Back in 2009, when Malcolm Turnbull lost the federal Liberal leadership, the feisty Bronwyn Bishop said that the members had ‘lent’ Mr Turnbull the party but now they wanted it back. The big question, with Turnbull having lost his 28th Newspoll and with 30 straight losses looming four Mondays hence, is who will call time on this failed prime minister?
To justify his anti-Abbott coup, Turnbull cited his predecessor’s loss of 30 successive Newpolls as clear evidence that voters had stopped listening and cited the alleged lack of an economic narrative as evidence that the Abbott government had failed. Remarkably, given the challenger’s previously disastrous time as leader and given Tony Abbott’s more purposeful leadership over six years, a majority of the Liberal party room voted for change.
At least some of them now deeply regret what they did. If there were a ballot in the Liberal party room today, it is likely that there would be a majority for anyone-but-Turnbull. But that requires someone to call a spill and someone to nominate against him. No federal Liberal is planning that right now but these are febrile times and almost anything is possible once Turnbull has failed the 30 Newspolls leadership test that he himself set.
Consider the scorecard. In 2013, the current government was elected promising to cut taxes, cut spending and end Labor’s climate change obsession; as well as stopping the boats, which Abbott duly did. Yet under Turnbull, the Coalition government has introduced new taxes, increased spending and, via the National Energy Guarantee, put reducing emissions ahead of keeping power prices down. In addition, there were the increased taxes on superannuation that had such an impact at the 2016 election on the Liberal party’s membership comprised largely of self-funded retirees. There was the ‘cry me a river’ bank tax in last year’s budget that the Treasurer, Scott Morrison, justified on the grounds that banks were rich and unpopular. There’s been the banking royal commission that the government resisted until Labor ratchetted up the pressure, plus the new bureaucracy to police bankers’ pay. There’s the Gonski school spendathon, likewise copied from Labor. There’s also the federal version of NSW’s Independent Commission Against Corruption that Labor has copied from the Greens but which Turnbull hasn’t ruled out.
About the only recognisably ‘Liberal’ policy of this federal Coalition government is the company tax cut to 25 per cent in ten years’ time: a reform ambition so modest as to be almost laughable. But especially if it’s coupled with even small personal income tax cuts in the coming budget, the much-hyped return to surplus, like other mirages, will continue to disappear.
News Ltd’s extensive coverage of the Liberal party’s secret election post-mortem highlighted Turnbull’s merchant banker work habits and political tin ear. The past few weeks have certainly amplified Turnbull’s deficiencies as a political manager. He’s admitted that he’d heard ‘rumours’ about Barnaby Joyce’s personal life but he’d never bothered to check them out; nor, it seems, had the record numbers of highly-paid advisers in the ministerial wing. And whoever the babe’s biological father may turn out to be, it is clear that no-one in or around the Prime Minister thought to devise a handling strategy for a very public pregnancy that could never have been hidden!
Instead, Turnbull took to his moralising pulpit to denounce the conduct of the friend he’d lionised only a couple of months earlier after the New England by-election win had given his prime ministership some breathing space. Now, some furious National party MPs are saying, rightly in my opinion, that there’s no truth Turnbull won’t hide and no friendship he won’t trash if it suits him.
Before Christmas, Turnbull tried to inoculate against losing 30 Newspolls by telling leading journalist Miranda Devine that he ‘regretted having said it’ because ‘it allowed people to focus on that rather than the substantive reasons’. Nice try, but if it wasn’t to win an election what was the point of the Turnbull coup; and what is the point of a ‘Labor-lite’ prime ministership now, given that the government almost lost to Bill Shorten last time when it still had Abbott’s electoral buffer to protect it?
Turnbull’s backers say that he must be supported because the alternative is a Shorten government. But it’s not Turnbull or Shorten. If you keep Turnbull, you get Shorten, as the Newspoll results make clear. The big difference between Turnbull’s losing streak and Abbott’s is that, this time, not once has the Coalition’s primary vote exceeded 40 per cent. The only way to have even a fighting chance of winning the next election is to bring back the base and, with a primary vote hovering around 36 per cent, that’s something Malcolm Turnbull just can’t do.
When Turnbull was visibly failing last time, Kevin Andrews facilitated change by mounting a challenge that showed how vulnerable he was. When John Hewson’s leadership was terminal, Liberal party president Tony Staley arranged to disclose the internal polling that brought it to a head.
Changing a prime minister is a weightier business than changing an opposition leader. But it is arguably now even more necessary when our nation’s leader is manifestly not up to the job.
Ross Fitzgerald is Emeritus Professor of History and Politics at Griffith University. He is the author of 40 books, including the sexual/political satire Going Out Backwards: A Grafton Everest Adventure, which was shortlisted for the 2017 Russell Prize for Humour Writing