ANOTHER RESHUFFLE — a task seemingly cursed for Malcolm Turnbull — and bad polls are not the only threats to his position in 2017, but are headline items in an ominous list featuring a threadbare agenda, a hostile Senate, a likely WA state election loss, One Nation, and continued fracturing of Coalition support. Turnbull is unlikely to last the year as PM. The Coalition is set to pay for ills and misdeeds this column has increasingly warned against.
For the first time in as long as I can remember, if ever (and I have been watching politics like a hawk since my early teenage years more than 30 years ago), Australia is in the grotesque position of having a Prime Minister who will not only be torn down as a result of persistent dreadful polling, but has personally provided the imprimatur for doing so.
In nominating 30 consecutive losing Newspolls as the pretext for engaging in the daylight assassination of former PM Tony Abbott less than 18 months ago, Malcolm Turnbull should have known that not only would the same yardstick be applied to him, but that if it did he would not survive a run of 30 losing polls, or anything approaching it, and having notched up the first six consecutively after last year’s election and prior to Christmas, it seems only a matter of time before Turnbull’s numbers, figuratively and literally, come up.
Edging toward late January, we are yet to see the first Newspoll for 2017, but it doesn’t take a genius to know that when the first survey for the year appears, it will be a case of “seven down, 23 to go;” the early polls we have already seen are not good for the government — Essential showing it behind Labor to the tune of 57-43, and ReachTel in smackdown territory with the Coalition trailing 46-54 — and even if Newspoll simply maintains its year-end 48-52 result from December, which seems unlikely, the aggregate of these polls makes it difficult to credibly claim that Turnbull’s government is not at least leaching further support to the opposition.
This column broke the news pf a putative move against Labor “leader” Bill Shorten in late 2015 — stating he would either quit or be replaced in a leadership coup — and wore the opprobrium and some ridicule that followed the failure of this development to eventuate.
But Shorten was gone for all money, and the move was indeed afoot; what one can never mitigate against in politics is the capacity for events to intervene: and with a perfectly timed raid by Federal Police on the home of then-Turnbull minister Mal Brough, Shorten was afforded the wriggle room (and the issue) he needed to mount a rearguard action to fight off the move against him — and survived.
I tend to think that despite Labor’s closer-than-expected run at government at least year’s election, Shorten is unlikely to “lead” the ALP to another election; his approval levels remain crushingly low, and this charlatan and opportunistic, insincere dirtbag simply carries too much baggage — from Labor’s last election campaign, from his time as a union thug, from unanswered questions emanating from his past and his personal life — for the ALP to be able to afford to front another election with such a liability weighing it down.
In any case, the ALP vote (which failed last year to even reach 35%) is too low for Labor’s backroom spivs to be comfortable with, and I think any renewed push to get rid of Shorten will signal that the ALP not only regards itself a genuine threat at the next federal election, but that it is getting serious about returning to office.
And besides, the idea of Bill Shorten as Prime Minister isn’t just ridiculous, it is offensive.
But this is where any itinerary of battlefield markers that might give succour to Turnbull starts and ends; the truth is that Malcolm has a big problem, and in turn, that big problem is comprised of a multitude of smaller ones that are apparently beyond the capacity of the Coalition to deal with — at least whilst the current Prime Minister remains in his post.
One of the consequences of taking an essentially threadbare agenda to an election is that now the bills concerning union governance and oversight have passed Parliament (if in an unsatisfactorily distorted form), the Turnbull government is likely to be seen to drift; “jobs and growth,” whilst hardly original, must have seemed like an irresistible mantra to Coalition “strategists” unable to elicit anything of substance to work with from their minions, but a three-word slogan, as we have oft heard previously, is no substitute for an otherwise empty policy cupboard in government.
Key areas like industrial relations, education and — yes — taxation are years overdue for comprehensive, root-and-branch reform; but in almost every case, Turnbull’s government has no particular policy upon which to overhaul them.
The “jobs and growth” policy, brutally distilled, amounts to a modest tax cut for business (that will never pass the Senate), a hacking away at self-funded retirees to recoup far less money than the political rancour the change generated was worth; and a vague promise to extract “value” from the burgeoning welfare spend that eats up four dollars in every ten spent by the Commonwealth.
