Opinion

Paul Bongiorno
Turnbull’s conviction problems

In the far south-west of the Australian continent Malcolm Turnbull shared his deepest convictions about himself as the nation’s prime minister. It was in response to a question from a student at Albany Senior High School. With disarming anticipation, she had asked: “What advice can you give us on effective leadership?”

Turnbull said a leader has to have confidence in themselves. But there was a caveat. “Not confidence in the sense of arrogance or self-love,” he said. “You’ve got to be confident in yourself. Understand who you are, what you believe in, what you stand for.” Without drawing breath, he earnestly continued, “Believe in yourself, believe that you can do anything, there is nothing beyond you.”

As a piece of motivational rhetoric it was perfect. But it is palpably dissonant with his performance. Few would disagree the mission statement as outlined is precisely what voters look for and expect in a leader. They are disappointed that the prime minister they have is not the prime minister they thought they were getting, though. It explains why, on the question of personal approval, he is consistently in deep negative in Newspoll.

There are three policy areas that hitherto have been identified with Turnbull: climate change, marriage equality and the republic. While it is true that politics is the art of compromise, any accommodation becomes dangerous if it is seen as a sellout. Voters are weary of the betrayal of a belief for no other purpose than realising an ambition.

On Monday afternoon in the Liberal party room, Turnbull will be confronted with demands that he allow a free vote on same-sex marriage. After all, before he became leader he clearly stated that such a course of action is the best way to resolve the issue. More than that, he sees it as entirely reasonable that civil law should not discriminate against people on the basis of their sexual orientation. This view is shared by conservative political leaders in similar countries, such as New Zealand, Britain, Canada and the United States.

One of those arguing very strongly for Turnbull to deliver on his convictions is veteran Queensland Liberal Warren Entsch. He, like five other colleagues, says the election campaign promise for a plebiscite was delivered when they voted for it to happen, only to be blocked in the senate. Entsch sees calls for it to be tried again or, worse, replaced by a non-binding postal plebiscite as a transparent ploy by opponents to stall the inevitable for as long as possible.

He is incensed by Queensland Liberal National Party president Gary Spence, who is threatening him and other MPs with disendorsement if they vote for something other than a plebiscite option. There is no doubt the hysterical reaction from opponents to same-sex marriage is a sign they know they are on the losing side. Public opinion has moved against them. Should it win the next election, Labor will introduce a bill within its first 100 days. Before then, the opposition is signalling it will support rebel Liberal senator Dean Smith’s private member’s bill in both houses if it gets the chance.

Turnbull has shown exasperation all week, with reporters continually asking about the issue at his news conferences. A plebiscite, he says, is government policy and will remain so. None too subtly, earlier in the week The Daily Telegraph carried an exclusive story quoting an unnamed senior conservative Liberal saying Turnbull’s leadership is terminal if he “can’t control” his own moderate faction. Just think about that. The deal is: Turnbull controls the moderates while the conservatives control Turnbull. There’s not a shred of credibility in it for the prime minister.

Another vocal Turnbull critic, Alan Jones, literally shrieked his indignation on Radio 2GB, claiming he had been talking to cabinet ministers who told him “Turnbull was finished”. It’s hard to disagree with one marginal Liberal MP who says it’s clear the argument has gone way beyond same-sex marriage. It has sucked in every grievance and followed every fault line in the government since Turnbull took power.

Hell-bent on making it worse is deposed prime minister Tony Abbott. There’s a story doing the rounds in Sydney that Abbott has been telling people in colourful terms he was done over by Turnbull and he’s determined to return the favour. The line’s meant to go something like: “He’s fucked me over and I’m going to fuck him over.”

Colleagues believe he has given up on returning to the top job any time soon but is keen to ensure whoever replaces Turnbull will not be Foreign Minister Julie Bishop or Treasurer Scott Morrison. Their treachery in the 2015 coup has finished them as far as he is concerned. Much more to Abbott’s liking is soon-to-be-promoted home affairs minister, Peter Dutton, with Health Minister Greg Hunt toppling Bishop for deputy.

