Turnbull is being seen as ‘weak’ – unable to stand up for what he really believes in against the conservatives in his party. Worse, he ‘stuffs up’. By Paul Bongiorno.

Paul Bongiorno
The rising toll of PM Malcolm Turnbull’s disappointments

Donald Trump has caught the world’s imagination by yelling “It’s gonna be huge” at his rallies. The planet trembles at the thought of anything other than a huge defeat for the demagogue. Closer to home we are seeing something else that’s “gonna be huge” and that’s the disappointment building in the electorate with Malcolm Bligh Turnbull.

In the four months since the election, approval of the prime minister’s performance has fallen 11 points in the Newspoll. The Australian’s headline highlighted the malaise pretty simply: “PM hits lowest rating.” Indeed the most popular prime minister in six years has fallen to one point below where Tony Abbott was just before he was dispatched to the backbench. Worse, it is feeding into the standing of the government, which is trailing Labor 52-48 for the third successive poll.

Rather than being a circuit-breaker allowing Turnbull to reset, the election was merely an interruption to growing perceptions that what the electorate was getting was not what many were hoping for. Disappointment is the word that is becoming synonymous with the PM.

Labor’s research says that view has not become completely entrenched but Turnbull is being seen as “weak” – unable to stand up for what he really believes in against the conservatives in his party. Worse, he “stuffs up”. It’s no accident that Bill Shorten makes sure these are the descriptions he uses in every news conference he holds.

As polling analyst Andrew Catsaras says, if voters go from excusing Turnbull for being hamstrung by his more assertive right-wing colleagues to thinking he’s just “no good” then he is in mortal danger. One veteran Liberal MP is worried that disappointment is much harder to turn around than anger. 

In 2001, for instance, the electorate was angry with John Howard. Their biggest gripe was the impact of the GST on petrol prices. Automobile clubs around the nation ran a campaign over the two extra cents a litre they claimed motorists were being slugged. It was an issue in the Ryan byelection, when the Liberals lost a seat that until that point had been considered safe. John Howard got the message and defused the anger by adjusting the GST down. Indeed, he overcompensated by ditching the automatic indexation of petrol excise.

But there is no quick-fire solution for Turnbull. His strategy, according to senior ministers, is to quietly work away delivering his agenda and staying positive. Fine in theory, but the agenda itself is problematic. It’s ill defined and, from what we know of it, it’s largely the Abbott manifesto. This last point is something the former prime minister has noted publicly on a couple of occasions. Turnbull’s other problem is that Abbott’s manifesto is also the Holy Grail to the Coalition Nationals. The same-sex marriage plebiscite is a prime example. That is sure to be voted down in the next three sitting weeks. But the odds are Turnbull will continue to disappoint by not then going to his preferred option: a free vote in the parliament.

Liberal MP Andrew Laming consoles himself with the thought that the government is in “the first three months of its three-year term”. He says the government has a crossbench in the senate “ready to deal and talk”. But as the Rudd–Gillard–Rudd years demonstrated, getting bills through the parliament is no guarantee of re-election. Especially if the government appears divided and out of touch. And if that view is bolstered by raising the cost of medical treatment, tightening or abolishing family payments, accusing mothers of wanting to “double dip” on parental leave, and other user-unfriendly policies, then matters become even worse.

Then there is the whiff of bloody-minded chaos. First witness for the prosecution here is Attorney-General George Brandis. He managed to preside over the unedifying spectacle of seeing the first solicitor-general in 100 years to quit his post in utter disgust. That was after Justin Gleeson was subjected to rude, hectoring contempt by the three Coalition senators on the legal and constitutional affairs committee inquiry. One, West Australian Liberal Linda Reynolds, compounded the indignity by placing 120 questions on notice to Gleeson.

The issue here was that many of those questions had already been answered or were misdirected, and some were petty in the extreme. The intent was clear: to seek revenge on Gleeson for daring to expose double-dealing and bullying by her colleague the attorney-general. The behaviour was excused because they were all convinced Gleeson’s independence masked a Labor agenda. Never mind that his complaints and interpretation of his role were supported by eminent predecessors such as former High Court judge Sir Anthony Mason.

