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A less brutal budget may be the government’s last hope to wrest back public support and quieten questions over Turnbull’s leadership. By Karen Middleton.

Coalition pins its hopes on budget approval

A month ago, Finance Minister Mathias Cormann held his annual fundraiser – a whisky degustation dinner at a hotel in the centre of Perth.

The event attracted a who’s who of West Australian Liberals and a good spray of senior colleagues from the eastern states, too, including the environment and energy minister, Josh Frydenberg, and the communications minister, Mitch Fifield, both of whom happened to find themselves in Perth on a Friday night.

Former Queensland Liberal MP Ewen Jones was the auctioneer – a vocation he had pursued successfully for two decades in his pre-politics life – and by all reports did an excellent job of emptying wallets across the room.

The guest speaker, tasked with giving a short address roasting his host and good mate, was Immigration Minister Peter Dutton.

In his riff, which lasted a few minutes, Dutton had the audience laughing at his impersonation of Cormann, in an attempted Belgian accent, which focused on Cormann’s obsession with punctuality and penchant for setting a course and sticking to it.

Dutton told how on their now-infamous morning walks together – walks that have prompted speculation, roundly dismissed, that they were plotting a Dutton leadership tilt – Cormann created a new definition of what it was to be late.

The finance minister apparently sent an impatient text message when Dutton had not arrived by three minutes to the appointed walk time, asking where he was and reminding him of the approaching hour.

Dutton also revealed that when he had suggested they vary their route, or maybe run a bit of it instead of just walking, Cormann’s response had been a firm “no”.

Cormann, he explained, is a man who does not change plans lightly.

As Treasurer Scott Morrison and Cormann unveil Tuesday’s federal budget, ministers and backbenchers alike are surveying the Coalition’s reputation as measured in the opinion polls and hoping at least for signs of an upturn in fortunes.

Liberal Party fundraising aside, there is much talk about the government’s efforts to find the funds to fill the nation’s coffers and how a budget less brutal than the flop of 2014 might help set a fresh political course.

Less than a year since the federal election, and two years from the scheduled date of the next one, there is more than a niggling concern in Coalition ranks that despite some recent political wins, their federal stocks under Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull remain stubbornly low.

In various corners of the country, quiet conversations are being had about what the options might be should things not turn around by later this year.

While a few conservative Liberals are entertaining the possibility of another leadership change, there appears to be a firmer view that change by force is not viable.

“I don’t think anyone’s got the stomach for change,” one senior Liberal told The Saturday Paper.

But if things don’t improve by later this year, some who have Turnbull’s ear are willing to confront him – once he passes his two-year mark in September and exceeds Abbott’s reign, which was three days short of that – and urge him to quit politics rather than take the Coalition to an almighty defeat.

It is what occurred in 2007 when then prime minister John Howard was headed for the same. Howard resisted the demand and lost both government and his own seat.

Some senior Liberals are convinced Turnbull would go rather than repeat that exercise. Others see no evidence he would be any more willing than any other prime minister.

The Visibility pollster Tony Mitchelmore, whose work for corporate clients has focused on swinging voters or what he calls “the people in the middle”, suggests another leadership change would not go over well.

“I think it would be nuts,” Mitchelmore says, indicating his research led him to the view that Turnbull remains the Coalition’s best chance of survival in office.

But that does not mean Turnbull is rating well.

“If Malcolm had been able to be true to the things he believed in, when he came to the prime ministership he would have captured the middle … For a long time last year, I was hearing the word ‘disappointed’. But they’ve almost gone past that. They’ve just about given up on him.”

Mitchelmore is not offering any better news for those advocating Dutton as a replacement, however. “You’d be surprised how low his profile is.”

There is pessimism among Liberals in some electorally important parts of Australia, where party insiders are adopting an air of resignation, that without some dramatic improvement in policy, politics and communication, via the budget or some other circuit-breaker, things are unlikely to get better.

The more optimistic point to recent announcements on hydro-electricity, gas availability and universities as evidence Turnbull and the government are responding to what pollsters detect as a desire for “action”.

But in Western Australia, where an internal Liberal Party review of the state government’s recent electoral demolition is under way, malaise is setting in.

“It feels like they’ve stopped listening,” one WA Liberal says of voters’ attitudes to Turnbull and his government.

Former Liberal MP Luke Simpkins, who was instrumental in bringing on Turnbull’s 2015 challenge to Abbott but lost his seat at last year’s election, announced his own dramatic change of direction last month, joining former Liberal senator Cory Bernardi’s breakaway Australian Conservatives party.

There are understood to be other WA party members musing about doing the same. Having recently merged his party with Family First, Bernardi has also announced he plans to register it in Queensland.

Former prime minister Tony Abbott was in Perth this week at the invitation of local Liberals, giving a speech on Western civilisation and values.

In a radio interview with Sydney’s 2GB just ahead of the speech, he lamented not having been returned to the frontbench, in a direct attack on his successor, the man whom he had originally ousted by a single vote in a Liberal leadership ballot in 2009.

“When I had to deal with my predecessor I thought that I should put him into the shadow cabinet and into the cabinet,” Abbott said. “I never left him on the backbench for an extended period of time. So his way of dealing with things is obviously different from my way of dealing with things.”

