Paul Bongiorno
Turnbull and the greasy poll

Next week is shaping as a watershed for Malcolm Turnbull and his government. The parliament resumes, the latest Newspoll will be published and the High Court will consider two challenges to the voluntary postal survey on same-sex marriage. And if the past, indeed the recent past, is the best guide to the future, none of it will be good news for the prime minister.

Not that he has been sitting on his hands. Turnbull has done everything he can in the non-sitting fortnight to extricate himself from the parlous situation that has become the norm. Having foolishly laid down the marker of Newspoll performance as the benchmark for continuing in the top job, he has become obsessed with it. The lessons he draws from it are as plain as day. To improve his stocks, he must win back disaffected voters from Pauline Hanson and do everything in his power to cripple Labor and Bill Shorten.

To appeal to the Hansonites, he and his ministers are trying to out-Pauline Pauline. To get at Labor they have hit the nuclear button on political hyperbole. Both tactics reek of political desperation but after 18 consecutive bad Newspolls – the past six diabolical – you can almost understand it. None of it is designed to inspire the nation, it has only one base purpose: survival.

So the week began on one of the Coalition’s favourite hunting grounds: hapless asylum seekers. Here Turnbull left all the running to Immigration Minister Peter Dutton. If anyone could appeal to those inclined to support Hanson, he could. Her historic resentment of any shred of human decency when it comes to dealing with those who risk their lives to seek our protection is enduring. Its constituent element is the sort of xenophobia that makes immigration a trigger for vote-changing behaviour. In 2001 a similarly poll-challenged prime minister, John Howard, played on such fears with great success.

Dutton’s immediate target was the 70 asylum seekers who had been transferred from Manus or Nauru for medical treatment. They were demonised as scammers, refusing to return to the cruel detention we had provided now that they were deemed to have recovered their health. But what was incensing the minister was that pro bono lawyers from some of the most reputable firms in the nation had successfully sought court injunctions against sending them back. Dutton says this recourse to Australian law is unAustralian. He really did. While this view is utterly perverse, at least we haven’t yet got to the stage of a government deciding it is above the law. And for the sake of our international reputation we should be grateful that the courts don’t accept the government’s pretence that we have no obligations to these people.

But the decision to give them just three weeks’ notice to find their own accommodation and the creation of a new departure bridging visa with Medicare coverage and work rights is baffling. On the face of it, it is needlessly cruel and dumb. It won’t solve anything. In fact, it could leave these and the other 200 also in Australia under the same circumstances permanently here in a state of uncertainty.

Not quite the “never ever to come to Australia” that the architect of the policy, Kevin Rudd, thundered in the run-up to the 2013 election. Could it be a backdoor way of beginning to meet the challenge laid down by veteran Liberal Russell Broadbent, who in parliament two weeks ago urged the government to, in God’s name, bring all the people on Manus and Nauru here. Labor’s shadow minister, Shayne Neumann, can see nothing good in it. Resettlement in the United States or New Zealand is a higher priority for him.

But if the real purpose is to appeal to the Hansonites, Dutton and Turnbull wouldn’t mind Labor, the unions and human rights activists slamming their latest moves. The paydirt may be in Monday’s Newspoll. But just in case that wasn’t enough, Malcolm Turnbull himself bought into the renewed history wars with gusto.

These have been triggered by Stan Grant’s suggestion that plaque descriptions of Captain Cook as having “discovered Australia” should be corrected. And while we are at it, perhaps we should rethink when we celebrate Australia Day. The present date marks the arrival of the First Fleet, and the beginning of the dispossession of Aboriginal Australians. Some find it difficult to celebrate as a national day. But another of Hanson’s pet gripes is the “special” treatment afforded to the nation’s first people, on this issue and others.

Sounding every bit like a prime minister itching for a fight, Turnbull verballed Shorten over his response to the vandalising of statues of famous white men including Captain Cook in Hyde Park, Sydney. He railed on Adelaide’s 5AA, “Bill Shorten’s response to that has been to say that the inscription should be changed. I mean, how absurd. What’s he going to do? Get a chisel out and start changing the inscriptions on statues that are a hundred years old or 140 years old?” Well, no. Shorten actually agrees with Turnbull that we should acknowledge our shared history and vandalising statues is not the way to do it. He did make the perfectly reasonable point that the country works best when we work together: “So an additional plaque on Captain Cook’s statue is fine by me.”

Turnbull didn’t leave it there. He said Shorten was “thoroughly Stalinist”. Like the Soviet-era strongman, Turnbull said, he wanted to bump off and erase from history anyone with whom he doesn’t agree. More overreach to be sure, but this time it is part of the government’s broader political strategy.

The finance minister, Mathias Cormann, says the Labor leader is counting on Australians forgetting what Cold War socialism was all about. Apparently Shorten is playing the politics of envy and wants to revisit that historic failure. Without blushing, Cormann’s colleague, Dan Tehan, said Shorten was more than a “would-be East German”. “He’d be perfectly happy as a Castro-era Cuban, too.” The evidence for this retro socialism is Labor’s proposals to close tax loopholes in trusts and trim capital gains tax and negative gearing concessions, all of which have been recommended to the government by its most senior advisers to repair the budget, and defended by some of the country’s most reputable economists.

It has resonances of Liberal prime minister Malcolm Fraser warning that electing Bob Hawke would bring the reds out from under the beds. It didn’t work in 1983 and nor did it work in 2007 when Peter Costello warned a similar fate would befall the nation. Maybe it’s the Liberals trying to tap into the “unfairness” sentiment that is playing so strongly for Shorten. But it’s a pretty big maybe. It does, however, contextualise where the government now finds itself: staring down the barrel of defeat.

A Labor strategist says that attacking Shorten forgets that Turnbull is as unpopular. In fact, as Turnbull himself admitted on The Project, Australians aren’t predisposed to think how wonderful politicians are. Labor will take a 6 to 8 percentage-point poll lead any day – entrenched as it appears to be – ahead of winning a beauty contest.

Personal denigration isn’t the only weapon being employed by the government. Turnbull donned his leather jacket, hopped onboard a helicopter and flew over the Snowy Mountains hydro scheme to remind us he is counting on an expanded hydroelectricity scheme to keep the lights on when the “wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine”. In the meantime, he has made yet another show of dressing down electricity retailers, demanding they stop using complex plans to gouge their customers. The same industry leaders told the prime minister that an overdue commitment to a clean energy target is the way to assure the long-term investment that will give low-emission, cheaper power into the future.

Turnbull is buying time on delivering such a target. He’s well aware his party room could split badly over it, led by the embittered Tony Abbott. The former prime minister has spent more than $120,000 in the past year on travel. It amounts to a taxpayer-funded anti-Turnbull campaign. An indication of the fractious state of internal play – when this news broke – was Abbott blaming his Liberal opponents for an “inside hatchet job”.

Niki Savva, in the latest edition of her book tracing Abbott’s demise, The Road to Ruin, says Turnbull is planning to hold onto power for as long as possible, going to an election in June 2019. That, of course, presumes he’ll still be at the helm. He could hit his own marker of 30 consecutive losing Newspolls in the first half of next year.

Ever the optimist, the prime minister told ABC TV he would win the next election. He rejected out of hand any suggestion that he step aside to give another leader a chance to revive the government’s fortunes if his numbers don’t improve. Turnbull must be counting on events to save him. And in politics, anything can happen. North Korea precipitating a war in the region is probably not the sort of event he’d want, but whatever it is, it will have to be a dramatic game changer.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 2, 2017 as "Climbing the greasy poll".

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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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