Paul Bongiorno
Malcolm Turnbull a Faust among equals?

On Monday night, a flu-stricken Malcolm Turnbull faced the voters Labor has identified as key to its prospects next Saturday. These are the people who liked the leather-jacketed, contemporary centrist who regularly impressed them, before he was prime minister, with his appearances on the ABC TV program Q&A

Before the marathon campaign began seven weeks ago, these people, or enough of them, were disappointed the Malcolm they had come to admire hadn’t turned up in the top job. But they were still prepared to give him a second chance. Their hope was that if he won an election in his own right he would be better placed to lead his government in the direction he and they preferred. That view was shattered in the 90 minutes Turnbull spent, hoarse and irritated, taking questions from Tony Jones and a handpicked Brisbane studio audience.

Turnbull insisted his views on climate change and same-sex marriage and other things had not changed, but he was powerless to realise them within his own party and with his Coalition partners. This answer, from a man the nation embraced with a huge sigh of relief 10 months ago, was as breathtaking as it was shattering: “Yes, I am the prime minister; but I’m not the dictator. Some people like the idea of prime ministers that ignore their colleagues. I don’t agree with that. I’m a strong believer in traditional cabinet government and that means compromise. That means listening to your colleagues. That means being the first among equals and respecting the views of those in your cabinet and your party room that you may not agree with.”

The context in this instance was the marriage equality plebiscite. He agreed it was no more than an opinion poll, constitutionally and legally unnecessary. But, he said, his party had adopted it under his predecessor Tony Abbott. This provokes a fair question as to why, with the change of leader to someone with a well-founded and different position, the completely opportunistic policy wasn’t ditched. Especially in light of the government’s own warning about the parlous state of a budget in need of repair. As his studio interlocutor reminded him, it is $160 million that could be better spent elsewhere.

Here we have a leader defining his role as that of a follower. Labor says it confirms its charge that to become prime minister Turnbull entered a Faustian pact, selling his soul to the “devil” of his party’s and the Nationals’ hardline conservatives. A tight election victory, surely, would only embolden their hold over him. Already Barnaby Joyce is promising a “hard bargain” with the Libs in post-election Coalition negotiations. He singles out the marriage equality plebiscite and no change to the government’s climate change policies. 

The Climate Institute’s John Connor released research during the week showing that concerns over climate change are back up at 2008 levels. The institute’s assessment of the various political parties’ policies marks the Liberals down very hard. Connor is convinced perceptions of Turnbull being handcuffed to the deniers in the Coalition has played a significant part in the collapse of the prime minister’s credibility.

Turnbull’s definition of a “first among equals” prime minister embedded in the cabinet process is now a foundational principal for him. This is almost certainly influenced by his heartbreaking and crushing loss of the leadership to Tony Abbott by one vote in 2009. What now remains to be answered, and it will be one way or another next Saturday, is the very first question put to him on Q&A: “Can you convince me to trust you when you’ve already been swayed on climate change, Safe Schools, Gonski and marriage equality, by the ultra-conservative wing?”

The remarkable reality of this protracted election campaign has been the steady erosion of Turnbull’s standing and the slow but continuing rise in Bill Shorten’s. The Labor leader was widely perceived to be a political dead duck when Turnbull assumed the prime ministership with near-record approval. But even on the admission of Turnbull’s own side, the urbane and erstwhile charismatic prime minister is fighting for his political life. Last week, he claimed three times in one news conference that he would win. By the end of the week, that morphed into a plea to everyone to count their vote as crucial and not to assume he “had it in the bag”.

The Liberal campaign is privately assuring inquirers it is on track for a victory. It is satisfied it is holding on in enough of the target seats, despite swings against it. “We’re calm, no one is panicking,” was the assessment of one key operative at campaign headquarters.

The fact of the matter is the published national opinion polls have the election in a deadlock. Labor has been in front by a nose in three of five polls in the past fortnight. At Sunday’s launch, Bill Shorten revved up the faithful with a “we can win; we must win”. The Labor campaign says it’s doing better in some seats that are not on the media’s radar. Those with margins beyond 3 per cent. Shorten is convinced he’s in a stronger position than the pundits are giving him credit for.