Asked if he would like to become defence minister, he did not dismiss the idea.

It is understood Abbott still holds out hope of a return to the leadership and his supporters believe he could perform the same furniture-saving role that Kevin Rudd undertook for Labor in 2013, though there appears to be little support for him beyond his inner circle.

In Sydney, Abbott has been booking meetings with corporate Liberal Party donors and would-be donors, the purpose of which is not clear.

He remains popular with conservatives and was making electorate visits while in Perth this week, in support of backbenchers Ian Goodenough, Ben Morton and Andrew Hastie.

In WA, recent private polling would seem to bear out the Liberal pessimism.

The Saturday Paper understands new polling across WA’s federal seats has found that if an election was held now, the Liberals would lose at least seven of the 11 seats they hold, and possibly as many as nine.

Among those gone would be Social Services Minister Christian Porter, currently slated for promotion, Justice Minister Michael Keenan and Aged Care and Indigenous Health Minister Ken Wyatt. But some Liberals believe that having a state Labor government in office in WA could help boost the Coalition vote there at the next federal election.

Polling in Queensland’s federal seats, conducted by Galaxy Research and published in Brisbane’s Courier-Mail on Monday, shows a similar number of Liberals and Nationals under threat there.

It found Labor’s primary vote had lifted across federal seats in Queensland – where Labor is in power at the state level and a state election is expected later this year – and that if a federal election was held now the Coalition would lose seven seats, including Dutton’s, among the 21 it holds there.

The poll also recorded a slip in One Nation’s vote.

Tony Mitchelmore says increasing numbers of voters are telling his researchers that while they don’t mind One Nation leader Pauline Hanson, they are concerned about “the people she’s surrounded with”.

But overall, nationally, he has registered a “massive disillusionment with the major parties” and a frustration with “stagnation, economically and politically”.

Mitchelmore rejects suggestions of a populist shift to the right. With the exception of concerns about immigration that might fall into that category, he says voter sentiment is actually shifting left.

“People feel like they’re not getting their fair share, especially with cost of living rising and wages staying still,” he says. “In that sense, they are drawing on socialist principles rather than capitalist principles.”

This week, Turnbull and his education minister, Simon Birmingham, made their own shift, adopting Labor’s blueprint for schools funding, albeit not in a way or with the funding levels that Labor currently supports.

“We are delivering a fair, needs-based system for all Australian schools,” Birmingham told the National Press Club on Thursday.

In their joint news conference announcing the changes on Tuesday, Turnbull used the word “fair” and its variations 10 times.

They have won endorsement from the Greens, who have not ruled out supporting the required legislation in the senate, but some opposition from within their own ranks.

Some Coalition MPs are angry both at the move to restrict funding to two-dozen independent and Catholic systemic schools and especially the fact it did not go before the Coalition party room for scrutiny and endorsement first.

Some fear a backlash from parents of students at affected schools in their own electorates and from political supporters concerned the policy runs counter to traditional Coalition policy.

The cooler Liberal Party heads are insisting it’s too early for all of this worry and less store should be placed in the opinion polls.

But they are also aware that Turnbull himself set the polls as a benchmark, naming 30 consecutive bad Newspolls as one of the reasons for challenging Abbott in September 2015.

So far under Turnbull there have been 11. This coming week’s scheduled poll will follow his education announcements and his meeting in New York with United States president Donald Trump. He will hope it all delivers a bounce.

The government has already begun trying to target its obvious electoral problem areas, including WA and Queensland. Some are expecting infrastructure money for WA in Tuesday’s budget, aimed at helping shore up wobbly Coalition seats.

On Monday, the prime minister flew to Townsville to announce Watpac as the winning contractor for the building of the new $250 million Townsville stadium, a hot-button local issue during last year’s election and a Coalition election promise.

Turnbull was keen to emphasise that it would bring an economic boost to the local community.

“This stadium is going to be built for the people for Townsville, by the people of Townsville,” Turnbull said.

“The work will begin later this year and the stadium will be complete in time for the 2020 NRL season. Now Watpac has a plan for more than 80 per cent of the hours spent building this stadium to be by locals. At least 80 per cent of the value of the project will be spent on local subcontractors and suppliers. More than 2000 people from the Townsville region will be involved in contracts related to the building of this stadium.”

Mathias Cormann’s fundraising auctioneer, Ewen Jones, is the former Liberal MP for the Townsville-based seat of Herbert, but lost his seat to Labor by 37 votes in July last year. He remains supportive of Turnbull.

“If you look at what the government did in the first six months, it is nothing short of extraordinary,” he says. “We got the big calls right.”

He says the Coalition still needs to explain thoroughly why its policy measures are important “to the people in the street, to the man on the Bondi tram”.

“It’s got to be about the person who’s looking for a job.”

Jones says the federal budget needs to herald that serious sales job.

“I don’t think it’s the budget, it’s the job after the budget,” he says. “It’s how well the cabinet does, getting around the country and selling the budget – that’s the thing.”

Those salespeople include Cormann, who is understood to remain behind Turnbull. But if he changes his mind down the track, it could well be Cormann who is pressed to go to Turnbull to suggest his time is up.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 6, 2017 as "Coalition pins its hopes on budget approval". Subscribe here.

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

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