EXPLAINER

Recent events like March 4 Justice have impacted the Coalition, but by how much?

Heading for the exit? Prime Minister Scott Morrison. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong
Heading for the exit? Prime Minister Scott Morrison. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

It has seemed like the Prime Minister has been drowning in a sea of crises recently.

There was the allegation of rape against his then Attorney-General (denied, but then the Prime Minister shifted the man downwards). Mr Morrison was accused of being deaf to the roar of anger from women over different allegations of rape and sexual assault in Parliament House.

"Morrison finds himself all at sea - again" and "Scott Morrison's approval rating sinks again" were typical headlines.

But now hard evidence is starting to come in. How much damage to his future has been done?

What do the polls say?

The Essential polling organisation showed a fall in approval of Mr Morrison's performance over the crucial second half of March when the furore was at its height.

In answer to the question, "Do you approve or disapprove of the job Scott Morrison is doing as Prime Minister?", 57 per cent approved on March 29, down from 62 per cent a fortnight earlier when the Women's March 4 Justice held its demonstrations.

The gender breakdown is interesting. Approval didn't fall at all among men (65 per cent approved of the Prime Minister's general performance on both dates) but women's fell from 59 per cent to 49 per cent approval.

Disapproval figures were nearly a mirror image: men barely changed their view (disapproval rose from 28 per cent to 30 per cent), but women's disapproval increased markedly (40 per cent on the later date compared with 30 per cent two weeks earlier).

Essential's executive director Peter Lewis had no doubt that the findings were significant.

"This week's Essential Report reinforces that Scott Morrison is losing the women of Australia at a giddying rate with one in six women having withdrawn their approval of him over the past two months. What is holding the Prime Minister's head above water is the fact that male voters have not moved an inch," he said.

He likened it to the moment when "it was clear to me that the Howard government was history".

The issue which tipped people against John Howard, according to the pollster, was WorkChoices when the former prime minister pushed through changes to industrial relations law.

But wait ...

A new poll indicates that support for the current government among women is actually stable. Support by men for the Coalition has fallen - and you might think that the recent allegations of male misconduct would tip women rather than men against the government more.

But the latest Newspoll analysis shows that the Coalition has lost ground with male voters but not female voters over the past three months.

The male primary vote for the Coalition fell from 44 per cent in December to 41 per cent while female voters' intentions remained stable at 41 per cent.

It's true that overall, support for the Coalition has fallen slightly over that longer time period but the picture is patchy, indicating that local factors in states may be important.

Scott Morrison experienced a massive rise in his approval ratings and that has only very slightly declined since.

Dr Kevin Bonham

But a second Newspoll echoed the Essential poll in showing a decline in approval of the Prime Minister's performance.

As Michelle Grattan put it: "Scott Morrison's approval has taken a sizeable hit."

"In the poll, taken March 24 to 27, Morrison's dissatisfaction rating jumped from 34 per cent to 40 per cent," she wrote.

"The 'better PM' gap also narrowed - Morrison now leads Anthony Albanese 52 per cent (down 4 points) to 32 per cent (up 2 points). This is the narrowest margin since March last year. In February, Morrison had a 35-point margin."

Making sense of it

As the dust settles after the Women's March 4 Justice, what do we see? Is this the transformative moment when Mr Morrison's fortunes changed or is this just a standard bump which governments hit before riding on to victory?

The answer, of course, is that nobody can know with certainty. The future is the future. Events happen.

But one of the country's leading analysts of polls cautions against writing Mr Morrison off yet.

"At the moment, you would say that the government is not that far behind," Dr Kevin Bonham told The Canberra Times.

He said that if governments were going to lose an election, they were usually much further behind in the opinion polls than Mr Morrison's government is now.

"The fact that the government is behind does not mean that they are going to lose. We have seen some damage with this issue (the allegations of the ill-treatment of women) but governments routinely have bad periods."

He sees COVID-19 as the bigger factor. Mr Morrison's approval was low after the fires just over a year ago. He was caught holidaying in Hawaii as swathes of the nation burned.

But he returned and then COVID happened. "After the pandemic struck," Dr Bonham said.

"Scott Morrison experienced a massive rise in his approval ratings and that has only very slightly declined since."

"He has a lot of good will over the COVID situation."

 A bigger picture

There is a longer-term shift of women's preferences, according to Ian McAllister, Professor of Political Science at the ANU.

"There has been a long term shift (since about 2010) in women being more likely to vote Labor than Liberal."

He cited as reasons: rising numbers of women working; more women in tertiary education; decline in religion - women tend to be more religious, and so with conservative views; women are more likely to be the head of one-parent families.

But it's still too early to say if recent events will topple the government.

This story Polling data shows how recent crises have impacted the Coalition first appeared on The Canberra Times.