Malcolm Turnbull takes big election gamble

Mr Turnbull meeting schoolchildren after speaking to members of the Australian public services at Parliament House in Canberra on Wednesday. He remains the preferred prime minister by a healthy majority, according to a Fairfax-Ipsos poll, but his lea
Mr Turnbull meeting schoolchildren after speaking to members of the Australian public services at Parliament House in Canberra on Wednesday. He remains the preferred prime minister by a healthy majority, according to a Fairfax-Ipsos poll, but his lead has slipped.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Analysts say long campaign till July 2 election is risky amid Aussie PM's falling popularity

Australia's Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has taken an unusual gamble and staked his political future on one of the longest election campaigns in the nation's history.

Analysts say it is a move that is fraught with political danger, especially as Mr Turnbull has begun to struggle in recent opinion polls. 

Long known for his pluck and self-confidence, the former investment banker and Internet entrepreneur has proven surprisingly risk-averse since he toppled Mr Tony Abbott last September.

He has been labelled a "ditherer" by the opposition after calling for economic and tax changes and then rejecting proposals such as increasing the country's 10 per cent goods and services tax.

But he has reserved his biggest gamble since becoming leader for a high-stakes move to push for an early election. Responding to questions from reporters on Tuesday, Mr Turnbull confirmed he intends to call an early election for July 2.

This followed the defeat of his anti-union corruption Bill in a vote in the Upper House, where the ruling coalition does not have a majority.  

Mr Turnbull will not formally call an election until after he delivers his first Budget on May 3.

He is tipped to call it on May 11. 

The campaign is likely to be the longest since 1984, when then Prime Minister Bob Hawke won, but suffered a 1.5 per cent swing against him. 

Most analysts believe long campaigns are risky because they increase the chances of slip-ups.

Extended campaigns can also leave the public bored with the prime minister, while raising the status of the opposition leader. 

In an article on Tuesday in The Australian Financial Review, political commentator Tony Walker warned that "much can go wrong" for the leader in the lead-up to the July polls. "If nothing else, we can be sure of one thing. Not all will go smoothly for either side," he wrote.

Adding to the risk, Mr Turnbull, who has long been one of Australia's most popular MPs, has seen his popularity plummet in recent weeks. Opinion polls released this week showed the opposition Labor party has either drawn even or is just ahead of Mr Turnbull's ruling coalition.

More worryingly for Mr Turnbull, his own approval ratings have dived. A Fairfax-Ipsos poll asked voters about Mr Turnbull's specific leadership qualities.

It found 49 per cent of people believed he has "the ability to make things happen", down from 74 per cent last October.

He was labelled a "strong leader" by 55 per cent, down from 75 per cent. But Mr Turnbull still remains the preferred prime minister by a healthy majority, though his lead has slipped.

Sydney Morning Herald political editor Peter Hartcher wrote on Monday: "Malcolm Turnbull has taken a cautious approach to the prime ministership, and he's being punished for it."

For now, Mr Turnbull remains the election favourite, but is under pressure to alter perceptions that he is an indecisive "wishy-washy" leader. He will have the chance to do so in less than a fortnight, when he delivers his pre-election Budget.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 23, 2016, with the headline 'Turnbull takes big election gamble'. Print Edition | Subscribe