It will be no surprise to Scott Morrison that his handling of the bushfires was a major political setback, and the latest set of polling only confirms the extent. The question will be whether the mud sticks.
Morrison sailed through last year's election on a high, with a likeability rating of 5.1, not great by historic standards, but higher than any party leader since Labor's Kevin Rudd after winning the 2007 election. He has now slumped to the lowest of any leader since Andrew Peacock in 1990, and below the record low that Bill Shorten put on the scoreboard as Labor leader last year. Shorten had a dismal likeability rating of 3.97 in the ANU Election Study; Morrison has now scored 3.92 in a January poll by the ANU's Centre for Social Research.
It was personal. Half the people polled were asked to think about the performance of Scott Morrison when judging how good or bad a job the government had done on the bush fires; the other half was told to think about the performance of the government. You guessed it. When prompted by reference to Morrison, 64 per cent said the government had done a bad or very bad job, compared with 59 per cent when thinking about the government more broadly.
Anthony Albanese moved up in popularity, from 4.87 in June to 5.04 now - the highest of any Labor leader since Kevin Rudd at his peak in 2007, and higher than Mark Latham and Paul Keating.
His Prime Ministership has turned into an endless round of inadequate and misguided responses to disaster, crisis and scandal.
The same message came from the Newspoll, which showed Labor overtaking the Coalition in the preferred prime minister ranks in January, for the first time since a brief hit from the Liberal leadership turmoil in August 2018. In September last year, 50 per cent of voters preferred Morrison for prime minister, against Anthony Albanese's 31 per cent, according to Newspoll. By January, Albanese was on 43 per cent and Morrison 39. Worse, Morrison's satisfaction rating went through the floor.
"I've got a thick skin," Morrison said on Monday when asked about criticism of him at the bushfire relief concert. "And I understand that over the period of the summer, you know, that people felt really raw about things ... My response is just to do things and get things done."
The question for Morrison is what things, precisely, does he plan to do. In an agenda that has been around the edges, the most eye-catching thing he has done so far is enact tax cuts. In housing, he has guaranteed home loans with lower mortgages for a limited number of people, and he had a political win by abolishing the doctor-led refugee medical evacuations from Nauru and Manus. He failed in his legislation to oust rogue union leaders and his religious freedom laws are stuck in a mire with no easy way out.
He has squibbed at major reform - for instance in what was supposed to be the biggest shake-up of the public service in 40 years, a review that's essentially gone to the corner of some dusty basement. And in the much-touted "Voice" for Indigenous people in the constitution which looks set to be stuck on a discussion desk for the foreseeable future. Depending on Morrison's response to his retirement review, that might be his most substantial reform yet.
But to date, Morrison has essentially failed to present any kind of ambitious reform agenda or coherent plan. As a result his Prime Ministership has turned into an endless round of inadequate and misguided responses to disaster, crisis and scandal.
When General Motors killed off Holden on Monday with 600 people losing their jobs, Morrison lashed out at the firm, saying taxpayers had given it $2 billion in subsidies only to have it walk away. That, said Morrison, "says everything you need to know about the success of those sorts of policies". Well indeed, which sits oddly alongside his decision to spend $4 million on a feasibility student for a new coal-fired power plant.
In the ANU survey just after the election last year, 45 per cent of people said the government should allow new coal mines; now only 37 per cent think so. As banks and big investors stop lending to thermal coal and turn their attention also to reducing investments in oil and gas, Morrison needs to align himself with the inevitable and start leading on new ideas for regional and remote communities.
He needs a better idea than the only one he seems to have rattling around in the top drawer - throwing more cash at the regions. Cash is handy, but it is not a reason for confidence or hope.