They may excite the alt-right but there is little confidence they could pick up the pieces after the conflagration of a Turnbull execution and a byelection in his seat of Wentworth. The government would lose its one-seat majority along the way.

The showdown could come as soon as next week. Entsch has made it clear he is about changing Liberal party room policy to a free vote. If he has the numbers for that, the opponents would not be able to deliver on their threat of a spill. It would not stop them from trying, though, if for no other reason than to further hack at Turnbull. The prime minister’s allies are somewhat whimsically hoping he will seize the opportunity to finally stare down his nay-sayers in the belief “that nothing is beyond him”.

Turnbull will soon have to steel himself for some sort of confrontation on another of his signature causes: climate change and energy policy. His device of using the chief scientist Alan Finkel to come up with a way forward through a clean energy target is being fiercely resisted by Abbott and his followers. The former PM is doing a lot of the heavy lifting for friends of the coal lobby, such as Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce. His aim is to have the Coalition party room reject outright any device that excludes coal from the energy mix. No clever Finkel-designed benchmark on emissions will be tolerated.

It is even being seriously argued that a Liberal government should fix the market failure on investment in coal power by filling the breach “as soon as possible”. As Judith Brett noted in The Monthly recently: “It sounds much more like an old-fashioned socialist argument for re-nationalisation of the power supply.” Not that Abbott has ever let consistency get in the way of a decent stoush.

The blow-up on same-sex marriage coincided with Turnbull taking his cabinet to Western Australia in a desperate bid to shore up support. The local Sunday Times set the scene with a Galaxy poll showing a 6 per cent swing to Labor since last year’s election, putting four seats and the government in jeopardy. The paper splashed with “You’re gone, Mal”. Ahead of the visit, the Shorten office was expecting a big announcement on the carve-up of the goods and services tax – a running sore in the West. None was forthcoming. Instead, pressure was put on The West Australian newspaper to run a front page, “GST: Heat on Labor” story. The PM spent the previous afternoon with the editor.

Sure, if it wins government, Labor will have to come up with some sort of remedy. In the meantime, it looked like Turnbull was ceding leadership to Bill Shorten. The Labor leader has not been afraid to take up Turnbull’s territory on tax reform and another of his trademarks: the republic.

Shorten thrilled 800 republicans at a gala dinner in Melbourne’s Royal Exhibition Building last weekend, with a speech strongly backing a republic and giving it a timetable. One of the organisers says the crowd were “Turnbull’s people” – eastern suburbs Liberals, business types, academics and the like, who “laughed at the jokes and applauded in the right places”. Shorten, unlike Turnbull at a similar dinner in Sydney last December, did not put the issue of an Australian head of state on the long finger or until Queen Elizabeth dies.

He said he had a tremendous regard for Queen Elizabeth, “but I am not an Elizabethan, technically I’m a Victorian. But in fact, I am an Australian”. After this crack at Turnbull, he made a republican plebiscite a first-order issue in his first term of government, as a lead-up to a constitutional referendum. Liberal MPs, even those identifying as republicans, derided the push as a distraction from jobs and growth. There is something pathetic about this construct. As if a nation can’t deal with more than one issue at a time.

There’s no doubt that for a republican referendum to succeed next time it will have to be in “the hands of its friends”, not enemies such as John Howard or Abbott, who did everything to defeat it in 1999. Howard even warned business leaders off bank-rolling the “yes” campaign. Abbott rushed out an opinion piece midweek for The Australian slamming Shorten for a “half-baked republic vote plan” that is “just an inkling of the chaos that would follow”.

For now, though, all the chaos is in the Turnbull government as it struggles to deal with a leader who doesn’t seem a comfortable fit.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 5, 2017 as "Conviction currents". Subscribe here.

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