Turnbull can arrest his drift with a 10-point action plan
The best Malcolm Turnbull could say of his first anniversary as prime minister was “so far so good”. It’s hardly a ringing endorsement. So far, his only real achievement is not quite losing the election to Bill Shorten. And this week, for the first time, the Labor leader’s net Newspoll unpopularity was better than the Prime Minister’s.
Along the Parliament House corridors, Labor MPs are now displaying in their office windows caricatures of a glum Malcolm Turnbull with the caption “fizza”. As a gay-marriage, climate change and republic-supporting man of the left, Turnbull was every Labor voter’s dream as Liberal leader. To be supported by large sections of the media, he had to be a man of the left; but to stay prime minister of a Coalition government he now has to become a person of the centre right.
Turnbull needs to stop looking like a loser and start preparing for the next election. That means giving his party’s supporters something to cheer while also finding causes that will attract Labor voters to the Liberal side. That’s not siding with the left. It’s finding issues that his people will support and that many Labor people might too.
With such an agenda, even now Turnbull could rally the government and win the next federal election. Without one, or with something that’s just Labor lite, it’s increasingly clear that the government seems doomed to a heavy defeat.
So what should be done?
First, to embarrass Labor and rally the Coalition, Turnbull needs to focus on workplace reforms such as the re-establishment of a tough cop on the beat in the construction industry and putting the same accountability requirements on union officials as on company directors. He can’t be squeamish about attacking Shorten’s workplace deals that ripped off workers to fund the union and helped the Opposition Leader’s political positioning.
Second, Turnbull needs to talk a lot more about national security and sound convincing about it. He can’t pussyfoot around with Islamist terrorism calling it instead “politically motivated violence”. He can’t treat defence as a job protection racket for South Australia. There are lots of traditional Labor voters waiting to be impressed by a middle-of-the-road Liberal leader who’s serious about keeping our country safe.
Third, he needs to do things that Tony Abbott didn’t or couldn’t: like at least trying to amend the notorious section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act and stopping funding for the so-called Safe Schools program. This would reassure the conservatives who supported him that they haven’t sold out their principles or surrendered the government to the enemy.
Fourth, he needs to embrace the cause of Liberal party reform even if it annoys some of the people who, a year ago, were intriguing on his behalf. He was jeered at a NSW Liberal conference for claiming that Liberals have no factions! Turnbull should make amends by joining John Howard, Mike Baird, Barry O’Farrell and Abbott in demanding that the factional warlords accept the principle of “one member, one vote” in NSW Liberal pre-selections.
Fifth, he needs to offer a big concession on the superannuation changes announced in the budget that caused so many Liberals to virtually go on strike during the election campaign. Sure, this would annoy Treasurer Scott Morrison but Morrison sees himself as the next leader and needs to be put in his place if Turnbull’s position as PM is to be secure.
Sixth, he needs to create some credentials as an economic reformer. Tax reform might be too hard but he could at least revive Abbott’s deregulation agenda. Serious savings might be too hard but he could at least sound less enthusiastic about yet more spending.
Seventh, he needs to encourage his better ministers to challenge the Green-left agenda in areas where sensible Labor people will be on the government’s side. Christian Porter and Alan Tudge want to make it harder for people to waste their welfare money and harder for people to be on welfare when they might be working. Josh Frydenberg wants to encourage the coal industry, which is a big exporter, a big employer and a big source of cheap energy for poor people in poor countries.
Eighth, he should read his party room the riot act over leaking with the conviction of a poacher turned gamekeeper. In the end, people who brief against their colleagues don’t make themselves look good; they make the government look bad and it’s currently Turnbull’s government that’s suffering.
Ninth, he needs to overcome his aversion to conservative commentators and add Ray Hadley, Andrew Bolt and Paul Murray to the people he talks to publicly. Like Alan Jones, if not quite as effectively, they speak to the Liberal and National parties’ membership and if Turnbull avoids them, he in effect avoids his own supporters.
Tenth, he needs to show some magnanimity towards his predecessor. It beggars belief that all of the 23 people in Turnbull’s cabinet are better at their jobs than Abbott.
Emeritus Professor of History and Politics at Griffith University, Ross Fitzgerald is the author of 39 books, including a memoir ‘My name is Ross: An alcoholic’s journey’.
The Canberra Times, September 15, 2016 & The Age & the Sydney Morning Herald online September 15, 2016.