Turnbull now just keeping seat warm for next PM
If one believes the punditry, Malcolm Turnbull had a strong finish to 2017 and goes into this year with the momentum needed to restore his government and even to beat Bill Shorten. The same insiders say Shorten’s missteps are starting to catch up with him and someone more popular could replace him.
To predict that such fundamental changes will occur in 2018 makes a good story, but political punditry is rarely how things turn out. It’s possible Turnbull may finally discover how to unite his party and to keep power prices down, and it’s possible Shorten may forget the basics of being an opposition leader. But I doubt this very much.
Only someone with the memory of a goldfish could think that a 5 per cent anti-government swing in the Bennelong by-election was a triumph for the Prime Minister.
Yes, by-elections usually record an anti-government swing, but that’s because the incumbent typically has cut and run to take a cushy job. It’s different when a popular and hardworking incumbent gets caught out by the fine print of the Constitution and has to recontest the seat. When Jackie Kelly was forced to a by-election in 1996 because she had not renounced her New Zealand citizenship there was actually a 5 per cent swing in her favour.
Likewise, the same-sex marriage outcome was, on one level, a result the Prime Minister didn’t need. This is because Turnbull was too obviously barracking for the outcome many Coalition voters didn’t want. The Muslims of western Sydney aside, the five million people who voted No were almost all conservatives — many of whom are likelier than ever to protest by voting for Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party or Cory Bernardi’s Australian Conservative Party. This is Turnbull’s fundamental problem: it’s not just that he has now lost 25 Newspolls in a row, it’s that a great many conservative voters have abandoned the Coalition and they’re never going to return while they think the PM is in the wrong party.
The Opposition Leader was always on a hiding to nothing over Sam Dastyari’s sellout to China. And Shorten shouldn’t have pretended that Labor was squeaky-clean on citizenship issues. The Opposition Leader is far from invincible but he’s not likely to lose a federal election against a PM defending a one-seat majority and attacking in particular the One Nation voters whose preferences he sorely needs.
The people who hate the idea of a Shorten government or who like the idea of a more left-wing Liberal Party don’t want to admit that Turnbull is doomed. Yet he leads a government that promised to cut spending, lower taxes and avoid Labor’s climate change obsessions, but which under him has achieved the exact opposite.
The federal Coalition promised to end Labor’s political cannibalism but is led by someone who cut down a democratically elected prime minister when the polls were actually better than they are now. For much of last year, his barrackers said Turnbull had to be supported because the alternative was Shorten. Yet what’s becoming more and more obvious is that the surest way to get Shorten as PM is to keep Turnbull as Liberal leader.
As they contemplate their likely return to opposition, Liberal MPs’ present thinking is that their worst option would be to imitate Labor by restoring the leader who took them to government. For two years, to justify the Turnbull coup, Tony Abbott has been rubbished as a poor prime minister — even though border protection, free trade agreements, national security and jobs growth remain the government’s strong suit. Moreover, Turnbull’s failure has been explained by Abbott’s destabilising — even though Abbott has every right to speak his mind from the backbench.
Unlike Turnbull, Abbott has a proven record as a campaigner and of the present crop is the one political warrior who would encourage Hanson and Bernardi voters to return, or at least feel comfortable directing preferences to the Coalition. But why would Abbott want to come back to lead a party that lacked the magnanimity to offer him a cabinet job and risk going into history as an election loser?
Just before parliament returns, Turnbull will most likely make a “reset” speech proclaiming a new year of strong government and jobs growth. He’ll promise gain without pain: personal income tax cuts paid for by a growth dividend. If Shorten is smart, he’ll match this and say he can do it responsibly by tackling the negative gearing and capital gains tax rorts that “Mr Harbourside Mansion” wants to protect. Turnbull’s pitch will boil down to “You can’t trust Shorten”, but that works only if voters think they can trust Turnbull.
There’s no doubt that the loss of 30 Newspolls (due in early April) will rock the government. Julie Bishop may well test the waters only to conclude her partyroom supporters are also Turnbull’s. Peter Dutton may similarly test the waters, only to decline the deals with Bishop and other MPs that would be needed to get the numbers. From the younger brigade, there’s Josh Frydenberg, Christian Porter and Greg Hunt, but all three need to accumulate more political capital and garner more parliamentary support.
Hence, unless in the unlikely event that he pulls the plug himself, Turnbull will probably survive for much of this year. But this will be only by default — with the present PM being little more than a Labor-lite seatwarmer until the next election, which the Coalition is likely to lose by at least 20 seats, many of them in Queensland.
Ross Fitzgerald is emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University.
The Australian, January 5, 2018, p 10.