View from The Hill

Abbott can’t afford to let bad polls settle in too long

Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s overseas trip is not vital business when there are still major issues to deal with at home. AAP/Will Oliver

Those around Tony Abbott will be heartened by aspects of the latest Newspoll and Essential. It’s a mixed picture and the bottom line is that Labor leads on a two-party basis in both. But the Coalition’s primary vote has lifted in Newspoll and Abbott’s approval is up in Essential.

The main message the Liberals will probably take out is that people’s response to Abbott’s praised performance on MH17 has been coming through.

The Prime Minister’s decision to travel to the Netherlands and Britain this week came before these public polls, but the question does arise about how much it was influenced by the Abbott team’s perception of public opinion.

While it is hard to criticise the PM going off to personally thank the Dutch, as well as the Australians who have helped in the MH17 aftermath (to whom Abbott would feel a special obligation), and his talks in London may be useful, the trip doesn’t seem vital when there is much to attend to at home.

Some interpreted it as a way of not being seen on the Pollie Pedal, but his participation could have easily been cut back.

Greg Sheridan, The Australian’s foreign editor, who is close to Abbott, wrote on Tuesday: “It is slightly unconventional for Tony Abbott as Prime Minister to be overseas when the US secretaries of State and Defence visit for AUSMIN.” Although Abbott would not have been in the formal meeting he would have hosted a dinner and “a couple of hours’ conversation with [John] Kerry and [Chuck] Hagel is a serious thing to pass up”.

Sheridan mounted a case justifying Abbott being abroad, saying he was “attending directly to Australian interests”. But it can be equally argued that Abbott was in the wrong place and perhaps other reasons had influenced the judgement.

As it draws to the end of its first year, the government is likely to become increasingly concerned about its poll position. It has given the impression of being cavalier, painting short-term unpopularity as some sign of honour and declaring itself confident that virtue would be rewarded in the third year. But the danger of Labor getting an entrenched lead becomes more obvious as time goes on.

This will produce a dose of much-needed pragmatism, as we’re already seeing in ministers talking compromise on budget measures and Abbott’s dropping of the effort to weaken the Racial Discrimination Act.

But it could equally lead to some bad decisions if things get more desperate. Pragmatism can have good and bad faces.

As he surveys the political outlook, Abbott might hope last week’s national security package would do for him what the security issue achieved for Howard. It’s too early to say how it will play out but Essential’s results suggest it hasn’t started well and will battle a fair amount of scepticism.

Essential found 51% disapproved of the proposal to require telecommunications companies and internet service providers to retain records (39% approve). Nearly seven in ten (68%) say they have little or no trust in the government and telecommunications companies and internet service providers to store retained personal data safely and in a way that would prevent abuse.

When asked which statement was closest to their view, 49% agreed more that “governments are increasingly using the argument about terrorism to collect and store personal data and information, and this is a dangerous direction for society” while 37% agreed more with “governments having access to personal telephone and internet information is necessary to protect society from terrorist or criminal actions”.

The security issue doesn’t carry the impact that it did for Howard in 2001, because the terrorism threat is not backed by the dramatic events (in the US) of that year.

It might deepen in the public consciousness with the focus on Australians who have become foreign fighters. Also, the initial figures may have been influenced by the hash the government made in selling its measures.

But the public scepticism about the government’s security pitch is a symptom of the voters’ wider disillusionment with politics and politicians.

And the government would best forget the glib slogans, like Abbott’s reference last week to “Team Australia” (when explaining his Racial Discrimination Act backdown).

Peter Costello called that one out in his News Corp column on Tuesday. “I don’t know about this ‘Team Australia’ stuff. I have heard it used in tourist and trade promotions.”

Ouch! One can’t help wondering how Costello as PM would be tackling the nation’s challenges. No doubt the former treasurer also ponders that from time to time.