After NSW, we’re left with Hobson’s choice for PM


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That assessment has not shifted in the meantime in various opinion surveys, including this newspaper’s IPSOS poll. Significantly, the Opposition Leader has been weak among Labor-leaning progressive voters, many of whom tended to favour Malcolm Turnbull.

That this level of dislike and mistrust is insufficient to cruel Shorten’s electoral prospects tells you more than you need to know about the sort of dilemma facing electors in 2019.

This lies between an unpopular Labor aspirant and an accidental and unelected Prime Minister who was pitchforked into the job because enough of his colleagues viewed the alternative, Peter Dutton, as a form of electoral suicide.

Scott Morrison’s approval was not measured in the ANU study since he was not in a leadership role in that 1987-2016 timeframe.

What is clear is the country is facing a leadership deficit compared with our friends across the Tasman who have been reminded what leadership entails; never mind that Jacinda Ardern’s party’s popularity was in the doldrums before the Christchurch massacre.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern at the national call to prayer on Friday, a week after the Christchurch massacre.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern at the national call to prayer on Friday, a week after the Christchurch massacre. Credit:Jason South

Disaffection, indeed scorn, for Australia’s establishment political class is forcing a continuing deluge of votes to minor and fringe parties in a trend amplified in the ANU survey. This study found dramatic erosion in support for the major parties. In 1987, 72 percent of those questioned said they had always voted for the same party. In 2016, that number was down to 40 per cent.

That leakage was underscored in the NSW election results where the Liberals’ and Nationals’ combined primary vote hovered in the low 40s and Labor in the low to mid-30s. These primary numbers are terrible.

But, worse from the Coalition’s perspective, is what can only be described as a catastrophic collapse in support for the National Party in its heartland seats.

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In the 2015 NSW election, the Nationals won 17 seats, or half those of its Coalition partner. In 2019, the party will be lucky to end up with a baker’s dozen, or one-third of Liberal numbers.

None of this should be read as detracting from Berejikian’s victory, notwithstanding she benefited from a fractured performance by Labor’s Michael Daley, whom many voters would not have regarded as being ready for prime time.

Berejiklian’s is both a favourable migrant story as the daughter of immigrants and a positive woman story at a time when her party is under justifiable criticism for its pale, male and, it might be observed, illiberal complexion.

This is, undeniably, an inflexion moment for the embattled Liberal Party nationally given that it breaks a bad news circuit for the ruling party in Canberra riven by internal dissent and reeling from a dreadful outcome in the recent Victorian state election amid prospects of an electoral drubbing in Victoria federally.

Scott Morrison, who was not invited to speak at the Liberal campaign launch in NSW due to the stench surrounding the federal Coalition, is drawing sustenance from the Berejiklian victory, as well he might.

Legitimately, he can derive comfort from the Liberal vote holding up in metropolitan Sydney and environs. That said, he would be much mistaken to believe the NSW result heralds a renaissance for the conservative forces across the country, and, more particularly, in rural and regional Australia.

The collapse in the National Party vote in NSW is life-threatening for one of the pillars of Australian politics going back to Federation.

Whatever Barnaby Joyce’s motives, including his covetousness of a second coming as leader of the Nationals, he is right when he says his party needs to “wake up’’ as it assesses the carnage in its NSW heartland and works out how to distinguish itself from its Coalition partners.

These tensions in Coalition ranks will play out in the weeks leading up to the federal election by early June in which it is certain to rev up its tiresome “Kill Bill’’ strategy against a plodding Labor leader in its efforts to deflect attention from its own personnel and policy shortcomings.

Whether this works is moot. In all of this, perhaps we should give the last word to Malcolm Turnbull in his approving references to Gladys Berejiklian.

“Gladys recognises the reality of global warming … She is not a climate change denier. And I might add, she is a real liberal,’’ he wrote.

Turnbull’s reference to “a real liberal’’ could be regarded as a sting in the tail of the Berejiklian victory, and one that Morrison and his conservative, climate-sceptic cohort would be wise not to ignore.

Tony Walker is a vice-chancellor’s fellow at La Trobe University and a regular columnist.

Tony Walker writes on politics, North America and the Middle East. Tony is the Financial Review’s dual-Walkley Award-winning international editor whose foreign postings have included Washington, Beijing and Cairo. He received a Centenary of Federation Award for contributions to Journalism and the Paul Lyneham Award for Excellence in press gallery journalism.

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