Bill Shorten has a target on his back.
Opinion polls taken after the federal budget show the political “reset” sought by Malcolm Turnbull hasn’t been achieved.
The two-party preferred figure for the coalition has essentially flatlined since the start of 2017.
Analysis of published opinion polls shows support for the coalition has kept within a narrow band between 46 and 47 per cent (to Labor’s 54 or 53 per cent), which would translate to a comfortable win for the opposition.
In 26 polls, none have been higher than 48 per cent for the coalition and none lower than 45 per cent.
However, the polls have shown a lift in Turnbull’s personal approval rating and a consistent lead as preferred prime minister – which gives the government at least the basis for a comeback.
Big “nation building” announcements such as Snowy Hydro 2.0 and Gonski 2.0, as well as the backflip on the Medicare GP rebate freeze, barely registered in the polls.
Delivering a budget widely described in the media as Labor-lite and containing popular measures such as a levy on the big banks hasn’t been the big bang many coalition MPs wanted.
What’s left in the coalition arsenal?
Ahead of a fortnight of parliament sittings, some argue the main target should be Shorten himself.
He represents what many in the Liberal and National parties see as everything wrong with Labor: staunch unionist, factional warlord, inconsistent, and a fair-weather friend for two prime ministers.
His party is kept unified by a complex web of factional deals, old and new loyalties, personal friendships, promises of promotion or preselection, as well as shared values and principles.
Immigration Minister Peter Dutton is perhaps the most strident critic of Shorten.
“The last thing we want in our country is Bill Shorten and the CFMEU to be running the Treasury,” Dutton said in an interview this week.
“It would be a disaster for families, for small businesses.”
Whether the strategy has Turnbull’s endorsement and how extensive it is adopted will be seen in parliament next week.
Interestingly during the budget sales pitch many senior figures in the government including Morrison dialled down their personal attacks on Shorten.
The treasurer’s budget speech and media conference contained very little criticism of Labor, a notable difference from his usual spiel and a calculated move to come across as more moderate, conciliatory and “getting on with the job”.
However, Shorten is considered a weak point for Labor, with voters carrying a high level of uncertainty about him.
He gets a tick for being hard-working and intelligent, but he also scores highly for superficiality and arrogance.
A recent Essential poll put his approval rating among Labor voters at 48 per cent.
In contrast, Turnbull’s approval among Liberal voters was 64 per cent.
Another reason for the lack of an uptick for the government is a general lack of confidence in the community.
Wages are falling in real terms and workers are worried about their penalty rates being axed, which will be one of Labor’s focal points in parliament next week.
Figures released this week showed the lowest annual wages growth since 1997 when the data first started being collected.
As well, the government is offering an income tax rise for everyone earning more than $21,000 a year, via its 0.5 percentage point hike in the Medicare levy.
Internal Labor research shows voters are genuinely worried about being slugged by banks passing on the cost of a new levy on their liabilities.
And questions are being raised in the two key areas of concern for voters – education and health – with the government’s Gonski 2.0 plan under fire for its fairness and the unfreezing of Medicare rebates shown to be a piecemeal effort designed more for politics than practicality.
The combined effect of hurting hip-pockets, fear of unemployment and worry about access to essential services makes it easier for Labor to keep pressure on the government.
It may be no matter what the coalition decides to hurl at Shorten, or the amount of effort put into its “reset”, the public mood will be the overriding factor in who succeeds at the next election.