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Turnbull is toast

26 January 2017 369 views One Comment

If Malcolm Turnbull had a plan, we would have seen it by now


Most people are bemused when I predict that Malcolm Turnbull won’t be prime minister by the end of the year. There’s no obvious alternative, they say; the Libs wouldn’t want to emulate Labor by yet again failing to allow a PM to complete a term, they mutter; a revolving door prime ministership is really bad for the country, they claim. And all of this is true. Still, it is likely that there will be a new prime minister by year’s end because Turnbull seems incapable of improving his performance.

Turnbull know he’s under great stress and it shows. Last week, he announced his fourth ministerial reshuffle in just 16 months in office. Along with NSW Premier Mike Baird’s abandonment of his post, this forced reshuffle added to the sense of impermanence that now grips our polity. In Canberra, we had five prime ministers in five years. Now, in a decade there have been seven premiers of our biggest state. The more leaders turn over, the worse it is for good government. But the more they turn over, the less secure each leader becomes. A prime minister who can’t keep the same team for more than a few months can hardly expect his own position to be secure.

Turnbull cited two justifications for his leadership coup: first, that Abbott had lost 30 Newspolls in a row; second, there was no consistent economic narrative.

But what happened? Turnbull was going to restrict negative gearing, and then he wasn’t; he was going to increase the GST take, and then he didn’t; his government was never going to increase superannuation tax, and then it did. He called an election over two industrial relations bills that had been defeated twice in the Senate, and then hardly mentioned them in the interminable federal election campaign. It’s no wonder that Turnbull lost 14 seats overall, and would have lost the election but for the Country Fire Authority issue in Victoria and the National Party running a successful ‘different-and-better’ grassroots campaign.

Since all-but-losing the election, Turnbull has lost six Newspolls in a row. Sometime towards the end of the year, he can expect to notch up the dread 30 successive losses. If the government had a bold reform agenda, it could recover; but if the prime minister has one why would he wait so long to reveal it? If the government were united, it could recover; but if Turnbull wanted to hold out an olive branch to conservatives, why did he not do so when it might have been accepted? If the government were able to score points against the opposition, it could recover; but if Turnbull had the ability to rout the other side, why wasn’t some of that fighting spirit seen in the election campaign when it was most needed?

Turnbull can’t fight for reform because the only things he believes in (apart from being prime minister) are causes that a centre-right government can’t readily embrace, namely gay marriage, republicanism and emissions trading. He can’t inspire unity because he was the one who most destroyed it in the first place. And he can’t effectively take on the opposition because his forte is boardroom back-stabbing and bullying rather than the hard daily grind of practical politics.

For Turnbull, it can only get worse. Yes, he is not currently being actively destabilised because the Liberals’ destabiliser-in-chief is now prime minister. Yes, there’s not too much white-anting because most of the ambitious nobodies have been given promotions or been turfed out of the parliament. And yes, most of his colleagues think that one catastrophic leadership change is enough. But as certain as night follows day, a government that’s sure it’s doomed will change its leader. Why would the Liberals show character and fortitude under Turnbull when they didn’t show it under Abbott who had done more to deserve their gratitude?

Abbott’s office came under much criticism for ‘command and control’, but the only minister who was forced to step aside in two years did so for alleged misdeeds prior to entering parliament. It is the job of the prime minister’s office to save ministers from themselves. But Turnbull’s office has been indulgent rather than strict. Moreover it has overseen a blowout in senior advisers from 60 under Abbott to over 100 now.

The Turnbull government is a slow-motion train wreck and sooner or later most of his MPs will realise it.

So what could happen?

Turnbull might decide to commit a form of political hara-kiri by trying to force gay marriage through the parliament without the promised plebiscite and end up a political martyr for a progressive cause – like he did over the ETS in 2009.

Turnbull might even ‘do a Baird’ and resign – for personal reasons, because an international opportunity beckons or more likely because he realises that Bill Shorten is likely to win the next election in a canter and he doesn’t want history to regard him as a loser. Or perhaps the perpetual deputy leader Julie Bishop might decide that it’s now or never for her to replace him as PM.

But it doesn’t matter who’s the leader if there’s no programme for govern- ment. This is the Liberals’ real problem. For all of his faults, Abbott had an agenda, which he actively pursued, even if it helped to bring about his downfall.

There are some pluses. Currently, Immigration Minister Peter Dutton is maintaining the government’s successful border protection policies. Ministers Christian Porter and Alan Tudge are trying to clean up welfare rorts. Josh Frydenberg continues to be a capable Energy Minister while Finance Minister Mathias Cormann is still looking for savings. But the reality is that the Turnbull government lacks the ticker for a big new budget repair push that the nation so desperately needs.

And don’t think that things can’t get worse for Turnbull than starting the political year with a forced ministerial resignation.

Next month may see the defection of Senator Cory Bernardi to form an Australian conservative party while March may witness a strong showing for One Nation in the West Australian election. If this should happen, it’s the Turnbull ascendancy that would be to blame.

While there’s now dismay in Liberal ranks, soon this may turn into panic. If this occurs, it will spell the end of Turnbull as prime minister.

Ross Fitzgerald is Emeritus Professor of History and Politics at Griffith University and the author of 39 books, including a memoir ‘My Name is Ross: An Alcoholic’s Journey’ and the political/sexual satire ‘Going Out Backwards: A Grafton Everest Adventure.’

The Spectator Australia, 28 January 2017, p vii

One Comment »

  • Noel Beddoe said:

    Saturday’s editorial of misuse of entitlements by politicians relates to a broader issue.

    In a column published in three states and a territory by Fairfax, Professor Ross Fitzgerald wrote of the matter of Australians simply giving up on the political process. In the recent group of by-elections in three state seats in New South Wales, for example, some thirty thousand enrolled citizens did not vote. Another four thousand voted informal. In the recent Federal election the thousands of potential voters who didn’t participate was more than enough to give The Liberals their slender victory in Gilmore.

    Among several, one of the causes of voter disenchantment is the propensity of many of those elected to grant themselves privileges denied their fellow Australians. Politicians taking work trips, for example, are permitted to take family members with them, the trips paid for by their employers, the taxpayers. To-day probably hundreds of thousands of Australian workers have often to be away from home, “flying in” to work in mines or travelling out to oil rigs in the sea. Two members of my own family have often to travel overseas for work and are away from their families for longer than they would like.

    Any suggestion that their families should travel with them at employer expense would be regarded as a nonsense.

    If the domestic situations of politicians is so fragile that relationships won’t survive a bit of absence perhaps the individuals involved would have been wise to choose another area of work.
    Noel Beddoe,
    The Illawarra Mercury, January 28 2017

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