I heard junior minister and serial disappointment Kelly O’Dwyer on Melbourne radio station 3AW on Wednesday afternoon, talking about the so-called “Google tax” that is meant to bring miscreant multinationals to heel by forcing them to pay (wait for it) their “fair share” of company tax.
Yet O’Dwyer herself candidly admitted this measure would reap just $100 million per annum at a time the budget deficit is running at more than $40bn per year, and Commonwealth debt at almost half a trillion dollars; the measure will make next to no impact on the national finances whatsoever.
But antagonising major global corporations for whom it is cheaper to do business in most other places in the world — remember, Australia’s uncompetitive company tax rate of 30% is higher than almost every comparable OECD country — could well motivate them to scale back, sack workers, and withdraw the contributions they make to the local economy by operating here.
Perhaps this is the bottom line of “jobs and growth:” destroying them by trying to head off a cheap one-line attack from the ALP and the vapid Shorten.
What little agenda the Turnbull has indicated it will pursue will be distorted, emasculated and/or voted down by the Senate, which seems to think its role centres on causing terminal damage to the elected government in the lower house; the Senate has long abandoned any pretence of being a “states’ house” — the role envisaged for it by the founders of Federation — and even the claim that it is a house of review, where “diverse” voices fashion “better” policy outcomes, should be roundly dismissed: the misuse of proportional representation to create a political battering ram is certainly not the role that was envisaged for the upper house, which has played a central and increasing role in bring politics and politicians into abject disrepute in the past decade.
To the left, nauseating bleating about the inability of Coalition politicians to “negotiate” with the Senate can be sneeringly dismissed: it doesn’t really matter who leads the Liberal Party in one sense, for the Senate will, in most cases, find some spurious pretext upon which to vote down legislation or mangle it to render it useless.
Where “budget repair” is concerned, the Senate has even more self-interest in preventing such an enterprise from ever occurring: minor independent and small party MPs (who would never be elected under a reasonable and robust electoral system) have a vested interest in using the Senate to see truckloads of money shovelled out with their names attached to it.
And wherever Labor and the
Communist Party Greens are concerned, these entities have now repeatedly shown they will do literally anything to stop the Coalition from repairing the damage they themselves inflicted on the national finances when last they were in office — up to and including causing significant and compounding damage to the national interest in the medium to long term by wrecking Australia’s once-envied financial position.
To the right (and I use the term loosely), Malcolm Turnbull enacted piecemeal “reform” early last year to the method by which the Senate is elected, at the high cost of all of what little political capital he had left to spend, and which predictably made little appreciable difference (if any) to the outcome of a double dissolution: the Senate crossbench, whilst milder in its stridency, remains hostile to the government, which now controls less than 40% of its votes, and for a measure that was meant to make it harder for peripheral candidates to be elected on a sliver of the vote, the Senate now incorporates 20 independent and minor party Senators.
For all the talk on the Left of Turnbull having “sold out” to the Right of the Liberal Party, the fact is that those positions Turnbull has maintained — like maintaining the rigorous border protection regime set up on Abbott’s watch — are, pragmatically, policies that have been maintained simply because dismantling them would bring disastrous consequences: and this is not hyperbole, for we have seen what happens when such measures are abandoned, and the 1,200 deaths at sea that are a monument to crazed left-wing obsessions are a price Turnbull is rightly unprepared to risk a repeat of.
But when it comes to measures apart from things like border protection and trying to get some accountability from Australia’s burgeoning welfare spend, nobody can categorise Turnbull as a “hostage” to the Right in any way; obsessed with the sham of climate change, obsessed with turning Australia senselessly into a republic, long known for his desire to legalise gay marriage without obvious concern or attention to institutional and social repercussions, the Prime Minister who promised a “thoroughly liberal” government seems bogged down with fancies centred on changing the state and legislating social change.
The whole climate change fiasco, which is likely to collapse this year if the US walks away from it altogether, as seems likely, has for years been a battering ram with which to abuse “deniers:” hardly the sign of either a rigorous policy or a constructive force in our polity.
