Opinion

Abbott’s mantra that Turnbull is losing the base to One Nation is not addressed by aping her policies. By Paul Bongiorno.

Coalition divides and stonkers

On Tuesday, the day after Newspoll reported the government trailing the opposition by 10 points, Malcolm Turnbull addressed the Liberal Party room. His first words were: “Disunity is death.” One MP says everyone looked around at Tony Abbott. “It was terrific.”

Turnbull lays much of the blame for the appalling Newspoll at Abbott’s feet. The previous Thursday and Friday, his dumped predecessor used a highly publicised speech and TV interview to warn that the government would not win the next election unless it won back its conservative base. In a thinly veiled swipe at his nemesis, he said, “…politics can’t be just a contest of toxic egos or someone’s vanity project”.

Abbott promoted a manifesto that his colleague, Christopher Pyne, dismissed as a hypocritical recipe for defeat. Abbott called for slashing spending, cutting immigration, abandoning the renewable energy target and reforming the senate. He said the government was at risk of “drift[ing] to defeat”. His former chief of staff, Peta Credlin, helpfully chimed in that “it was on life support”.

It was all too much for Abbott friend and former ally Mathias Cormann. The finance minister told Sky News that Abbott’s comments were “destructive” and “self-indulgent”. He said: “He’s not helping our cause, he’s not helping our country, he’s not helping himself.”

At the meeting of the joint party room later on Tuesday, the prime minister gave a Churchillian call to arms. Not quite “we will fight them on the beaches”, but Turnbull told his troops that with two years until the next election they have much to build on to win it. “We have a strong performance and when the election comes ... we will be judged on that performance,” he said. “We have a duty to Australia and to our constituents to stick together and be united.”

Attempts to dismiss Abbott as a resentful backbencher underplay his status as a former prime minister. If he were a mere maverick his views could be more easily dispatched. But his continued presence in the parliament is a reminder of a judgement his party made on him and themselves. He had failed to lead them as a successful government. There is a category difference between knifing a failing opposition leader and the head of a government. It becomes all the more obvious if the replacement fails to do any better. The wounds of that coup have not healed; bitter divisions have persisted and, as they did last week, flared.

It has dawned on the Liberals that a rush to replace Turnbull would only compound the mess. Anyhow, as of now there is no obvious saviour in the wings. All the names mentioned – Peter Dutton, Julie Bishop or Scott Morrison – are no Rudd or Turnbull, in that they are not widely perceived to have something special to offer. That could change, of course, if the slide of the past seven months becomes a firmly entrenched reality and MPs begin fearing for their own survival at the next election.

One minister says government MPs are already edgy. None more than the members of the National Party. They are finding that “Turnbull is toxic” in regional Australia. There are murmurings that being handcuffed to the Liberals in government is an added burden for them. An alliance rather than a coalition might be a better idea. An alliance, such as that which existed in Western Australia, involved three Nationals ministers working with the Liberal government but not strictly a part of it. If that happened in Canberra, for example, Barnaby Joyce would still be a minister but not deputy prime minister.

It would also be cataclysmic for the government. Conservative independent senator Cory Bernardi, who quit the Liberals last month, believes the Nationals have little choice. The growing support for Pauline Hanson’s One Nation, particularly in regional Australia, is a compelling incentive, he says. Barnaby Joyce’s office dismisses the talk. But they will be watching what happens in the WA state election very closely.

Queensland National George Christensen isn’t holding his breath waiting for it. With Turnbull’s calls for unity still ringing in his ears, he announced he was quitting as the party chief whip. He was doing so precisely because he wants to publicly distance himself from the government on issues of importance to his electorate of Dawson. He accepts there was a conflict between his role as “an enforcer of discipline” and the fact he was being “somewhat ill-disciplined himself”.

Christensen denies he is about to rob the government of its one-seat majority and join One Nation. A ReachTEL poll commissioned by The Australia Institute in his electorate found support for the Liberal National Party at 30.4 per cent, Labor 25.2 per cent and One Nation 30 per cent. Should One Nation bump ahead of Christensen, his preferences would likely elect the Pauline Hanson candidate. Again, Liberals and Nationals are nervously waiting to see what happens with the preference deal done between the Liberals and One Nation in WA next week. Surely to stem the bleeding to One Nation, the Coalition parties need to begin attacking Hanson’s prescriptions as dangerous and disruptive to Australia’s prosperity and cohesion.

Abbott’s mantra that Turnbull is losing the base to One Nation is not addressed by aping her policies. That only legitimises her and wittingly or unwittingly encourages disaffected conservatives to desert the Coalition. Furthermore it inflates the importance of this so-called base.

This week former Liberal adviser and commentator Paula Matthewson exploded the myth of the Liberal base supporting hardline conservative positions. She cited an Essential Poll in November that found only 19 per cent of Liberal voters wanted Abbott back. Essential last month found 55 per cent of Liberal voters backed Labor’s 50 per cent renewable energy target, and a plurality of 47 per cent support a parliamentary vote on marriage equality. This broader base can apparently be taken for granted and ignored.

What cannot be ignored, according to former Labor treasurer Wayne Swan, is the widening gap between the wealthy and workers. Labor, he says, needs to further develop a framework that addresses the growing concentration of wealth and income and the power of vested interests. In a speech midweek to the Australian Workers’ Union, he said many who voted for Donald Trump did not do it out of any hard-right ideology or an entrenched racial intolerance, “but because they no longer saw the Democrats as the party who spoke and acted for them”.

 Labor must heed that lesson here. To confront the attraction of One Nation, Swan says the party must be “unrelenting in defending the economic interests of working people”. In something of a mea culpa, he admitted he no longer accepted the neoliberal consensus of reducing taxes and regulation as the way to achieve jobs and growth. The global financial crisis put an end to that for him, he said.

In 2012, after three decades of tax-cutting orthodoxy, the US Congressional Research Service, something akin to our Parliamentary Budget Office, found in an extensive study there was no correlation between tax rates paid by the highest income earners and economic growth. Indeed, when tax rates were higher, growth and employment were stronger. All “trickle-down” economics has done is further entrench inequality and distribute wealth to the top at the expense of those in the middle or at the bottom.

Swan’s warning to Labor would equally apply to the Liberals: “If we fail to restore the focus on living standards and economic equality, we will go the way of so many social democratic parties around the world – out the back door.”

This sentiment is fuelling Labor’s all-out assault on the Fair Work Commission’s decision to cut the Sunday penalty rates of nearly a million low-paid workers. It wants legislation to stymie the decision and to give new riding orders to the commission that prevent it from cutting penalties and conditions without compensation, such as a higher base rate.

The government is well and truly aware of the potency of the issue. It took a couple of days for the prime minister to even say he supported the commission’s determination. This despite the fact he and 60 other Liberals and Nationals have been arguing for Sunday penalty rates to be trimmed. It is Liberal holy writ. If it weren’t, Turnbull would follow his own precedents and intervene as the opposition says he must.

In question time, Turnbull was armed with reams of quotes from Bill Shorten supporting the commission’s independence as fundamental. Shorten on more than one occasion gave assurances he would accept the umpire’s decision. After all, he set up the inquiry into penalty rates. But no matter how many times the opposition leader is branded an inconsistent hypocrite, workers’ penalties have been cut without applying a no-disadvantage test.

Shorten was shocked that the Labor-appointed commission buckled to intense pressure from the government and business. The union movement has been galvanised and is preparing a massive campaign. Its message is simple: “You could be next.”

Turnbull has a lot to hold together.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 4, 2017 as "Divide and stonker ". Subscribe here.

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