GOODWILL around Malcolm Turnbull’s Prime Ministership — and the 10-point lead the Coalition soon established in the polls — has given way to uncertainty, near-panic, and smouldering signs of recriminations. After a fair start, a slew of blunders and missed opportunities increasingly pale beside a chilling reality: six years after being bounced out of the Liberal leadership, Turnbull has learned nothing. Could he lose an election this year?
This column — consistently staunch in its advocacy of moderate conservative and/or genuinely liberal policies, depending on the issue, and trenchant in its criticism of the suitability of Malcolm Turnbull as Prime Minister of Australia — adopted in September, as regular readers will recall, a “wait and see” approach to Turnbull’s performance as Prime Minister; as I first observed some months ago, that approach quickly proved more “wait” than “see,” and the fact it remains so six months after his coup against Tony Abbott speaks volumes.
But first things first: this article includes much of the substance I promised would appear in a piece dealing with the “perfect storm” building around Turnbull, which was half written and delayed on account of time constraints; as I want to set out a series of markers that should give anyone with an interest in Right-of centre governance in Australia pause for thought, it makes sense to incorporate those points into the one discussion.
My reservations about Turnbull’s leadership of the Liberal Party notwithstanding, I am beginning to seriously wonder whether the countdown to this year’s election is really a countdown to a return to the opposition benches; just as many closed-door conversations in the final months of the Abbott Prime Ministership anticipated post-mortems after a loss “in about 18 months,” there are disturbing signs the same subject could again become topical in membership forums very quickly.
Malcolm Turnbull became Prime Minister with enormous goodwill; even many of those who opposed him and/or resented his actions in tearing Abbott down were prepared to remain mute. But six months in, the portents are growing less than encouraging.
The big mistake is the obvious one: the failure, as advocated consistently in this column after the leadership change, to get to the polls before Christmas and convert the Turnbull bounce into a fresh three-year mandate; unlike Julia Gillard, who remained a relatively obscure ALP frontbencher even as deputy to Kevin Rudd, everyone knew who Turnbull was — from his win in the Spycatcher matter in the 1980s, to his storied corporate adventures and prominence in the republican movement in the 1990s, and to his failed year as opposition leader — there was hardly a need for people to “get to know him.”
For someone known to have acted on the political truism that when you have the numbers you use them, it beggared belief that having also acquired a second (more important) set of numbers — an average lead across reputable polls of almost 10% after preferences — he didn’t.
Turnbull, in his first incarnation as Liberal leader, rashly and repeatedly exhibited appalling judgement, the most notable instance of which was to act, half-cocked, on an email from discredited public servant Godwin Grech in the “Utegate” affair that proved a fabrication.
If the failure to go to a December double dissolution, a mile ahead in the polls and facing a moribund ALP “led” by a miserable specimen who seemed likely to be buried in the fallout from the Royal Commission into the unions, wasn’t a misjudgement of equal or greater political gravity (and we’ll find out soon enough), many more have followed that may compound Turnbull’s electoral timidity last year and crystallise into an election-losing mosaic in their own right.
Turnbull’s ministerial reshuffles — broadly supported by this column — nonetheless contained a smattering of very poor appointments that we criticised at the time.
Away from the insiders’ citadel that is Canberra (and locked out of it as I have been) there are some things that remain publicly hidden until they explode, and even with “friends to talk to” not all of those little secrets necessarily filter out in advance.
However, Turnbull would have known — when he framed his first ministry — that Mal Brough was at best under continuing scrutiny from the Federal Police, and at worst that the raid which took place at his home was imminent; and if he didn’t know, then it speaks to the people he surrounded himself with for advice on becoming Prime Minister which in turn, speaks to a continuing deficit of quality judgement on his own part.
He would have known (or at least, does now) that questions remained over the alleged involvement in the Peter Slipper/James Ashby matter regarding Christopher Pyne and Wyatt Roy; both Turnbull supporters, Pyne remained in the ministry after the leadership change and Roy was promoted into it, and both survived the involuntary reshuffle that occurred last month. It invites the criticism that merit, in the end, wasn’t the criteria in framing a ministry at all — just loyalty (or, to be unkind about it, sycophancy).
Certainly, Attorney-General George Brandis — a stellar shadow minister in opposition who evolved into an unmitigated public relations disaster as a minister — survived both the leadership change and the subsequent reshuffle: in a party with more than a few lawyers in its ranks, it defies logic that no-one else might do a better job. But Brandis, too, had supported Turnbull.
If you listen to the mainstream press, serious rumblings are emanating from the Defence services over the performance of Turnbull appointee Marise Payne: not a fit with the brief, they say; not across what needs to be done, they say. I think Marise Payne is highly competent: it’s her position on the moderate wing of the party that raises my eyebrows. The fact she voted for Turnbull in the leadership ballot. But then again — as a conservative — I would say that, wouldn’t I?