This crass partisanship is hardly the higher standard Turnbull promised. Gleeson’s resignation letter spoke of an irretrievably broken relationship with Brandis. “The best interests of the Commonwealth can be served only,” he wrote, “when the First and Second Law Officers enjoy each other’s complete trust and confidence within a mutually respectful relationship.”

Particularly worrying is the genesis of this breakdown. It was not the legally binding directive that makes Brandis the gatekeeper for anyone from the governor-general down seeking advice from the solicitor-general. That was simply the last straw. The handling of one of the biggest cases to come before the High Court involving the government of Western Australia and the liquidation of the Bell Group of companies was a major factor. Gleeson, as solicitor-general, appeared for the deputy commissioner of taxation. The WA Liberal government, much to its anger, lost seven-nil and with it the $400 million it was trying to grab ahead of the Commonwealth. 

Gleeson told the inquiry that he lay awake at night thinking the attorney-general, if his direction was taken literally, “could seek an injunction against me to restrain me from performing my office”. There is more than an echo of a banana republic here. Publicly at least, Turnbull doesn’t see it that way. He dismissed the unprecedented outcome as an unfortunate spat between people who can’t work together: “It’s always regrettable when people don’t get on in the workplace.” Particularly regrettable if the friction is caused by putting politics ahead of well-established principle. 

The senate will disallow the Brandis directive. Labor, the Greens, the Nick Xenophon Team and Derryn Hinch will vote it down. It’s a victory of sorts for Gleeson, and hopefully a healthy precedent for whichever distinguished lawyer is next appointed. No more “dog on a lead”, to quote former solicitor-general Gavan Griffith, QC. Labor and Nick Xenophon don’t believe that choice should be left to Brandis. He is proving to be one of the government’s more ham-fisted members.

Vying for the title, however, is the deputy prime minister, Barnaby Joyce. He’s already under fire for wanting to spend at least $24 million on pork-barrelling in his electorate by shifting a government agency out of Canberra to be based there. That is despite a cost–benefit analysis being more negative than positive. He has now spent an estimated $1 million trying to hide an explosive letter written to him by the then head of his department, Paul Grimes.

A year-and-a-half after the event we learn that Grimes questioned Joyce’s integrity two weeks before he was sacked. In the letter, the then Department of Agriculture chief said he was writing “to advise you that I no longer have confidence in my capacity to resolve matters relating to integrity with you. This follows the sequence of events before and following the alterations to Hansard that were made in October 2014.”

Labor’s Joel Fitzgibbon says Joyce was trying to cover up the fact he had misled the parliament on the extent and availability of drought relief. Joyce blamed a “rogue staffer” for the doctoring. 

None of it endears the colourful Nationals leader to some Liberals. They blame him for many of Turnbull’s problems. There is a strong view in some quarters that the prime minister should have stared down the Nationals the day he rolled Abbott. The perception now is, it is Joyce doing all the rolling. “It is not too late for Turnbull to flex his muscles,” is still the view of one Queenslander. A Victorian colleague says the Nationals need the Liberals “as much as we need them”. That would be high-stakes stuff but at least it would show Turnbull is prepared to fight for what he believes in.

His slow consolidation strategy is doing nothing to address the disappointment showing up in the polls. His revisiting this week of Tony Abbott’s stymied push to shut down environmentalists using the courts to stall projects is a case in point. This so-called war on “lawfare” – despite all his caveats – sends the message that he, like Abbott, is prepared to put giant coalmines ahead of the Great Barrier Reef and climate change mitigation. Add this to the perception he’s gone cold on renewable energy and you begin to get a feel for the disappointment.

Who would have thought that on Monday night’s Q&A the man described as Turnbull’s bodyguard, Arthur Sinodinos, would give credence to an Abbott comeback? “Will we ever go back to Tony?” he said without enthusiasm. “In politics I’ve learnt through bitter experience you never rule anything in or out.”

If the view becomes entrenched that Turnbull is nothing more than “Abbott in drag”, the polls are sure to keep heading south.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 29, 2016 as "Power of disappointment".

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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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