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As Turnbull’s supporters become anxious about an absence of narrative and clear advice, his problems are greater than a vengeful Tony Abbott. By Karen Middleton.

Senior Liberals caution Malcolm Turnbull on style

As parliament resumed on Monday after a week’s break, a few of Malcolm Turnbull’s trusted Liberal colleagues gave him some very direct advice. It hadn’t been a great few days and the publication of a terrible Newspoll just as MPs were returning to Canberra had not helped.

Prior to parliament’s resumption for the year, Turnbull had been working on what the experts call the “cut-through” of his message.

The result was the more aggressive targeting of opposition leader Bill Shorten and the Labor Party, which reassured many of those sitting behind Turnbull who harboured lingering doubts about his leadership. But while the attack may have solidified support inside the parliamentary party, that’s only one of the constituencies he has to satisfy in order to keep a grip on his job.

The blast at Shorten did not have the same galvanising effect on much of the other key constituency, the voting public. MPs had been back in their electorates for a week and that had become clear. “They are saying, ‘Get your act together,’ ” one told The Saturday Paper.

Newspoll confirmed it.

Supporters are urging Turnbull to refocus not only on the delivery of his government’s message but on the message itself.

Having previously been criticised for not consulting enough, he is now facing criticism for doing the opposite. 

Some Liberals are concerned he has been consulting so widely it is causing him to hesitate over decisions. Some say he is getting bad advice.

This week, The Saturday Paper understands, several trusted colleagues decided to tell him so. Their advice was very direct: be more selective about who you consult, make faster decisions and, above all, construct a narrative that explains to Australians how those decisions are connected to a plan to make their lives better.

Explanation was one of the benchmarks Turnbull himself set for leadership when he launched his bid to oust predecessor Tony Abbott in September 2015. He said leaders needed to explain what they were doing and why.

The other self-imposed test related to poll ratings, with Turnbull pointing to the 30 Newspolls in which the Coalition had lagged behind Labor under Abbott’s leadership. 

Some of Turnbull’s more supportive colleagues fear he is failing both of his own tests. They do not want a change of leader; they want a change of approach.

This week’s bad Newspoll was the eighth for Turnbull, putting the Coalition’s primary vote at a diabolically low 34 per cent, its worst under his stewardship and five points below where it was before Abbott’s removal. One Nation hit 10 per cent, level-pegging with the Greens.

The only cheer in the figures for the Coalition was that Labor’s vote was only 37 per cent. Although the poll had Labor ahead 55 to 45 after estimating preference distribution, neither side thinks the gap is that wide. The rise of One Nation makes previous preference flows a less reliable guide. 

The Newspoll followed a series of problems for the government, from the politicians’ entitlements row and January resignation of former health minister Sussan Ley to pension cuts and Centrelink’s automated debt-recovery system. It followed two things most immediately: the Fair Work Commission’s decision to reduce penalty rates for some Sunday workers, and a separate high-voltage political intervention from Tony Abbott. Abbott gave Turnbull some public free advice in a speech and television interview, just as the poll was going into the field.

Abbott’s attack

On Thursday evening last week, the night before he launched the collection of conservative essays Making Australia Right: Where to from Here?, Abbott took to Sky News to declare that the Coalition would “drift to defeat” at the next election if it didn’t lift its game.

Among his criticisms were that the government was “sleepwalking into an energy policy catastrophe” and that Turnbull should be living at Kirribilli House and not in his own Point Piper home. Abbott also flagged further outbursts, claiming a backbencher’s right to speak out “from time to time”. Except he’s no ordinary backbencher.

At the book launch, he laid out his own new five-point manifesto.

“In short, why not say to the people of Australia: we’ll cut the RET [renewable energy target] to help with your power bills; we’ll cut immigration to make housing more affordable; we’ll scrap the Human Rights Commission to stop official bullying; we’ll stop all new spending to end ripping off our grandkids; and we’ll reform the senate to have government, not gridlock?”

None of those were policy positions he had endorsed when in office.

A one-time Abbott loyalist, Finance Minister Mathias Cormann, took to television immediately to condemn his former leader’s intervention as “self-indulgent” and “deliberately destructive”.

Only former workplace relations minister and former government senate leader Eric Abetz – who Turnbull demoted – spoke out in Abbott’s defence.

At a Monday morning news conference, journalists asked Turnbull about the poll and Abbott.

Symptomatic of five years of revolving-door prime ministerships, the first question was: “How much worse do the polls have to get before you’re replaced as leader?”

“We’re focused on energy costs and we’re focused on jobs,” Turnbull responded.

But pressed on why the polls had slumped and whether, as Cormann had suggested, voters were sick of Coalition infighting, he bit back. “The election is two years away, at least two years away,” Turnbull said. “… We saw an outburst on Thursday and it had its desired impact on the Newspoll. It was exactly as predicted and as calculated.”

Asked if he thought that was Abbott’s intention, he continued: “He knew exactly what he was doing and he did it. I’m not going to be distracted by that. It’s a fact of life. That’s what’s happened. I’m focused on the jobs of Australians that we are protecting by delivering the leadership.”

Having launched a personal attack that guaranteed the Abbott-versus-Turnbull story greater longevity, he then accused the media of being “very readily distracted by personalities in politics”.

Delivering a message

Turnbull’s trusted colleagues are understood to have delivered their message to him later that day, proffering the view that if the prime minister focused on an overarching narrative for the government, Abbott’s interventions would gain much less traction.

The narrative he wants to project is that the government is working to foster enterprise, job creation and security, whether it’s security from terrorism, unemployment, financial stress or blackouts.

“None of this has happened by luck,” Turnbull told parliament after the national accounts were published on Wednesday. “It is the result of carefully considered policies, prudent economic management and strong leadership.”