It’s the reason I took aim at Jane Prentice two weeks ago, when the reshuffle was announced; Jane and I might not think much of each other but this is scarcely the point: it isn’t me who’s been made a minister. She has: in a portfolio she has no known experience of, hamstrung by budget realities that make her task in fully funding the NDIS impossible, and utterly bereft of any authority on expenditure to alter that fundamental reality.
She may not explode in Turnbull’s face like a hand grenade — nor, probably, will Payne — but others just might. The point is that like Brough, and Roy, and Pyne, and Payne, and Brandis, and the disgraced Stuart Robert, she is one of Malcolm’s mates: and Malcolm’s mates got jobs. It might be the way these things are done but in this case, it inspires little confidence that the judgement exercised by the PM in assembling his team was in any way astute.
In NSW — Turnbull’s home state — the Liberal rank and file has unhelpfully engaged in rancorous preselection brawling that has nonetheless been watched across the country by a cynical electorate. These are the people Turnbull proclaimed in October, to great mirth and ridicule, were not governed by factions. Now, they are proving he was very much in error. However the preselections play out, it is inconceivable there will be no latent damage sustained, and impossible that that will be confined solely to NSW.
Again, a snap election before Christmas and the involuntary compulsion to a quick round of endorsements might have stymied much of the mischief that has gone on. Again, shrewder judgement might have stopped the skullduggery in its tracks, or at least for long enough to win an election.
Turnbull proclaimed the night he became Prime Minister — aside from a pledge to run a “thoroughly liberal” government — to represent an economic narrative that accounted for people’s intelligence, and which was open, honest, and articulated a case for necessary reforms.
Where is it?
Just like the dysfunctional Abbott regime was wont to do, government figures have run ideas up the flagpole only to hurriedly yank them back down; the most obvious example was the so-called debate over GST reform, which basically consisted of Scott Morrison trying to start a national conversation on the subject (and making progress, winning degrees of support from some in the ALP) only to find Turnbull jerking the rug from beneath him, claiming there was “no stimulus to the economy” in adjusting the tax mix.
As I have observed before, such a claim misses the point: altering the tax mix is about making the revenue base sustainable, not stimulating the economy. Properly calibrated GST reform would mean the overwhelming majority of people would experience no overall difference; those who did would be richer Australians (paying more tax the more they spent) and poorer Australians (subtly over-compensated for their trouble).
Yet just like the Abbott government’s defective communications unit before it, this was a message beyond the capacity of the Turnbull team to articulate clearly, simply and forcefully; and just like Abbott before him, Turnbull has steadily closed off more and more options for policy reform — and now sees the conversation shifted squarely onto Labor’s preferred ground of slugging “the rich” on superannuation, abolishing negative gearing, and everything else cooked up with a “hit the rich” mentality that would do far more harm than good if ever implemented.
Then we get to Left-of-centre constituencies who believed Turnbull, at the helm of a notionally conservative government, would allow them to have their cake and eat it too, first getting what they wanted from the Coalition before voting against it afterwards.
The gay community is pissed off with Turnbull for not giving MPs a conscience vote on gay marriage rather than the plebiscite the government was already committed to; taking the emotion out and assessing community support for the measure rationally, those on all sides of this issue know any plebiscite will go down by at least a 60/40 margin. Probably by more. That’s why Tanya Plibersek imperilled her leadership ambitions by trying to force Labor MPs to vote for it. That’s why everyone on the Left, inside and outside Parliament, is desperate to avoid a plebiscite. But to date, Malcolm has refused to oblige.
The climate crowd is pissed off with Turnbull for his refusal to shut down Abbott’s Direct Action scheme. Turnbull, of all people — having finally lost the Liberal leadership on this very issue — knows the political toxicity of climate change and has refused to be drawn. His buddies in the climate lobby view him as a sellout.
The republican lobby is pissed off with Turnbull for not engaging with a carefully engineered stunt on Australia Day, designed to provide a platform for Turnbull to strut the republican stage as Prime Minister; never mind the fact the rump republican movement is just mad, or that overall support for current constitutional arrangements is rocketing as Gen Y voters switch on to a younger, more attractive, more accessible generation of royals they relate to. Never mind that. It’s another group aggrieved at what they believe is a gross breach of faith.
The asylum seeker advocates are pissed off because the reborn Pacific Solution is apparently not for watering down on Turnbull’s watch in any way, shape, or form.
The Aboriginal lobby is pissed off because they haven’t received their cut of compassionate Turnbull largesse to date, not that any of the others have either.
