One senior Liberal doubts whether Turnbull would hang around to lead the government to a defeat. And most fear eventual defeat is more likely than not. By Paul Bongiorno.

Paul Bongiorno
Turnbull’s desperate fight to restore credibility

Malcolm Turnbull’s credibility, and with it his ability to lead the government effectively and restore its fortunes, lies shattered around him like Humpty Dumpty after his fall.

If “all the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put Humpty together again”, what hope is there for Turnbull to pick up the pieces? The portents aren’t good. The unconscionable Bernardi defection, quitting the Liberals to remain in the senate as an independent working at establishing his own party, blew the plaster off deep fractures within the government.

Tony Abbott’s former chief of staff, Peta Credlin, said on Sky News there is an unbridgeable ideological divide tearing the government apart. Put starkly, the right in the Liberal Party and their fellow travellers in the National Party do not trust Turnbull no matter how many concessions he makes to them. And worse, it’s not working for voters. A tracking of opinion polling since the razor-edge election last July shows a steady decline in support for the government. In Newspoll, it has delivered a 54-46 two-party-preferred chasm and, similarly, in Essential, 53-47, in favour of Labor.

Polling analyst Andrew Catsaras says there is no doubt Turnbull is in a danger zone. Labor hammers him mercilessly for pushing policies he doesn’t believe in because he has “sold out to the right”. Voters seem to agree with this perception. Here’s the rub – and Paul Kelly picked it up in The Australian midweek – the conservatives both in the government and at large have the same problem with Turnbull’s credibility. They do not believe he has truly embraced their agenda, and they’re certain that given half a chance he will sell them out.

Kelly wrote: “Turnbull stands by the same-sex marriage plebiscite, champions coal, ditches the emissions intensity scheme, reopens the section 18C issue and wins Trump on border protection. Yet the populist conservatives are unpersuaded.”

Cory Bernardi alluded to this in his resignation press conference. He said Turnbull putting the emissions scheme back on the agenda late last year showed he couldn’t be trusted and was being tricky. The idea itself, of course, lasted less than a day. The completely rational market mechanism to reduce dangerous carbon pollution was quickly and irresponsibly killed off in another act of futile appeasement.

Some in the government console themselves that Turnbull remains the preferred prime minister in the polls and is less unpopular than Opposition Leader Bill Shorten. “Less unpopular” because both men are in negative territory. But Shorten’s unpopularity, as Catsaras says, is already factored into the party vote. Turnbull would not be the first incumbent to lose an election despite being “preferred” PM or premier.

In his short phone conversation with Turnbull the morning he resigned from the Liberal Party, Bernardi warned the prime minister his leadership wasn’t safe. This was scoffed at by a procession of senior ministers and backbenchers. But there is no doubt that should the trend of the past seven months continue, another saviour will be sought. One senior Liberal doubts whether Turnbull would hang around to lead the government to a defeat. And most fear eventual defeat is more likely than not.

There are more than murmurings about the government’s malaise. Despite a lacklustre performance as treasurer, Scott Morrison is not out of the picture as a replacement leader. But the Victorians are reluctant to back another New South Welshman for the top job.

Indeed, there is talk that if Turnbull goes, they could look to a generational change with Environment Minister Josh Frydenberg. He holds Menzies’ old seat of Kooyong and impresses with his media skills and approachable persona. Another mentioned in dispatches is Social Services minister Christian Porter. He’s a West Australian but has some support in Victoria and New South Wales.

Then of course there is Tony Abbott. His main role at the moment is destabiliser-in-chief. In recent interviews he has denigrated some of the compromises Turnbull made last year to get bills through the senate. He thinks the building industry watchdog has been defanged beyond recognition.

On the day of the Bernardi betrayal Abbott took the deserter’s side and blamed the prime minister. On Facebook he wrote: “… While Cory and I have sometimes disagreed I’m disappointed that more effort has not been made to keep our party united. The Liberal Party needs more people, like Cory, who believe that freer citizens will make a fairer society and a stronger country and who are prepared to speak out and make a difference …”

Labor’s Tanya Plibersek taunted Turnbull in parliament with another Abbott quote: “The first duty of the leader is to keep the party together.” She asked him how it was going and was promptly ruled out of order by the speaker. It is, of course, Abbott’s bittersweet revenge. He warned Turnbull he could not unite the government behind him, and he seems to have invested a lot of energy ensuring that outcome.

