Opinion

Paul Bongiorno
Malcolm Turnbull the National Circuit breaker

John Howard has no doubts about what brought down his protégé Tony Abbott: the relentless laws of political arithmetic. Looking unfamiliar without his trademark glasses, the last prime minister to serve out a full term told a news conference, “I do think the major reason the Liberal Party made the change was the state of the polls.” He didn’t go into why he thought the polls were so bad for so long.

There are many reasons for the demise of Abbott, a brutal political warrior who didn’t last as long in the job as either of the ALP predecessors he helped tear down. In his last desperate plea to the party room, he urged it not to be as bad as the Labor Party. With Churchillian grandiloquence, he said: “I firmly believe our party is better than this, our government is better than this, and by God our country is much better than this.”

While some who stuck with him did so because they believed there needed to be an end to the revolving door of prime ministers, they were the minority. Stability of government leadership is now completely subservient to political competence and survival. In a democracy, this is not necessarily a bad thing. The basic question is why a particular leader is failing to impress as measured in the opinion polls. A few bad numbers here and there probably don’t lead to peptic ulcers among marginal seat holders, but 18 months in a row is a different matter. And the judgement of the people was not from one pollster but from six different polling organisations.

The problem for Tony Abbott was his parliamentary colleagues believed the polls were picking up what they themselves were seeing: cabinet dysfunction, contradictory messaging and a loss of credibility thanks to blatantly broken promises. Broken, it must be said, without convincing explanation.

The irony of the Howard intervention at the beginning of the week was that privately he thought the party’s best option was to stick with Abbott. He recently told one inquirer he thought Scott Morrison wasn’t ready for the job, that Malcolm Turnbull and Julie Bishop couldn’t keep the government united, and as such the incumbent should stay. The presumption based on the precedence of his own victories in three tight election contests was that events can change political fortunes. That is true, but not enough of the current Liberal party room judged that Abbott had the deftness, credibility or ability to take advantage of any opportunity that may present. All of Abbott’s tricks had failed to move the polls, including stopping the boats, ramping up national security and consigning our military overseas to keep the country safe from terrorist attack.

On the night he was deposed, Abbott described it as “being cut down”. The defeated leader wished Malcolm Turnbull well but bitterly warned, “you won’t survive if you face what I faced”. He spelt out what that meant the next day. He spoke of his proud achievements despite “the white-anting”. He accused the media of providing an assassin’s knife by reporting the views of unnamed Liberal sources. A “febrile” media culture has developed, he said, that rewards treachery.

In what sounded like a high-minded commitment, he said: “There will be no wrecking, no undermining and no sniping. I’ve never leaked or backgrounded against anyone. And I certainly won’t start now.” Some of the older hands in the press gallery found that statement disingenuous. Turnbull can only hope it is a genuine pledge and not another disposable promise. Much will depend on what Abbott decides to do once he has come to terms with his rejection. For now, he says he will stay in parliament. The danger is he will become a lightning rod for any dissatisfaction within the government, and the potential for that is great. Turnbull will not be able to keep everybody in his government happy all of the time.

In his own party room, 44 did not vote for him. A harder core of 30 conservative Liberals voted for Kevin Andrews in the ballot for deputy against Julie Bishop. Andrews then spent the rest of the week, as he waited to know his fate as defence minister, reminding Turnbull that the Liberal Party is a broad church and he should be inclusive of conservatives such as himself. Labor believes that Turnbull has already paid a very high price pandering to this side of his party. The advocate for marriage equality has reaffirmed Abbott’s policy to hold a plebiscite on the issue after the next election. He could have at least revisited the Liberal party room and put a “free vote” on the table. Turnbull’s supporters say the difference is that Turnbull will deliver the popular vote; Abbott would have left it on the backburner.

Be that as it may, Labor says the Turnbull you see this week as prime minister is not the Turnbull of last week with a reputation as a thoroughly contemporary centrist. Shock jocks such as Alan Jones think he is on the left of the Labor Party. He famously taunted Turnbull that he would never lead the Liberal party as prime minister. The fact is Turnbull appeals to soft Labor voters and middle-of-the-road Australians, and that is why he is such a threat to Labor.

In parliament, Bill Shorten asked the prime minister why he had sold out on climate change, marriage equality, renewable energy and the Murray-Darling. There was plenty of basis for the question. The day before, the Nationals played hardball on signing up to a Coalition agreement with the new Liberal leader. What many had missed was the fact the Liberals do not have the numbers in their own right to form a government. There are 75 of them – one short of the 76 for majority government. The argy-bargy even delayed Turnbull being able to be sworn in as PM. He couldn’t front Government House if he didn’t have the written agreement of support on the floor of the parliament.

In an unprecedented move, the Nationals insisted on a side letter to the Coalition agreement. Spelt out in print were 10 agreed policies locking Turnbull into their old-but-unwritten compact with Abbott. It was a dramatic testimony to how little trust the party had in the recycled Liberal leader. Last time he unilaterally inflicted an emissions trading scheme on the Coalition. Not again. They insisted he sign up to Direct Action to deal with carbon emissions. They kept marriage equality at bay and won back control of water policy, which had conservationists furious and some South Australian MPs jittery. Party Leader Warren Truss frankly admitted there had been policy differences between the Nationals and Turnbull in the past and “we wanted to make sure there was a clear understanding about what was going to happen”.

Truss says he’s happy to work with Turnbull though regrets that his more accommodating soulmate was rolled. For his part, Turnbull says he can still achieve his old objectives but in different ways. An answer he gave in parliament has not only the Nationals but also the big C conservatives in his party suspicious. He is promising “consultative cabinet” decision-making. But he says, “Policies will change in the light of changed conditions. Of course they will. They will change all the time, they have to. They have to under any government.”

Of course, what will give Turnbull a freer hand is his performance as measured in the opinion polls. The early signs are ominous for Labor on one hand and the hard right on the other. A snap Morgan poll had him dominate Bill Shorten as preferred prime minister 70 per cent to 24. A Seven News ReachTEL poll in Canning saw the 10 per cent swing against the Liberal candidate reversed in light of the Canberra putsch.

Turnbull brings to the job an impressive presence and skilled, articulate communication. He looks and sounds like a prime minister. He is promising not to talk in slogans and not to insult the intelligence of voters. Advocacy is to replace magic pudding populism that promises to deliver everything voters want at no cost to anybody. Shorten is not panicking. Some of his colleagues point out the Rudd sugar hit in the polls lasted six weeks in 2013. They believe the internal tensions in the Coalition will be hard for the new prime minister to contain.

But there’s no doubt Shorten’s free ride appears to be over. Pressure is on him to articulate attractive policies as a counter to the Turnbull X factor. Shorten may get lucky again, but Turnbull is showing every sign he has learnt his lessons of 2009 well. The new prime minister’s opponents console themselves with the thought that a leopard can’t change its spots. But if he can continue to apply strategic patience, his appeal to the public will sideline his critics.

If Turnbull is successful at the next election, his coup will be the circuit-breaker the nation sorely needs. If he fails, he will be seen as just another usurper opportunist.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 19, 2015 as "National Circuit breaker". Subscribe here.

Paul Bongiorno
is a columnist for The Saturday Paper and a regular commentator on ABC Radio National Breakfast.

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