The welfare lobby. The union movement. The education lobby. The health lobby. In short, all the old enemies of the Abbott government — and then some, swollen by some of Turnbull’s traditional mates as their ranks are growing — have an axe to grind with the Coalition, and they are determined to grind it against Turnbull now they feel he has “betrayed” them.
And whilst none of these groups might broadly be seen as natural repositories of Coalition support at the ballot box, having them enraged and saying so carries a bigger risk to the government than having them simply apposite in the ordinary course of events — and for a very basic reason.
Quite simply, on which of the issues I have itemised — or any others that I’ve missed — has the government message prevailed?
Its overdue and welcome attempts to reform Senate election processes have caused unbridled fury in recent days, as self-obsessed crossbenchers mask outrage at possibly losing their $200,000 salaries at a double dissolution with uncompelling stories about undemocratic outcomes, conspiracies, and a rigged Senate.
The Senate is an undemocratic institution on any objective measure, and it is precisely because it has been rigged in the past that there is a need to fix it at all. But the message gaining the most airtime and column space is the one from the crossbenchers about being victimised, bullied, and reformed out of jobs.
Get the sick bucket. Truly. It’s that bad. But can the government’s communications people negate it? Not so far. And that’s with an argument for its reforms in hand that is impossible to discredit.
Instead, Turnbull and Co are trying to wave the big “stick” of $30bn in spending cuts that are stalled in the Senate, with the implicit suggestion that if these are not passed, that — along with the growing stockpile of constitutional triggers — will help legitimise the pretext for a double dissolution in July.
And the bottom line of that is that Turnbull, having promised so much in vague terms at the outset, and having set forth with a huge reservoir of goodwill, may yet find himself fighting an election not on union corruption, or on any reforms of his own choosing, but on the nasties contained in Joe Hockey’s botched 2014 budget: for it is those measures that comprise the $30bn in savings now being used to berate the crossbench Senators.
Just for good measure, the conservative MPs in the Liberal Party are pissed off too: not only were most of their number purged from the ministry in a petty act of revenge and their seats in NSW targeted at the preselection table, but the Liberal Right angrily perceives the government under Turnbull is insufficiently conservative just as all Turnbull’s old chums feel they have been shafted.
There is one common factor in each and every one of these matters: Malcolm Turnbull.
Some could have been avoided outright; some could have been mollified with astute management; and some, even if unavoidable, could have been mitigated with sharp strategic responses to at least blunt their impact.
But so many of these things are being talked about, incessantly, because at the end of the day almost all of them derive from a commodity most of us hoped we’d seen the back of in 2009: the infamous defective judgement of Malcolm Turnbull, which remains — to government’s collective detriment — very much in evidence.
Internal opponents, despite solemn public assurances to the contrary, have been driven away from the government. “Judgement” calls that are pushing the government’s stocks ever lower seem to be daily events. Policy options are floated, examined half-heartedly, discarded, and the initiative ceded to the ALP. Endless Turnbull waffle is the second-rate substitute for clear, forceful, effective communications and salesmanship.
In the meantime, the polls are collapsing; not to the point they again show an ALP victory — yet — but far enough to have swung four points back to Labor and averaging about 51% of the two-party vote: sufficient, if uniformly replicated, to win an election with just 78 or 79* of the 150 lower house seats and to position the ALP for a serious crack at the following election.
If polling trends continue, off the back of persistent government stagnation and own goals by Turnbull, the ALP may decide it has a serious chance of beating him and jettison its liability of a “leader.” If that happens, all bets are off.
Of course, Turnbull remains heavily favoured to win the imminent election. But so (despite predictions to the contrary in this column two years before the event) did Campbell Newman last year in Queensland. Newman was the better leader of a better (albeit divisive) government with a much larger majority. It is true that Turnbull is faced with a truly insidious opposite number — a description nobody could apply to Annastacia Palaszczuk, whatever other shortcomings she may have.
But the idea that a solid majority enjoyed by a first-term government guarantees re-election at least once was exploded forever in Queensland last year by the government with the biggest majority in Australian history.
Having missed his opportunity to go to the polls in December before the weather turned, the only day better than tomorrow for Turnbull to now call an election is today.
Based on the trajectory of current events, his own limitations, and with an eye to the LNP debacle in Queensland, it would be an imprudent Turnbull indeed who allows his government to delay an election until October — which, of course, is precisely the timeframe he continues to claim to be committed to.
Could Malcolm Turnbull lose an election this year?
This is politics. Anything, literally, is possible. And the longer Turnbull leaves his date with voters, the less likely it will become that he emerges from the encounter unscathed.
*These projections assume the LNP will reclaim Clive Palmer’s seat of Fairfax.