But with one thing and another, the electoral gods are lining up to punish Turnbull too.
The departure on Friday of NSW Premier Mike Baird will perhaps affect the federal Coalition little, save for some renewed tensions between the various factions within that state; even so, three NSW Premiers in six years is as poor a contribution to the stable governance of the state — the valid reasons for Baird’s resignation notwithstanding — as the four ALP Premiers in the six preceding years who collectively helped create the perpetual sense of chaos in Australia’s largest state.
Western Australia heads to the polls in seven weeks’ time for an election even Liberal Party insiders are beginning to privately concede is likely to be lost; defeat for the Barnett government — even narrowly — will be as humiliating for Turnbull as the landslide four years ago against Labor proved for then-PM Julia Gillard.
The July election saw the Liberal Party go backwards federally in WA for the first time since the GST election of 1998: hardly a badge of honour for Turnbull in what has consistently been one of the party’s two best-performed states.
And if a state election in Queensland results in the re-election of the Palaszczuk government, irrespective of the role One Nation might play, then Turnbull will be in real trouble not because of any overlap in federal-state issues but because this time, the resurgence and rise of One Nation appears to be fuelled by the paucity of policy and the leftward frift that are characterising Turnbull’s government.
And this brings us to the slow leaching of Coalition support to the parties of the far Right, and the near-certain prospect Liberal Senator Cory Bernardi will wreck the Coalition by walking out to start his own “conservative” party — and probably destroying the Turnbull government in the process anyway.
I have long said that whilst entities like One Nation attract rednecks and bigots, the bulk of the support they draw comes from disaffected voters who don’t fit the “bigot” mould but simply want to be listened to: something today’s two-party divide, with is confluence around the politically correct rhetoric of the Left, its choreography and its saccharine, risk-free objectives doesn’t deliver.
John Howard managed to tame and eventually see off this threat from One Nation by accommodating some of the more reasonable outcomes it sought whilst slapping down the more extreme elements. There is no indication Turnbull is even prepared to tackle the problem, let alone be able to prevail.
If just one lower house MP follows Bernardi (who, at the weekend, removed all Liberal Party branding from his social media platforms) into a rump “conservative” group, Turnbull will face justified calls for an immediate federal election on account of losing his lower-house majority; if two or more desert (and I am told there are up to four who will likely walk out the same day Bernardi does) then the Coalition’s position will become untenable regardless of what it might cobble together in terms of crossbench support.
There are those who think Bernardi is about to split the conservative side of politics and consign it to opposition for 20 years; I am not quite so pessimistic, although the pieces will have to be picked up — from opposition — and that process will probably still take at least three terms: long enough for the ALP and Greens to resume their nation-wrecking program of high debt, high taxes, social division and this time, with no glittering Howard-era set of numbers to inherit, economic carnage.
That’s a hell of a price to pay for an adventure in new conservative parties: but as ever, when you boil what Bernardi seems to be contemplating right down, it is anti-immigration, anti-Muslim, anti-abortion and pro-guns — the agenda of a protest party, not one seriously inclined to govern.
To be sure, we haven’t even talked about external threats to Australia — be they military, economic, or just Trump — but we don’t have to.
The point is that there are so many perfect storms lined up with Turnbull’s fiefdom and due to strike this year, it is nigh impossible to see him surviving even part of the onslaught.
You can argue about events beyond control and all the rest of that type of excuse until the cows come home, but Turnbull has been PM for almost 18 months, and most of these land mines on the road ahead have been sown by his and his ministers’ actions during that time.
I have $20 riding on whether Turnbull is still Prime Minister come Easter time: if he isn’t, I’ll collect. As a conservative Liberal — and one who has no intention of deserting the party to join Bernardi’s mad little game — it gives me no real joy to say so.
But at some point this year, the total unsuitability of Malcolm Turnbull as Prime Minister is likely to catch up with him. The disintegrating government barely re-elected last year would arguably have been better off losing. But it didn’t, and life goes on.
If that includes Turnbull at the helm after Easter, I’ll be stunned. If he makes it as far as that, the end will follow soon enough.
It’s time to get your running shoes, on Malcolm. You are going to need them.