Liberals can remove Turnbull, or voters will oust the Libs
The “Malcolm project”, to the extent that it’s not all about him, is actually about making the Liberal Party less conservative. Malcolm Turnbull let the cat out of the bag in London in July when he noted that Robert Menzies said: “We took the name ‘Liberal’ because we were determined to be a progressive party (and) in no sense reactionary.”
Although the Prime Minister also said “the Liberal Party stands for freedom or it stands for nothing”, contrasting this with Labor’s insistence that “government knows best”, so far the Turnbull government’s interventions have all been Labor-lite.
Indeed, since Turnbull’s overthrow of Tony Abbott, taxes and spending have increased and now there’s to be a new National Energy Guarantee that’s about reducing emissions rather than cutting prices. As a result of Turnbull’s interventions, Australian conservatives are deserting the Liberal Party in droves.
The superannuation tax hit the Coalition’s most supportive demographic. The bank tax and the new body to police bankers’ pay were designed to trump Labor’s call for a royal commission. Gonski 2.0 was an attempt to steal a Labor policy. And the new energy policy is likely to be adopted (and adjusted) by Labor because it provides a (very expensive) mechanism for reducing emissions while still keeping the lights on.
The Prime Minister and Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg have been adamant that the new policy will cut prices by $115 a year because of the greater investment that policy “certainty” is supposed to bring. No modelling has been released and it’s hard to see how more renewables can bring down prices, especially when intermittent power sources will have to be matched with reliable ones.
And all the previous “expert” predictions that renewable power would reduce prices have turned out to be false. The left-wing Australia Institute recently published ReachTEL polling to back its preference for more renewable energy and for stronger policies to tackle climate change. The most noteworthy feature of this was not the majority for more action on climate change but the deep public scepticism about whether the government’s new policy would cut prices as claimed.
In the three seats polled, only 21 per cent, 18 per cent and 17 per cent believed the NEG would decrease their power bills. But the really bad news for Turnbull and Frydenberg was that overall support for the government has fallen since the election by 11 per cent in Turnbull’s seat of Wentworth and by 6 per cent in Frydenberg’s seat, Kooyong.
Yet, in Tony Abbott’s seat of Warringah, support for the government has fallen by only 1 per cent since the election.
These are all inner-city seats where high support could be expected for same-sex marriage, climate change action and becoming a republic.
They are exactly the seats where progressive Turnbull Liberals should be at their strongest — and conservative Abbott Liberals at their weakest.
Yet the only one of them to have more or less maintained his support since the election was the most conservative of the three.
Significantly, Turnbull’s primary vote is down 17 per cent since the election, Frydenberg’s down 11 per cent and Abbott’s only 4 per cent.
According to the ReachTEL poll, Pauline Hanson’s One Nation has 9 per cent support in Turnbull’s seat (where voters could be expected to be most profoundly in sympathy with the local MP).
Coupled with the government’s 21 consecutive Newspoll losses, what this strongly suggests is that a Labor-lite Liberal government fails even with progressive voters. Rather than pick up votes in the centre, Turnbull’s tactic is losing them support everywhere. At last year’s election, no One Nation candidates ran in these seats. Now, One Nation has between 5 per cent and 9 per cent. “Others” (Cory Bernardi’s conservatives perhaps?) have between 5 per cent and 7 per cent. And Labor’s primary vote is up by between 6 per cent and 10 per cent.
Turnbull is counting on a yes vote in the same-sex marriage plebiscite to deliver him a morale-booster. Yet this is the kind of win that will reinforce conservatives’ dislike. And even then he will still have to come up with satisfactory protections for freedom of speech, freedom of religion and parental choice. Indeed, there is vast potential for Turnbull to continue to be Hanson and Bernardi’s most effective recruiting agent.
In the Coalition partyroom, Turnbull was adamant that his new energy policy would be a political winner because it would deliver lower prices and highlight the difference with Labor. Even if he’s right about lower prices, they won’t even start until 2020.
In the meantime, prices will keep skyrocketing and Labor MPs can be guaranteed to produce their constituents’ power bills while asking the Prime Minister why he lied to them. Moreover, it will be difficult to demonise federal Labor over power prices when the government’s own policy requires the co-operation of the Labor states.
Trying to lead a centre-right government from the centre-left was always going to be fraught. Thinking that Turnbull would be a better prime minister than he was an opposition leader was always wishful thinking. It’s clearer than ever that the Liberals will remove Turnbull or the electorate will remove the Liberals.
Ross Fitzgerald is emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University.
The Australian, October 26, 2017 p 14.