Turnbull better being driven by polls and and focus groups

by Crispin Hull on August 12, 2017

REMEMBER the good old days when politicians were accused of being poll-driven or focus-group-driven. These were also the days when political leaders who were behind in the polls said, there’s only one poll that counts, imagining that in the time left before the next election they could turn things around.

If only this Coalition Government were poll-driven or focus-group driven, the past week’s idiocy, indeed, the past four-years’ idiocy, would not have happened.

These days, there is only one poll that counts, and that is the poll for leadership within the party room.

If Turnbull had led his government rather than let the right-wing of his party lead him, the vote on marriage-equality this week could easily have gone the other way, approving a conscience vote without a plebiscite, whether at polling stations or by post.

Look at the numbers. There are 28 Ministers and 12 Parliamentary Secretaries in in the Parliament. Six of them are Nationals, leaving 34 members of the 81 members of the Liberal partyroom in the Government. Add to them the seven so-called defectors and you have 41 votes in the partyroom. That is a bare majority, but once many of the others had seen the way the vote was going, they, too, would have voted for a conscience vote without a plebiscite.

Turnbull could have easily argued that the election promise of a plebiscite has been met by the Coalition, but defeated by the Senate so out of the Coalition’s control. He could have further argued that Coalition Prime Minister at the time of the formulation of the plebiscite policy during the previous term, Tony Abbott, had said that that parliament would be the last one in which marriage equality would not be a conscience vote. Turnbull could have argued that that promise should be honoured.

With a bit of effort, the numbers were there and this issue would have been squared away so that by election time people would have been wondering what all the fuss was about.

Aside from the human rights and equality questions, clearing the air was one political reason for doing the conscience vote now. Another reason is that marriage-equality, like climate change, evolution, the spherical earth and the heliocentric solar system, is a “valve” question.

By “valve” question, I mean that the direction of opinion only moves one way. Over the past few months we have seen, time and time again, people declaring that they now agree with marriage equality and what made them change their minds. There have been no declarations the other way.

Similarly, people who realise that climate change is real and we are causing it, do not go back the other way. When people see the truth of evolution, the round earth and the fact that it goes around the sun, not the other way, they do not go back.

In short, marriage equality is going to happen, so why let a few conservatives fight a rearguard action of disruptive delaying tactics. Barring the High Court permitting unlegislated spending for a postal vote which does not get boycotted, it seems likely that Labor will get the credit for the change.

This brings us back to the pity that political parties do not go back to being focus-group driven.

Results from the Fairfax Media Ipsos focus-group published in the past week painted the Turnbull Government as a “do nothing” Government. People interviewed by-and-large could not cite one single thing the Government had done to help them.

A couple mentioned the Home Affairs super-ministry, but in negative terms. The focus groups were seeing through the Government exaggeration over the threat of terrorism.

If the focus-groups are saying Turnbull is a disappointing, do-nothing, non-achiever, surely he should do something about it rather than continuing with the policy that the partyroom leadership vote is the only poll that counts.

Why reinforce the notion that if you want to get something done in Australia, you have to rely on Labor: the Snowy Mountains scheme; national pharmaceutical and health schemes; national disability scheme; financial deregulation; the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park; saving the Franklin etc etc?

The lead-up to the partyroom vote was like a cheap thriller movie – the music goes up in pitch and goes staccato. Don’t stay where you are! You are in danger! You have to move or you will be caught!

But it did not end up like a cheap thriller with the hero moving out of harm’s way. No, this time the ogres got him.

So what now? Several people have put their hands up to conduct a High Court challenge. The court most likely will demand undertakings from the Government not to conduct a postal plebiscite until the matter is heard.

It may be that the Government gets away with the vote being conducted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics as “gathering statistical information” which is already legislated for, but there will certainly be delay and friction.

This is what the delaying conservatives want. The process is now stacked. Marriage equality requires two Yes votes – in the postal vote and in the Parliament. The status quo requires just one No vote.

The postal vote could easily lose because it is voluntary and young people are less engaged, particularly if the vote is not online.

And what if the turnout is low, say below 50 percent because of a boycott or lack of engagement, and the result a very close No victory? It will carry little legitimacy, particularly as more accurate statistical sampling measures are available for gauging opinion on the matter.

It will rightly be seen as a waste of money caused by the so-called fiscally responsible Liberal Party.

And then it will be up to Labor to get the measure through, because opinion is inexorably going through the valve in one direction.

Usually, good politics makes bad policy. On this one, the politics are as bad as the policy. If it cannot lead, the Liberal Party should at least follow opinion polling and focus groups.
CRISPIN HULL
This article first appeared in The Canberra Times and other Fairfax Media on 12 August 2017.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Kamran 08.12.17 at 4:12 pm

‘so why let a few conservatives fight a rearguard action of disruptive delaying tactics?’.
Why you are so scared of ‘a few conservatives’? Who still believe the earth is flat, the sun rotates around the earth, ‘Climate change’ too complicated for them to understand, and simply put it ‘can’t think rational”?

Brian O'Donnell 08.12.17 at 6:07 pm

Well said as usual Crispin.
I’m really baffled by Malcolm. I thought before he got the job of PM that there were certain things he stood for, but he seems to have abandoned all of them.
What does he get out of being in the job that makes that abandonment worthwhile?
If he doesn’t stand for something, what is the point?
Can you think of any rational explanation for this conundrum?

Lawrence Baker 08.15.17 at 9:16 am

Let us not forget that the ringleader of the hard right conservatives is Tony Abbott, the passionate Catholic, the science denier. He will do whatever his “faith” dictates, not what evidence and reason would suggest. Malcolm Turnbull converted to Catholicism, no doubt because Lucy is a strong Catholic. He is not free to support marriage equality because he will face consequences from the Catholic Church and it’s supporters.
On the other hand, there is strong support in the community/ the electorate for allowing marriage equality, and Turnbull cannot ignore the electoral consequences of opposing marriage equality.
How can he avoid being blamed for a decision that will confront one of these opposing groups? Well, a taxpayer funded plebiscite would exonerate Malcolm; it would shift the blame to the electorate, and get the electorate to pay millions of dollars for the privilege!
Nice!
Better than allowing a conscience vote and risking offending the Catholic lobby!
To hell with separation of church and state! Malcolm will never support a secular state, but he might be regretting initiating the poll that showed that Catholics are now outnumbered by non believers.
He should be guided by integrity rather than expedience, it is less likely to come back to bite him!

Rob 09.28.17 at 1:26 am

The inference you seem to be drawing, is because someone [in the case a politician] is a “Roman Catholic”, they are a “science denier”!

Please advise us all, would this include, as just two examples – among many, the father of the Big Bang Theory and the father of genetics – BOTH Roman Catholic Priests?

Perhaps instead of reading the bubble gum rantings of the likes of Dawkins, you’d be best to pick up a real history book and learn something of the RCC and it’s incredible contribution to the advancement of human knowledge.

Also, when you’re on bended knee, to the great pagan like god of “scientism”, does that include praise for ever more deadly missile systems and biological warfare, both gifts to humanity of the sciences? Or do cherry-pick things that much to simply excuse theses?

Finally re the “separation of church and state” – the concept actually exists to protect the church from the state, not the other way around! One of these two actually matters and is concerned with 1) your dignity as a human being and 2) your eternal destiny. The other, deals with the passing “stuff” of life, everything from garbage collection, which side of the road people can drive on and, if you’re “really lucky” the great thrill of charging off to fight in wars….and, how much tax you’ll be slogged! Enjoy….

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