Nothing unites a government behind a leader more than success. Here the Turnbull project has not been quite what he promised. The nailbiting election result has only emboldened his internal critics. They take no responsibility for holding him to Abbott’s failed agenda – failed in that it was clearly being rejected by the electorate. Indeed, 30 consecutive Newspolls were both the trigger and the excuse for the September 2015 coup. The 2016 election was confirmation of how out of touch these Coalition reactionaries are.

They seem to have no inkling that their culture wars agenda on “free speech”, banning the burqa, denying climate change and thwarting marriage equality are deeply unpopular, as recent opinion polls show. The online advocacy group GetUp! says this agenda, embraced and championed by Bernardi, can be no basis for a mass movement. It is certainly no basis for a recovery of Turnbull and the government’s stocks.

Moderates in the Liberal Party are breathing a sigh of relief that Bernardi will no longer harangue them in the party room with his strident views. “Party room meetings will be half an hour shorter now,” according to one MP. Some Liberals are manoeuvring for a push-back by opening the way for a free vote on same-sex marriage before the next election.

The issue has become totemic of Australia as the country of a “fair go” for all. The debate has morphed into one of “equality” rather than just “marriage equality”, a fact picked up by some government MPs over the summer break. Some believe it gives Turnbull a chance to break free of his shackles. But Nationals hardliner George Christensen says if the prime minister allows a free vote “then, you know, the show’s over”.

Incredibly, Christensen is threatening to bring down the government over it. He says a plebiscite on same-sex marriage was a key plank of the Coalition agreement. His one vote on the floor of the house could rob Turnbull of his majority. The show that would be over then would be the government.

Those close to Turnbull say he has no appetite to call Christensen’s bluff. “That’s not his style. He’s no crash-through merchant,” is the view of one minister. That reticence severely limits his ability to provide a dramatic circuit-breaker for himself, let alone the government.

The pressure is enormous. Turnbull can’t afford to allow any sense of defeatism to take hold in government ranks. The Coalition’s terrible start to the year has boosted morale in the opposition. Shorten will take an eight-point lead in the party’s standing any day over his personal polling numbers. On Wednesday, he seized on the government’s latest plans to trade off family payments to fund new childcare arrangements and went for the jugular.

“Mr Harbourside Mansion is attacking the standard of living of Australian families,” he said in a hard-hitting speech to parliament. “The story of the cuts today is that the prime minister is taking $2.7 billion from Australian families and yet he proposes giving $7.4 billion to big banks in tax giveaways. This prime minister is seriously the most out-of-touch personality ever to hold the great office of prime minister. Tough on pensioners and soft on banks. Tax cuts for millionaires and payment cuts for Australian families.”

Shorten’s jibes stung Turnbull into the most personal attack he has ever launched on the Labor leader. Much to the delight of his colleagues, he slammed Shorten as a champagne-swilling hypocrite. “There was never a union leader in Melbourne that tucked his knees under more billionaires’ tables …” Turnbull said. “He lapped it up. Yes, he lapped it up. He was such a sycophant, a social-climbing sycophant if ever there was one … He likes harbourside mansions – he’s yearning for one. He’s yearning to get into Kirribilli House, because somebody else pays for it.”

To hoots of approval from those sitting behind him, Turnbull said Shorten was a parasite with no respect for taxpayers or members of the Australian Workers’ Union.

Aside from the friendly fire criticism of John Howard, who made Kirribilli House his principal abode for more than a decade, this was an embattled prime minister reaching out to the only constituency that matters to him at the moment – his backbench. One minister likened the speech to Julia Gillard’s “misogyny speech”. If the parallel is accurate, it is unfortunate. That speech was important, but it did not save Gillard.

It will take more than a tirade of personal abuse to put Humpty Dumpty together again.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 11, 2017 as "All the king’s men".

A free press is one you pay for. Now is the time to subscribe.

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

Sharing credit ×

Share this article, without restrictions.

You’ve shared all of your credits for this month. They will refresh on September 1. If you would like to share more, you can buy a gift subscription for a friend.