Opinion

Paul Bongiorno
Turnbull looking for fireworks in long election campaign

Those closest to Malcolm Turnbull are convinced he is still the difference between the Coalition winning or losing the election. But the available evidence, after three weeks of the formal election campaign, is that their conviction is more a wish than a reality. A poster appearing around the country seems to sum up the feeling of many voters. Under a stylised image of the prime minister’s face, one stark word leaps out: “Fizza.”

You know something is close to the bone when someone in the Liberal Party referred the poster to the Australian Electoral Commission. But if they were hoping for the offending spoof to disappear, they failed. The Sydney graphic artist behind the project, Michael Agzarian, will now comply with electoral law and properly authorise his handiwork. Agzarian says his inspiration for the work came from Paul Keating, who in 2007 described Turnbull as like “a big red bunger on cracker night”. That’s the one you light then there’s “a bit of a fizz but then nothing, nothing”.

The artwork has the wick of the bunger still there. Labor is convinced that Turnbull, whose personal appeal is decreasing, will do his best to relight it or throw some other incendiary their way. “Negativity is all they’ve got left if the last two weeks are any guide,” was the view of a senior Labor strategist. The Newspoll this week was a sobering gauge of the prime minister’s slide. He is now as unpopular as Bill Shorten. Both have a net negative approval of 12 per cent.

But the trend is no friend of Turnbull. It continues going in the wrong direction. His satisfaction rating has crashed 50 points in the past six months. For Shorten, however, it continues in the right direction. His satisfaction has climbed 26 points in the same period. Seven of those in just the past two weeks. The Labor leader has made the most of his equal billing in the media to build his profile and hone his message. “Thank you, Malcolm, for the eight-week campaign,” is Shorten’s response to the gift he’s been given.

While the average of the published opinion polls is stuck on 50-50 two-party preferred, Newspoll gave a winning edge to Labor, 51-49, with a swing of 4.5 per cent enough to install Shorten in The Lodge. But he still thinks it will be hard for him to get the 21 seats he needs. Indeed, Labor is still finding that while people are disappointed, many are prepared to give Turnbull another chance. It’s a sentiment Labor is desperately trying to kill off.

But while we have not seen the full shock and awe of a negative Liberal campaign, early forays have not proved as successful as campaign strategists would have hoped. The latest batch of polls comes after the immigration minister went for broke on asylum seekers over their cost to the budget and their threat to jobs. It raises doubts about the so-called “salience” of the issue for the conservatives over Labor.

The News Corp Coalition cheer squad is not taking any chances, though. The Daily Telegraph seized on comments from Anthony Albanese and Bill Shorten raising the prospect of doing a deal with Canada to take the men, women and children languishing at great detriment to their mental and physical health on Manus Island and Nauru. Peter Dutton is cited in the article warning that relocating asylum seekers to a first-world country would put the people smugglers back in business. Maybe this was a pre-emptive strike from Dutton, who, like Tony Abbott, believes Canada or New Zealand would destroy the “deterrence through cruelty” aspect of the current Pacific Solution.

The strike is pre-emptive not only of Labor but also of his own prime minister. I am told Malcolm Turnbull does not share Dutton’s view. In fact, immigration department officials are already exploring an arrangement with the Canadians. One option is for Ottawa to agree to take the boat people refugees in return for Australia taking a number of Syrian or other refugees from Canada. As it was put to me: “Turnbull has given the department a hunting licence.” He may not have discussed the issue with Canada’s prime minister, Justin Trudeau, as the Tele reports; but that doesn’t rule out a re-elected Turnbull later this year ending the international disgrace of our indefinite detention of innocent people in this way.

This week the “salience issue” of the economy got a run, too, with the treasurer and finance minister accusing Labor of a $200 billion black hole over 10 years, or $67 billion over four years. Most of their claims were simply made up or based on assumptions that if applied to the government would come up with similar spectacular shortfalls. Even by the end of the news conference Scott Morrison conceded a $20 billion overreach. Apparently a few billion dollars here and there is a mere bagatelle for the Liberals but the end of the world for Labor.

