Last night Malcolm Turnbull ousted Tony Abbott in a Liberal leadership spill, 54 votes to 44. As a result, Turnbull replaces Abbott as Australia’s Prime Minister.
I analysed the polling effect of past midterm changes in PM in a February article written shortly before the spill that month. That article found that neither Paul Keating nor Julia Gillard significantly improved the government’s standings following their replacements of Bob Hawke and Kevin Rudd respectively. The one past example of a change in PM dramatically improving the government’s polls was Rudd’s replacement of Gillard.
Turnbull has an approval rating of 47% and a disapproval rating of 24% in an August Essential question on government ministers. Abbott, on the other hand, had a net approval of -33 in the latest Newspoll. Since a very unpopular leader is being replaced by a popular leader, the Coalition is likely to receive a substantial poll boost.
This change in PM is not like the replacement of Rudd with Gillard. Rudd was very popular from when he became Labor leader in December 2006 until early 2010, when his ratings dived partly as a result of abandoning the emissions trading scheme. When he was rolled, Rudd’s ratings had recovered somewhat, and Labor led by 52-48 in the Newspoll taken immediately before his demise. Abbott, on the other hand, has never been popular, either as opposition leader or PM, and most voters will be relieved that he has gone. Turnbull has been the people’s choice as Liberal leader since 2011.
In the longer term, Turnbull will find it hard to appease both the left and the hard right of his party at the same time. In particular, renewable energy is very popular with the general public, but the hard right is resistant, especially in relation to wind farms. Turnbull may be environmentally more progressive than his colleagues, but he is an economic conservative.
As long as Turnbull’s poll ratings are reasonable, and the Coalition remains competitive with Labor, he will remain PM. However, he is more vulnerable to bad poll ratings than Abbott was, because most of the party are ideologically to Turnbull’s right, and only voted for him to give themselves the best chance at the next election. If the Coalition’s poll ratings return to Abbott-era levels, Turnbull could be ousted fairly quickly, with Scott Morrison a possible replacement.
Julia Gillard rushed to an election soon after becoming PM, and this turned out to be a big mistake, as Labor barely scraped back into office with help from Independents. If Turnbull were to rush to an election, his honeymoon would probably end very quickly.
The Canning by-election, to be held this Saturday 19 September, is likely to be a much easier hold for the Liberals under Turnbull than Abbott. In fact, ReachTEL had a Canning poll in the field last night, with a large sample of 1130. They asked the usual question, which had the Liberals ahead by 52-48. They then asked for voting intentions if Turnbull was PM, and the Liberals led by 57-43. This change was not just caused by an increased Liberal primary vote, but also because Labor’s share of respondent allocated preferences dropped from 63% to 51% under Turnbull. Asked which leader would have a better chance of winning the next general election for the Coalition, 67% selected Turnbull and 33% Abbott; on this question Coalition voters split 50-50.
Update Wednesday night 16 September: ReachTEL 50-50
A ReachTEL poll, conducted last night with a sample of 3300, has a 50-50 tie, a 3% gain for the Coalition since the late August ReachTEL. Primary votes are 43.3% for the Coalition (up 3.0), 35.9% for Labor (down 1.6) and 11.9% for the Greens (down 1.5).
On personal ratings, Turnbull leads Shorten as better PM by 62-38, compared with Shorten’s 58-42 lead over Abbott. This is because Turnbull gets 28% of Labor voters and 54% of Greens voters. Shorten’s (total good) minus (total poor) rating has slumped to -30 from -21; to some extent, this is probably caused by the comparison of Shorten against Turnbull being worse for Shorten than against Abbott.
I think this poll is somewhat disappointing for the Coalition; they got a bounce, but it was a limited bounce that does not give them a clear lead. Turnbull is far more popular than Abbott, and his appeal to the left is reflected by over half of Greens supporting him rather than Shorten. However, Turnbull’s statements so far on climate change and same sex marriage are very likely to disillusion those on the left who currently support him.