Being an opposition party in the midst of a global pandemic is thankless work.
State Labor leader Rebecca White is finding that out the hard way.
On Tuesday, market research firm EMRS released its quarterly opinion poll, which showed support for Labor had plummeted since March and Premier Peter Gutwein had opened up a 47-point lead on White in the preferred premier ratings.
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Of course, the word of pollsters is no longer treated as gospel, after they failed to predict the results of both the 2016 US presidential election and the 2019 Australian federal election.
But these EMRS numbers were unequivocally diabolical for Labor; numbers White and her caucus colleagues would have to have found dispiriting.
With the Liberals’ approval rating at 54 per cent, the polling has them on track to win a stable majority at the next election, due by March 2022.
It’s a seemingly unassailable lead, but, as the saying goes, a week is a long time in politics. With just 23 per cent support for White to become premier and 24 per cent for the party to be in government, you’d think it would be almost impossible for Labor to see this polling as anything other than catastrophic.
However, it may not be as bad as it appears on the surface.
After all, only six months ago White actually had a narrow advantage over Gutwein as preferred premier.
She and her fellow Labor MPs should take some comfort in the fact that no opposition in the country, at state or federal level, is thriving in this time of coronavirus.
Cold comfort, maybe, but comfort all the same.
You’d think it would be almost impossible for Labor to see this polling as anything other than catastrophic. However, it shouldn’t be panic stations just yet.
To White’s credit, she fronted the media two days in a row following the poll’s publication, fielding a barrage of questions about her leadership from ravenous reporters.
“I feel very well supported by my colleagues,” she said in Launceston on Thursday, denying that Labor frontbencher David O’Byrne was gunning for her job. “We’re not going to be distracted by other people who tend to indicate that there’s some kind of ruction here because there simply isn’t. “
I asked her what her view was on how an opposition should best navigate the murky waters of a public health crisis. A crisis in which fortune has tended to favour incumbent governments.
“Our focus is very clearly on supporting those Tasmanians who have been hardest hit by the pandemic and supporting Tasmanians who have lost work back into employment,” White said. “And we won’t deviate from that and we will support the government in any tough decisions they have to make in protecting the health of our community.”
“But the biggest challenge for all of us, whether it be government or opposition, is to be supporting our state through the recovery from this pandemic.”
Gutwein, no doubt emboldened by the EMRS poll, would have to feel a sense of vindication for making tough decisions in relation to the state’s border. Because clearly they’re decisions that have garnered overwhelming popular support.
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He is known as a pragmatic man, though. He would be the first to acknowledge the fickle nature of public opinion.
And despite his immense popularity, we have seen cracks in the veneer. It’s not all been smooth sailing for his government. There was the controversy around exemptions for certain essential workers entering the state. More and more influential interest groups are up in arms about Gutwein’s decision to delay the opening of the state’s border until December 1. Nerves are beginning to fray.
Infrastructure Minister Michael Ferguson seems to be making hay of the polling, saying in an unrelated media release on Thursday that White is trying to “shore up her leadership”.
At a media conference the day before, however, Deputy Premier Jeremy Rockliff wouldn’t comment on the topic, saying it was a matter for the Labor Party.
Gutwein would prefer the latter approach.
Changing leaders at this point in time would be an extremely risky move for Labor. In the midst of this crisis we’re in, it could be perceived as cynical; another example of politicians looking out for themselves.
And besides, the Premier’s towering public appeal could topple at any moment, such are the vagaries of politics.
It’s said that numbers don’t lie.
But neither do they always tell the full story.
- Rob Inglis is a journalist with Australian Community Media.
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