He insisted “every single one” of the government’s policies were aimed at stronger economic growth.

“We here on our side of the house stand for enterprise, investment and jobs,” Turnbull said.

But many colleagues in parliament and the wider party believe the story isn’t being told convincingly. Some are frustrated that on penalty rates, Turnbull and his ministers have been talking about people inside parliament, not the people outside.

Turnbull is determined to stick to twin messages: that the penalty rates decision was made by the independent umpire, not the government, and that Opposition Leader Bill Shorten is a hypocrite for having said previously he would accept the decision but now wanting to overturn it because it went the wrong way.

Suddenly, Shorten and his shadow cabinet are demanding the decision be reversed because it will affect many thousands of workers’ pay.

Labor’s shadow workplace relations minister, Brendan O’Connor, admitted they weren’t expecting it. “The decision by the previous Labor government to review awards was fine,” he said last week. “No one envisaged at the time that there’d be any chance that the commission would hand down cuts in real wages of workers.”

It seems the government didn’t envisage it either, nor plan for it.

Instead of defending the decision, which is in line with longstanding Coalition policy, ministers are refusing to mount any argument in its support. They are hoping small businesses will do that for them by promising to employ more people. But with the decision not due to take effect until July, there won’t be any way to test that for months.

Those still unhappy with Turnbull’s handling of the issue make the point that beyond political circles people don’t care as much about who said what and when, as they do about soon earning less for the same work or not being able to get enough work or any at all.

They say it is those concerns the government should be addressing directly – explaining why it believes that cutting penalty rates will create more jobs and help the economy and the people in it.

Budget launching pad

Turnbull and his senior ministers are working towards using the coming May budget as the launching pad for the kind of narrative their colleagues say has been lacking. But senior sources told The Saturday Paper it was difficult to begin that in advance of the budget because its measures couldn’t be revealed yet.

Reflecting on the Coalition’s time in office, back to 2013, one observed privately that the incoming Coalition government had perhaps wrongly assumed the ousting of Labor at that election was just like John Howard’s sweep to power in 1996. Then, voters had disliked but accepted the need for harsh measures in the horror budget that followed the election win.

In retrospect, it was clear their having lived through the early ’90s recession was what persuaded just enough of the electorate to forgive that government for its tough 1996 budget and re-elect it two years later. 

It was not the same in 2013. There had been no recession.

“In 2013, we thought, ‘Surely there’s a fairly widespread appreciation of the task at hand,’ ” one senior source told The Saturday Paper. “But I don’t think there was then and I don’t think there is now.”

This week’s strong economic growth figures may, perversely, underline that sentiment.

After a shock previous quarter of negative growth, Australia avoided slipping into a technical recession – defined as two consecutive negative quarters – with a surprisingly good December quarter figure of 1.1 per cent.

Turnbull and his expenditure review committee are now seeking to craft a budget to build on that, one that further cuts spending but avoids the accusations of cruelty that saw much of the 2014 budget fail to pass the senate and left the government stagnating.

Turnbull and his advisers remain convinced that what will connect with voters is “lived experience”. They are conscious that despite the good on-paper figures, many Australians don’t think that things are improving. But turning that sentiment around takes more than a good strategy and a persuasive message. It takes time.

In their weekly joint-parties meeting on Tuesday, Turnbull told Coalition MPs they must be united. “We have a duty to Australians – to our constituents – to stick together,” he is believed to have said. “The next election is in two years’ time. We will win if we stick together.”

He also told them they should be proud of what they had done in parliament and urged them to talk about the positives and explain to people what the government was doing because, he said, that’s what people wanted to hear.

In response, one MP urged him and the rest of the leadership team to use “easily digestible language” – a sign not everyone thinks his performances in parliament are enough.

But the hostility is greater towards Abbott. His outburst has angered some of those colleagues who until now had stuck with him in the wilderness.

The one who remains steadfast in his public support is Abetz, whose public pronouncements on phasing in the new penalty rates on Thursday were seen in that context. 

Others are annoyed at what they see as harmful leaks and mischievous public commentary. They point to the publication in The Australian this week of details of a loose grouping of conservatives, including Abbott and Abetz, who had held meetings and phone hook-ups last year to discuss policy frustrations. 

Dubbed jokingly by one of their number, WA MP Andrew Hastie, as “the deplorables” – a reference to a Hillary Clinton United States election campaign jibe at supporters of now-president Donald Trump – the group was portrayed as having been plotting Abbott’s return.

Some are denying that strenuously, embarrassed at being drawn into the furore. Like Cormann, others are taking aim at Abbott more directly.

On Wednesday, influential conservative commentator Janet Albrechtsen also cut Abbott loose, in a stinging column in The Australian.

“Abbott’s motives are neither convincing nor pure,” Albrechtsen wrote. “He is campaigning to remove Malcolm Turnbull as leader.”

Albrechtsen anointed Immigration Minister Peter Dutton as the best alternative to Turnbull, imploring the Liberal Party to shift West Australian senator Michaelia Cash from the senate to the house of representatives and install her as deputy. That, she said, would be “the dream team”.

Despite the speculative commentary around Peter Dutton as a possible successor, the immigration minister remains firmly beside Turnbull. The Saturday Paper has been told the two are increasingly close collaborators. 

Any sense that that was changing would be a bad sign for Turnbull.

Regardless, there is little appetite to return to Abbott and even less after last week’s public spray. But isolating him further underlines one thing clearly: Abbott is just a symptom of Turnbull’s malaise; he’s not the cause.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 4, 2017 as "Senior Liberals caution Turnbull on style". Subscribe here.

Karen Middleton
is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.

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