View from The Hill

Liberals’ line of succession is anybody’s guess

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has kept any leadership ambitions discreetly veiled. AAP/Alan Porritt

This week’s Ipsos Fairfax poll on preferred leaders underlines the fact that there is no obvious heir apparent to Tony Abbott.

Compare a year ago, when Joe Hockey would have leapt to mind, whether the scenario was a passing bus or the long term.

In John Howard’s time, Peter Costello clearly came to occupy that position, though in the end he never got the crown.

But if bets were taken now about who would be next Liberal leader, whatever the timeframe, anyone who was risk averse would not be putting up their money.

With the Coalition consistently behind in the polls, it suits Abbott that there is no credible alternative to attract chatter.

Of course parties, not the public, choose leaders but polling sheds light on the state of play.

The Ipsos results are an unwelcome reality check for aspirants Hockey and Scott Morrison.

It has Hockey, who’s had a dreadful few months in prosecuting the campaign against the “age of entitlement”, on 8% as preferred Liberal leader, and the immigration minister, who has delivered on his brief of stopping the boats, on a tiny 3%.

Hockey’s rating is easily explained: a combination of too many harsh budget measures and foot-in-mouth disasters.

What about Morrison? He might have succeeded against the people smugglers but the voters either haven’t noticed him – or if they have, they are put off by the harsh shouting style that they see on TV.

The leadership ambitions of Hockey and Morrison are palpable. Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has kept hers discreetly veiled, but has hopes of coming through the middle. On the back of strong performances and much favourable publicity, that’s what she’s doing in the current polling.

Bishop’s rating as preferred leader is 20%, up from 11% mid-year and equal with Tony Abbott’s.

But voters are fickle, and the succession is likely to be a long way off. Views could change quickly once she and her issues disappear from sight for a while; her challenge will be to keep up this positive profile.

Malcolm Turnbull is top as usual, on 35% (previously 40%).

Turnbull’s popularity touches nerve ends in the Prime Minister’s Office. Unfortunately for him, however, his public rating is much stronger among Labor than Coalition voters (48-24%) and the odds would always be against him in a Liberal Party that has swung heavily to the right. He had one leadership shot in the locker, and he fired it too soon.

On the other side of politics, Bill Shorten rates 30% (up from a mid-year position of 25%), well ahead of both his deputy, Tanya Plibersek, and Anthony Albanese, the man he beat for the top job (both on 18%).

For Shorten, the numbers are encouraging. He’s also a lucky opposition leader – thanks to Kevin Rudd. The former PM’s move to change the way the ALP leader is elected, including a high trip wire to get a “spill”, has given the incumbent a security that previous Labor leaders haven’t enjoyed.

Forget talk (fanned by Bishop) about Plibersek, whose following is on the left both in the party and electorally, being in the hunt for Shorten’s job.

The more convincing long-term alternative to Shorten is shadow treasurer Chris Bowen, a good performer despite his bad public polling (6%). But for the protection Shorten has under the new rules, there might be some speculation about Bowen.

However, if Bowen came to be leader at some point, state factors would prevent Plibersek being deputy, because both are from NSW.

Much of Shorten’s and Labor’s current polling strengths are thanks to the negatives around Abbott, who will never be a popular leader, and the budget measures. Shorten has had the easy time of his leadership; among some colleagues there is a feeling that he will need to tighten and lift his performance as the election comes closer.

The gender factor is interesting in this poll. More women than men support Shorten (32-29%); fewer women than men back Abbott (18-22%). Bishop has resonated strongly with women (27%) but not with men (12%). Turnbull is noticeably more popular with men than women (40-31%).

Neither side is in the market for a leadership change but such polls carry messages, influence positioning and affect colleagues’ perceptions.

Actually the sharpest leadership story is in the Greens, where Christine Milne has been under pressure for much of the year from critics inside and outside the party, over her stands and her inability to deliver outcomes. That’s another party with no clear heir apparent.