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PM’s problems of his own making

26 March 2018 154 views One Comment

Malcolm Turnbull is a single Newspoll away from failing the leadership test he himself set. “We have lost 30 Newspolls in a row,” he said on the day of the coup that toppled prime minister Tony Abbott. “It is clear that the people have made up their mind about Mr Abbott’s leadership.”

If losing 30 Newspolls disqualified Abbott, it disqualifies Turnbull too. If the Prime Minister keeps his job, it will be because no one is stalking him in the way that he stalked the man he deposed.

These days Turnbull says that it wasn’t the polls that did Abbott in, even though he and his conspirators made so much of them to undermine him.

Turnbull told ‘The Daily Telegraph’s’ Miranda Devine late last year he regretted citing the polls because that has obscured “the substantive reasons … related to economic leadership and governance”. And he told Leigh Sales this month that the only test of leadership is “having the support of the partyroom”.

Turnbull’s problems are all self-generated. Indeed a fundamentally fatal flaw is that Turnbull has been utterly unable to unify the broader Liberal Party and stop defections to the right. Moreover, especially after his shabby treatment of Barnaby Joyce not long after calling the re-elected deputy PM a hero following the New England by-election victory, the PM is making a very poor fist of dealing with the Coalition.

By almost any test, Turnbull’s leadership has been worse than Abbott’s. While he has been behind in 29 Newspolls so far, the fact is that as of today Turnbull has trailed in the polls for 547 days as opposed to Abbott’s 491.

Clearly, Turnbull’s economic leadership and party management is inferior with his taxing, spending and regulating government, and he has chloroformed the partyroom by stalling political discussion in a way Abbott never did.

Abbott had serious achievements to his credit: stopping the boats, repealing the carbon and mining taxes, and finalising the big three FTAs. All the federal government’s big national security decisions were made under Abbott. These are unambiguous pluses Turnbull simply can’t match.

And by the most important metric of all for political leadership, Abbott won 25 seats from Labor in two elections while Turnbull has lost 14 seats in his one electoral outing so far.

Abbott achieved much despite constant leaking and sniping from his own team. Turnbull has achieved little despite a much less fractious cabinet and a much less critical media. A trade deal with Peru hardly cuts it. Most of the TPP work was done under Andrew Robb. The building industry watchdog was Abbott policy; and while Turnbull is taking the company tax cuts further than Abbott planned, he’s scrapped the white papers that could have been the launching pad for serious reform of the way we’re governed.

If the Liberal Party retains Turnbull, the country will get Bill Shorten as prime minister because there’s no way such a tone-deaf and lazy campaigner can succeed against Labor, the unions, the Greens and GetUp! while defending a majority of just one seat.

I think there would be a partyroom majority for someone other than Turnbull, but not yet for any specific challenger. Abbott has always maintained that he wouldn’t challenge and would have to be drafted.

Peter Dutton thinks that his job is to show loyalty to the leader, even though this particular leader doesn’t deserve it. And Julie Bishop would kill to be PM, even if only for a few months, but her numbers are also Turnbull’s.

Having made the catastrophic mistake of rolling a first-term, democratically elected prime minister, the Liberals are fearful of making another — notwithstanding that the only people who would really miss Turnbull are unlikely to be Liberal voters.

In any case, changing leaders won’t win the election. To win, the Liberals need to create a much bigger policy difference from Labor. And every time Abbott suggests some product differentiation his senior colleagues join in to reject it.

Many voters don’t like Shorten but they’re hardly poised to re-elect the Turnbull government. What this Prime Minister didn’t understand in September 2015 is that there is the world of difference between a government that’s struggling in the polls because it’s trying to do hard but necessary things like cutting spending, and a government that’s simply struggling in the polls.

A Shorten win would certainly give us the most left-wing government in our history. But a Turnbull win — unlikely as that is — would validate the most left-wing Liberal government we’ve ever had.

Right now, the political choice is no longer between the centre-right and the centre-left; it’s between the soft-left and the hard-left; between left and lefter, so to speak.

In the short term a Turnbull defeat would be bad for the country, but in the long term it might be the only way to stop both parties from drifting ever further to the left.

Ross Fitzgerald is emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University.

The Australian March 26, 2018, p 12.

One Comment »

  • Alan Pinsker, George Carabelas, Peter Smith & Wayne Black (author) said:

    A Shorten government would be a chance for Coalition reformation

    Ross Fitzgerald’s article about the woes of the Turnbull government does him credit (“PM’s problems of his own making”, 26/3). His even-handed assessment of a potential Shorten Labor government and another Turnbull term as representing somewhat different shades of the same left-wing agenda, was a tonic.

    I concur with Fitzgerald that the least worst outcome might be to unleash Bill Shorten at the Treasury coffers and social fabric, watch him stuff it up and, hopefully, in the meantime the Coalition could become a truly conservative alternative across the social and economic issues so that it deserves to win back government.

    Alan Pinsker, Warner, Qld

    Ross Fitzgerald makes the most pertinent point that a Turnbull defeat would be bad for the country but in the long term it may well be the best.

    The notion that a Shorten-led government will be a matter of the country cleansing itself so that the system is revitalised may now be untenable. The existing level of fractiousness and division in almost every component of every societal mechanism tends to suggest a point of no return.

    A road to ruin, or Venezuela, is being constructed in front of our eyes while Malcolm Turnbull is off strolling in the paddocks looking for daisies, pulling off petals to see if the sun will always shine or the breeze will keep blowing, hoping to sweep him and his government back into office without having a hair put out of place. That’s dreaming on a grand scale.

    George Carabelas, Mt Barker, SA

    As Ross Fitzgerald makes it very clear (“PM’s problems of his own making”, 26/3), Newspoll is tolling for Malcolm Turnbull and he only has himself to blame.

    Peter Smith, Lake Illawarra, NSW

    The Australian, March 27, 2018, p 13.

    Turnbull’s last chance to offer a genuine Liberal alternative to Labor

    Ross Fitzgerald’s column (“PM’s problems are of his own making”, 26/3) was spot on. Assuming Malcolm Turnbull wants to implement policies that reflect the smaller taxing, smaller spending beliefs of the Liberal Party, how do we give the PM the courage to implement policies that reflect those beliefs?

    The electorate already gave him permission to make big changes back when he became PM. It is called the “honeymoon period”, when the electorate signs up to be taken in a new direction. Once the electorate realises it’s business as usual with a new face, the honeymoon is over, and polls sink to where they have stayed now for 29 Newspolls.

    The Budget of 2018 is the last chance for Turnbull and the Liberals to offer Australia quality government, to truly differentiate the Coalition from the big taxing, big government, wealth redistribution model of Bill Shorten and the ALP. The only consolation after two years of disappointing Turnbull government is that they don’t have much to lose. Business-as-usual will lose the Liberals the next election.

    Wayne Black, Toowong, Qld

    The Australian, March 27, 2018, p 15.

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