Labor’s campaign director, George Wright, says the election has a way to run. The final week can be surprisingly volatile. There was some evidence of that in this week’s polls. A ReachTEL poll taken on Monday night​, for instance, found a significant swing to Labor in four New South Wales marginals until now thought to be sticking with the Liberals. And this time there is a wild card that looks like it will play a bigger role than Clive Palmer’s flash-in-the-pan party played in 2013. The Nick Xenophon Team has everyone on tenterhooks. The wily and popular South Australian is a threat to Labor, Liberal and the Greens in both the lower house and the senate. He may well be the beneficiary of the disillusionment with the two major parties that is dramatically showing up in the polls. Indeed, the NXT may be the difference between a Turnbull majority or minority government or defeat.

Inevitably, the mainstream media concentrate on the two major parties. After all, only a Turnbull or a Shorten can credibly lay claim to leading a government of some sort after the election. And it was Shorten who set the agenda of the second last week with his definition of the election as a “referendum on Medicare”. It’s in line with his campaign addressing more concretely and specifically voters’ concerns. Wright defines the campaign message as “health, jobs and education”.

The Labor leader set the tone by saying: “Piece by piece, brick by brick – the Liberals have never liked Medicare and they want to tear it down again. They want to replace it with a system where profits come before patients.” After ignoring the claims – the Sunday launch was just applying a megaphone to Labor’s “privatisation” mantra – Turnbull was stung into a vehement denial.

 Turnbull labelled the claim as “the biggest lie of the campaign” – “extraordinary” and “shameful”. One of Labor’s key strategists was delighted. He told a phone hook-up of campaign co-ordinators, “you could smell the fear”. Turnbull also ran away from ever implementing the outsourcing of Medicare’s payments system. Something a taskforce was charged with by Joe Hockey as treasurer and for which half-a-million dollars was set aside in the 2014 budget. This was the basis of the contested Labor claim and something the prime minister defended earlier this year in the name of cost efficiency.

The government’s cheerleaders were quick to brand the Labor claim as a fictional “Mediscare”. But putting aside the definitional argument of “privatising” – the Libs have long since buried the idea of following Malcolm Fraser and dismantling the national health insurance scheme completely – the electorate is highly suspicious of the conservatives in the health space. Shorten’s political success was to force his opponents onto his turf.

Labor research picked up the electorate’s concerns after the 2014 budget. That was the one that wanted to introduce a co-payment and continue the freeze on doctors’ Medicare rebates. It also trained its sights on ending the bulk billing incentives for pathology and imaging. The problem for the Liberals is not only Tony Abbott’s broken promise on “no cuts to health”; it’s that almost as soon as they were elected they started softening up the nation about the unaffordability of Medicare as it was operating. Little wonder Labor has more credibility here than Turnbull and Treasurer Scott Morrison’s denials on privatisation of any part of the scheme. 

As the issue remained in the news, the Liberals decided midweek on a scare campaign of their own. It was hardly a surprise. Labor, we were told, simply can’t be trusted on boats. And this time it is temporary protection visas that are the difference. Labor doesn’t support them. Something has to be the reason for a new armada given that Shorten has won the policy battle within the ALP to continue turn-backs and deny any successful asylum seekers penetrating the Border Force shield to ever be allowed to settle in Australia. It was Shorten’s turn to be affronted. He said Turnbull should be ashamed for politicising the issue and sending people smugglers the message that there was a lack of national will.

Labor will be dragged back onto the economy on Monday when it releases its four-year costings. It will also train its guns on $15 billion worth of so called “zombie” measures – these are savings blocked in the senate that the government is relying on to claim a healthier bottom line. Labor will say they will never be passed and blow a black hole in Morrison’s beautiful numbers.

But before that stoush, Turnbull will launch the Liberal campaign tomorrow. He will say there is a choice between his stable government and the chaos of Labor. Sitting in the front row will be Tony Abbott, just to remind everyone how stable the first three years of the Coalition government have been.

For many, it will be a Hobson’s choice.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 25, 2016 as "Faust among equals".

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Paul Bongiorno is a columnist for The Saturday Paper and a 30-year veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery.

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