With parliament resuming this week, the first Newspoll of 2017 has the government trailing Labor 46-54% on the two-party vote and the Coalition’s primary vote falling four points to 35%.
This is the seventh consecutive Newspoll with the ALP ahead and the worst for the Coalition under Malcolm Turnbull’s prime ministership.
In results that will send fresh tremors through Coalition members who had hoped to start the new year on a better footing, the government’s primary vote is seven points lower than at the election, which the government only just won. It last was this low when the first move was made against Tony Abbott’s leadership, two years ago.
The poll, published in Monday’s Australian, reflects the general trend of disillusioned voters looking for avenues to reflect their protests. It shows a surge in support for independents and minor parties, which have gone from 15% to 19%.
Pauline Hanson’s One Nation, soon to be tested at the Western Australian election, is polling 8% nationally.
Labor remains on 36% primary vote, unchanged since early December; the Greens remain on 10%.
Turnbull’s net satisfaction has marginally improved from minus 23 to minus 21, while Opposition Leader Bill Shorten’s has worsened, from minus 17 to minus 22. Turnbull leads Shorten as better prime minister – 42% (up one) to 30% (down two points).
The government, beset with an expense scandal and the loss of a minister, anger over pension changes and other problems, got no clear air over the summer break. Now parliament resumes amid the fallout from the Trump-Turnbull contretemps over the refugee deal, a push from some Liberal MPs to have same-sex marriage determined by a free vote in parliament, and the prospect of South Australian Liberal senator Cory Bernardi defecting to lead his own conservative party.
Even Turnbull’s own issue of choice for the start of the year – energy policy – is not going as well as he hoped because of a lack of enthusiasm from energy companies and the financial sector for his advocacy of new “clean coal” power stations to be constructed.
In an interview with Network Nine on Sunday, Turnbull repeated he had “stood up for Australia” in dealing with Donald Trump, and said Trump had “absolutely not” asked for anything in return for saying he would honour the Obama administration’s deal to take refugees from Nauru and Manus Island.
Asked about any future military request that might be made, Turnbull said: “We assess all requests for military assistance on their merits, and there is no linkage, no linkage at all, between an arrangement relating to refugee settlement and any other matters.”
Turnbull was again cautious about the telephone call in which Trump was very aggressive.
“I’ve only said three things about the phone call with the president: firstly that it was frank and forthright; secondly that he gave a commitment that he would honour the refugee resettlement deal entered into by President Obama and thirdly that he did not hang up. The call ended courteously.
"Now I’ve got nothing more to say about the content of the phone call than that. It’s very important for me to be disciplined, to be calm and to pursue – in a very focused way – Australia’s national interests, and that’s what I do as Australia’s prime minister.”
On same-sex marriage Turnbull slapped down the new push for a free vote. “I’ve got no doubt that all of these matters will be discussed in the party room but I’m the prime minister, the government’s position is that which we took to the election, which is that this issue should be determined by a vote of every Australian in a plebiscite.”
A serious renewal of the same-sex marriage debate within the Liberal Party would be dangerous for Turnbull because it is a signature battle for the conservatives.
Former prime minister Tony Abbott at the weekend cast it in terms of Turnbull keeping his word. He told Fairfax Media: “Malcolm Turnbull made a clear election commitment that the marriage law would only change by way of people’s plebiscite, not free vote of the parliament. I’m sure he’ll honour that commitment. This isn’t about same-sex marriage, it’s about keeping faith with the people.”
Cabinet minister Christopher Pyne said on Sunday that there was no bill before the parliament to address marriage equality at this stage. “What happens down the track is a matter for the prime minister, for the cabinet, for the party room.”
In the Nine interview Turnbull, who gave the Liberals A$1.75 million for the campaign, made the startling revelation that when Tony Nutt became Liberal federal director at the end of 2015, “the party had so little money he had to work for several months without pay”.