as PM appeared to have few strong convictions.  He gave the impression of trying on ideas not because he believed them but for the enjoyment of arguing a case as if still in a debating team or a law court.  

All this said, PMs in general are not perfect.  Equally damning political eulogies could have been written for John Howard (at one point said to be "mean, tricky and out of touch") had his party panicked and removed him in early 2001 when it looked a lot like they were going to lose.  Bob Hawke also had plenty of flaws but kept winning elections.  

Of the past five mid-term PM removals, in three cases the removing party won the following election (two of which in my view it would otherwise have lost), and in one more the removing party probably did better than it would have done otherwise.  So it does not always follow that the voters reject the removal of a sitting Prime Minister.  However, this one is different in many ways.  Firstly it is two in a row by the same party, but unlike the restoration of Rudd in 2013, it does not right any historic wrong.

Secondly whatever the perceptions of MPs and insiders, there was not general public demand for removing Turnbull, from Coalition supporters or anyone else.  Polls persistently showed Turnbull followed by Julie Bishop as the preferred choice of the people for Coalition leader, and persistently showed strong support for Turnbull from Coalition supporters, though this may have just been loyalty to whoever is the leader of the day.  The prospect of Peter Dutton becoming leader had been active since not long after the 2016 election but was struggling to get out of single digits when voters were offered a number of choices.

The party is going to have a difficult time explaining this one to voters.

Past PM Spill Bounces

The history of 2PP polling impacts of past removals of Prime Ministers is as follows. These comments are based on aggregated polling except for the first case which is based on Morgan only. (Morgan was a better pollster back then.)

* Polling was sparse when John Gorton was replaced by Billy McMahon in 1971.  There was a four-point gain in primary votes as a result of the change but the previous level was based on only one poll, and the change was at the expense of the DLP whose preferences strongly favoured the Coalition anyway, so the 2PP impact was maybe a point.  The Coalition maintained position through 1971 and then the wheels fell off its polling the year after.

* There was a 2.5 point bounce from a very poor position when Paul Keating replaced Bob Hawke in 1992.  This was followed by a more serious recovery starting a few months in, eventually leading to Labor's famously unlikely victory.

* There was a very small bounce, if any (at most a point and lasting maybe a month) when Julia Gillard replaced Kevin Rudd in 2010. Labor's position then declined approaching the election, partly as a result of damage caused by the spill.

* There was a bounce of around six points for Rudd replacing Gillard in 2013.  This bounce started disappearing within weeks and only 2.5 points of it remained by polling day.

* There was a bounce of around 4.5 points immediately, building to around 7.5 points after two months, when Turnbull replaced Tony Abbott in 2015.  After about five months this bounce started to deflate, but around 4 points of it were held through to polling day.

I really have little idea what to expect for Morrison.  In the short term, I'll be surprised if it's a bounce of any great size, because the rolling of Turnbull will be controversial in the centre of voting intention, while replacing him with Morrison will not quickly appease the hard right or bring back votes from One Nation.  Over time, Morrison might benefit from not being blamed for the coup and from expectations of his leadership being low to begin with, but it is likely he will also be plagued by ongoing fallout from the fight.  Turnbull was terribly cursed with high expectations even when his form in making himself acceptable to his party had already showed he would not be living up to them.

If you want your own guess you can have a go at the Not-A-Poll in the sidebar, which is currently running at an average of 53.1 to Labor (basically no net change).

Howard Myths

For some reason unknown to me, the removal of a Prime Minister who had a record of poor Newspoll performances has triggered claims by supporters of the removal that John Howard had a history of not being popular in the polls.  Thus we have Eric Abetz claiming that Howard was never popular, and Alston claiming that Howard lost more Newspolls than he won.

The latter is technically true, but misleading.  Newspoll 2PPs were not released outside campaigns until late 2002.  Furthermore, in 2004 Newspoll used respondent preferences, which disadvantaged Howard.  In my dataset of last-election Newspoll 2PPs including estimates for those for which no 2PP was provided, and replacing the 2004 respondent preferences with last-election estimates, Howard's career total comes out at 137 wins, 126 losses and 31 ties, with an average result of 50-50.  (That compares with an average result of 49.5 for Governments when Howard wasn't Prime Minister.)

Here is some more Newspoll evidence that Howard, while on the nose at times, was on the whole a popular Prime Minister:

* Howard had an average netsat as PM of +6.6.  The average netsat in polls where Howard was not Prime Minister has been -9.6.

* Howard had an average Better PM lead of 17.1 points.  The average for polls where Howard was not Prime Minister has been a lead of 12.4 points.

* Howard holds the record for the most Better PM wins in a row (139).  Admittedly, this indicator is skewed to incumbent Prime Ministers, but no other PM has managed more than 58, and the one in second place was just removed.  

* Howard also holds the record for the most positive netsats in a row (102).  He is the only PM to record an entire term of positive netsats (2001-2004).


Note mainly for overseas audience: the article title is a reference to a notorious tourism advertising campaign "Australia - So Where The Bloody Hell Are You?" which a younger Morrison was in charge of.


  1. It will be interesting to see what happens with the latest news poll, which I believe should be released tonight and would of been taken while all this was going on. Then it is possible for it to be delayed to allow all this to shake itself out. My opinion, which is worth a quarter of diddly squat is that all this isn't over just yet with the make up of cabinet the next bigly, yuge thing.

  2. Kevin, do you have an early view on the probable Wentworth by-election? Turnbull's margins of victory in the 2000s seem modest enough to make this a live contest, or am I dreaming?

    1. Those weak margins were partly down to Turnbull's acrimonious dislodging of Peter King as local member (King then ran against Turnbull as an independent in 2004). But looking through the history it has quite often been inside 60-40.

      I think it comes down to preselection - if they pick a good candidate they should retain it but if the candidate choice is contentious they could drop it to an independent. The danger is less than if Dutton had been PM.

  3. another excellent column. If people love politics and don't read you then they are mugs.

    My thinking is People might vote ALP in Wentworth as a one-off as a protest against Lib in fighting.

    Again if the electorate are not giant hypocrites then a landslide win to the ALP is on the cards in the next election


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