Turnbull was unapologetic for his economic team’s sloppiness. He boldly claims that everything the government is putting out there is paid for in the budget over the next four years. The problem there is the engine room of his jobs and growth plan, the $49 billion company tax cut, is beyond the four years. The most expensive cuts for big business do not apply for seven years. And even if they are ever delivered by whoever is in government two elections away, Treasury says the benefit of a 1 per cent dividend in growth and jobs will take a generation to be realised.

Both sides, of course, are playing this game. The 10-year horizon leaves the problem of real funding far away, and Labor is still to show its four-year bottom line. What is certain is both sides will be in deficit. And that has Treasury and finance, as well as the retiring governor of the Reserve Bank, sounding warnings.

Liberal campaign headquarters says that while Labor still has big spending announcements to make – Shorten has flagged more money for hospitals – Turnbull won’t be doing a John Howard at his campaign launch. In 2004 Howard unveiled $10 billion in a spendathon that took his treasurer’s breath away. The terse message this time was: “The budget doesn’t allow it. And besides, we’re not going to change our core message on spending.”

Labor is still to unveil its national broadband network policy. Its spokesman, Jason Clare, has already promised: “If you vote for Labor at the next election, you will vote for more fibre.” Labor sees the shemozzle the Turnbull hybrid NBN has become as an opportunity to score real points on jobs and growth for the future. So sensitive is the government on the issue, it made a mess of trying to cover up its support for the NBN, sooling the AFP on to its political opponents.

The leaks showed massive blowouts in costs and timing for the network that has huge back-to-the-future components. Like paying hundreds of millions of dollars for 19th-century copper wire technology. It’s hard to believe Turnbull, as an agile and innovative communications minister, would want to purchase
10 million metres of the stuff. He did and it’s enough to link Canberra to Russia.

Labor has costed its new policy. No doubt some of the funding will come from abandoning Turnbull’s expensive need to repair not only Telstra’s decrepit copper network but also the old Optus cable.

As the campaign drags on, though, the question will be whether Turnbull can hold his nerve if Labor’s popular and populist policies keep resonating. “Where’s the money coming from?” is an age-old retort from governments. “Free beer for all the workers,” doesn’t always win elections, as one Liberal insider says. Shorten, though, is framing his health, Medicare and education spending as core economic policy. He says he’s helping business by wanting to give them a healthy, well-educated workforce. And to Turnbull’s taunt that he is nothing but a flippant big spender, he says: “Mr Turnbull is choosing to invest $50 billion of Australians’ money in corporate tax cuts; Labor chooses to invest $49 billion in funding schools and Medicare.”

So far, neither side has broken away. The stated reason for the double-dissolution election – union lawlessness – has hardly rated a mention. According to Newspoll, it is rated as the least of the very important issues. Turnbull and Shorten have five weeks, the usual campaign length, to bring home the bacon. The arm wrestle of the first three weeks may have gone largely unnoticed by a disengaged electorate, or maybe it is that neither leader has caught the imagination. Turnbull is disappointing and Shorten is unexciting.

One of the seats everyone will be watching on election night is the bellwether seat of Eden-Monaro. The incumbent Liberal, Peter Hendy, is drawing great comfort from the fact redistribution has pushed his margin out to 2.9 per cent. But Labor campaign workers say voters in the new conservative end of the New South Wales electorate are furious over the Liberal state government’s forced local government amalgamations.

The penny dropped too late. NSW Premier Mike Baird told a panicking Malcolm Turnbull the request to delay amalgamations in the electorate couldn’t be accommodated because the press releases had gone out. Barnaby Joyce in New England and Sussan Ley in Farrer were luckier and more timely in their pleadings.

Whatever way the bellwether bleats, nervous Liberals believe, or maybe hope, they will see a repeat of 2004. Howard, as remarkable as it now seems, trailed Labor’s Mark Latham for most of the campaign only to see a huge resurgence in the last week. They are counting on Turnbull not disappointing them.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 28, 2016 as "Turnbull looking for fireworks". Subscribe here.

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