Opinion

Paul Bongiorno
Jeff Kennett rounds on Malcolm Turnbull

For years Jeff Kennett’s opponents in Victoria branded him a dangerous bull in a china shop. He’s mellowed post-politics, but to the dismay of the Turnbull office the old Jeff made a spectacular comeback this week. He went on radio to give a character assessment of Malcolm Turnbull that was so damaging because it was the blunt, unvarnished truth. Tony Abbott couldn’t have put it better.

“This talk about an early election,” Kennett told 2UE, “is an indication sadly that the government does not have a plan for the future of the country, and they are trying, I think, to use this talk of a double dissolution, an early election, simply to cover up their own failings.” If that wasn’t bad enough, he went on to say Turnbull was motivated by self-interest, it was the reason above all else for the coup last year. He accused Turnbull of lacking courage over marriage equality. “I am,” he said, “bitterly disappointed.”

Turnbull was just not earning Kennett’s respect on providing the fundamental narrative, the leadership that Kennett was hoping he was going to provide. “The longer they remain as a government without a plan,” Kennett said, “the greater the risk to their re-election, hence we’re rushing to the polls.”

He even had a whack at the fact, or at least the appearance of it, that Turnbull and Treasurer Scott Morrison were walking away from reforming negative gearing. He said the PM once described the concession as “tax avoidance” so there’s “no consistency of policy”.

The Kennett broadside goes a long way to explaining the tightening in the polls. His assessments are far from the idiosyncratic musings of a rogue bull. Newspoll came in for the second time in a month with a 50-50 two-party-preferred split between the Liberals and Labor. It was again supported by Essential’s survey. “That’s where we’re at,” was the glum conclusion of one Liberal, even though the government claims its own polling has it in a better position.

The to-ing and fro-ing on an election date is a dangerous game for the prime minister. It begins to eat away at credibility and puts everything he does or doesn’t do into the prism of opportunistic politics. It appears some of this is getting through. By midweek, to the relief of some on the backbench, Turnbull seemed to begin the crab walk away from a July poll.

He said: “Well, I know election speculation is a fascinating sport in an election year, and I don’t want to discourage you from engaging in it, but I just say to you that the election will be held in the latter part of the year. And I can’t add to what I’ve said before about that, and as far as the budget is concerned, the budget is set down for May 10 and that’s what we are working towards.” Plenty of weasel words there, but enough to persuade one backbench colleague that reality was beginning to bite. A rush to the polls now looks dumb and dangerous.

But this wasn’t the view a couple of weeks ago when the Liberals’ federal director, Tony Nutt, told a meeting of key marginal seat-holders not to spend all of their communications allowance until they had a clearer view on when the election would be called. They would need to save what’s left for a campaign in this financial year if, as appeared likely, it would be at the beginning of July.

Those who have been urging an early poll rather than one at the more normal time of August or September – Turnbull’s stated expectation – now think the moment has passed. “He should have pulled the trigger in December, at the same time as the Hockey byelection,” sums up the thinking.

Other Liberals are reporting no appetite for an earlier election in their electorates. People are wanting Turnbull to get on with governing and put his stamp on policy. The most obvious test there will be the tax reform package that appears to be shrinking with every attack made on Labor’s offering.

Options for doing anything meaningful are being closed off one by one. This is curious, given Turnbull’s original broad purpose, but it is unfortunately the norm in an election year. Still, initial polls showed there was wide acceptance of Labor’s changes to negative gearing and capital gains tax before the government began relentlessly attacking it, which makes this all the more curious. A less fevered response would have kept the tone of the debate more intelligent, as Turnbull once promised, and given him more room to move in the national interest. The biggest culprit, though, is the dumped prime minister.

Tony Abbott has come up with his own narrative for re-election: “Australia needs prudent, frugal, competent government – not an unreconstructed Labor Party with its five new taxes.” Apart from ignoring the fact he failed to deliver any fiscal consolidation in his two years at the helm, he wants to lock Turnbull into doing nothing with tax concessions that are unfair and costing the budget billions.

Immigration Minister Peter Dutton rushed into the breach, warning that the opposition’s negative gearing plans will cause the economy to come to a “shuddering halt” and the sharemarket to “crash”. The recklessness of the statements beggars belief, coming from such a senior minister. Like his mate Abbott, Dutton seems to have forgotten he is in government. Shattering confidence is not in anybody’s interest. If slash and burn is the only policy lever allowed to Turnbull, then it invites the same rejection public opinion meted out to the 2014 budget.

The policy vacuum is also creating a sense of aimless drift. Worse, the publication of The Road to Ruin, Niki Savva’s account of the Abbott–Credlin duumvirate’s reign of internal terror and incompetence, has opened up old wounds. It’s manna from heaven for the opposition. Bill Shorten says with more than a little justification that this is a very divided government. He says it’s giving every appearance of chaos and panic. “One day the budget’s going to be one week, the next day, the budget is going to be the next week.” Shorten says Labor has learnt its lesson and the Coalition government has learnt nothing from the events of the past six years.

The biggest lesson, of course, is you cannot cut down your first-term prime minister without passing harsh judgement on yourselves and without inviting dreadful repercussions. The mere spectacle of the leader who took the party from opposition to government sitting on the backbench puts up in neon lights failure and division.

Abbott’s former chief of staff, Peta Credlin, couldn’t agree more. She gave an interview to The Australian and wrote an 800-word defence of their time in the job. Along the way, she accused the usurpers of infighting and political paralysis. She warned that the people will ruthlessly punish a government that looks like a rabble. “Having watched at close quarters the extraordinary way that Labor ripped itself apart during the Rudd–Gillard–Rudd years,” she said, “I am dismayed that my own side is heading down the same path.”

Maybe if Abbott merely sat on the backbench, he would help limit the spectacle of a government at war with itself. But, not surprisingly, the former leader is finding it very hard to forgive. He is hurting badly and he’s angry. Worse, he sees his demise as part of a battle for the heart and soul of the Liberal party, which he thinks of as a conservative bastion now in the hands of someone who “is very left”. He makes no secret of his concerns to colleagues and friends. He told one he thinks “the show is going to shit”. He reserves the right to defend his legacy and, if along the way that undermines Turnbull’s credibility on national security, well, too bad.

Former senior Howard government minister Peter Reith says Abbott is very close to going from a respected former prime minister to “number one Coalition wrecker”. He wrote in The Sydney Morning Herald: “Today, Abbott is the pugilist who seems unable to make a positive contribution without bringing out his boxing gloves. The signs are all too obvious; he wants to bring down Turnbull at any cost.”

Reith’s advice to Abbott is to shut down his handful of supporters in the parliament and the Turnbull haters in the media. He warns the destabilisation could be a bad result for the Coalition, making the election a near-run thing or a straightout defeat.

One of Turnbull’s advisers says the prime minister and the government’s stocks will improve when he releases his election policies. They will not be Tony Abbott’s with a top hat on them, I am assured. But they will need to be something a lot more than “vote for me because I am not Bill Shorten or Tony Abbott”.

Jeff Kennett fears it may be too late: “Malcolm Turnbull was given the opportunity of a lifetime and in five to six months it appears he has blown it.”

Thank you, Jeff.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 12, 2016 as "Raging Kennett turns bull again". Subscribe here.

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