Opinion

Chris Wallace
The case against Malcolm Turnbull

Malcolm Turnbull is two Newspolls away from a psychological reckoning: the moment he reaches the same number of consecutive losing surveys that prompted him, in 2015, to tear down Tony Abbott’s prime ministership.

“The one thing that is clear about our current situation is the trajectory,” Turnbull told journalists on that pleasant September day. “We have lost 30 Newspolls in a row. It is clear that the people have made up their mind about Mr Abbott’s leadership.”

This is about to be chillingly true of Turnbull, too.

“The fact is we are maybe 10 months, 11 months away from the next election,” Turnbull went on that day. “Every month lost is a month of lost opportunities.”

Also true. Starkly true. No matter how Turnbull tries to waffle and wriggle his way out of the logic in which he snared Abbott almost three years ago, it applies equally, unarguably, to him. In two Newspolls’ time, Turnbull will be governing in the “lost opportunities” zone, counting down to a certain election loss to Bill Shorten.

How do we know? Because precipitating his 2015 coup d’état, Turnbull declared it to be so, saying it would be the inexorable outcome of sticking with a leader who loses 30 Newspolls in a row.

“Now if we continue with Mr Abbott as prime minister,” he said, “it is clear enough what will happen. He will cease to be prime minister and he’ll be succeeded by Mr Shorten.”

That, Turnbull said, was why Abbott had to go – not for Turnbull’s own upward mobility and aggrandisement, but for the greater good. “We have to make a change for our country’s sake,” Turnbull said, “for the government’s sake, for the party’s sake.” Taking Turnbull at his word, he, too, now should be moved on – “for our country’s sake, for the government’s sake, for the party’s sake”.

Yet there is no hint in Canberra that this prime minister about whom “the people have made up their mind” will suffer an autumn attack like the spring offensive he unleashed on Abbott.

Numb Turnbull government MPs are still recovering from the crisis triggered by former deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce’s affair with a staffer. State election wins since in Tasmania and South Australia have acted like Prozac on the party room. Labor’s Batman win has been attributed by Coalition MPs to the Greens’ untidy byelection performance rather than sounding the loud clang of impending electoral doom.

Topping off the complacency is hope that Shorten’s dividend imputation tax changes can be for the Turnbull government what “Mediscare” was for the Shorten opposition at the 2016 election. Government MPs do not seem to have registered that “Mediscare” was not such a winner that it made Shorten prime minister.

Thus a by-his-own-standards failed prime minister, by dint of a sunny if delusional temperament, bounces along in his job, nary a challenger in sight. Barring a silent but deadly ambush such as the “Peacock plotters” mounted against John Howard’s opposition leadership in 1989, the 30th Newspoll reckoning looks set to pass with little more than an aggrieved Abbott press conference.

But even if complacent Coalition MPs are right and somehow, despite the Turnbull government’s looming 30 and however many more Newspoll losses after that, it is okay to stick with Malcolm Turnbull as leader, is it the right thing to do? Is there anything that could justify toppling Turnbull the way he toppled Abbott?

 

There is a moral case for moving Turnbull on. If principles of right and wrong mean anything, using one standard to unseat a rival and another to hold on to the job you stole from him while failing to meet that standard yourself is hypocrisy on a very grand scale. It is the marker of a weak, untrustworthy person.

The standard of right versus wrong might not seem apparent in the Coalition parties these days but it is surely due for revival. Voters will hardly be able to avoid registering, come Newspoll 30, that the prime minister is not a man of his word and that he lives by double standards.

Voters would welcome a politician accepting rather than evading accountability. Yet Turnbull will brazenly embody the stereotype of the self-serving politician, a prime minister whose hypocrisy deepens politicians’ disrepute.

This gives rise to the pragmatic case for moving Turnbull on.

The last time the Turnbull government led Labor in Newspoll on a two-party-preferred basis – July 2, 2016 – was the day of the last federal election. It is the most complete case of buyer remorse in Australian political history. On what basis does someone leading a government that politically uncompetitive deserve to stay on? This was the question Turnbull posed about Abbott in September 2015.

Turnbull’s answer was, they don’t. As the election draws closer, Coalition backbenchers who risk losing their seats will come to the same conclusion. But why wait? Better to cut a sustained loser loose and give someone else the chance to govern better in the interim.

Turnbull might point out that federal election day is the only day that winning a poll really matters. How that happened, though, brings us back to the moral case for moving Turnbull on.

Turnbull was the biggest single donor to his own government’s election win, a result unlikely if not for him pumping $1.75 million of his own money into the campaign for a flood of extra advertising in its dying weeks.

It is money politics at its most extreme, for which Turnbull paid no reputational price. The leave pass he got on this is an index of how far the moral basis for the conduct of politics in Australia has decayed. It is not okay to buy elections, including your own.

Finally, there is a national interest argument for moving Turnbull on.

Again, this was an element in Turnbull’s rationale for toppling Abbott. The stakes are far higher today than they were in 2015.

The dangers posed to international peace and security and the global economy, not to mention internal democratic norms, by Donald Trump’s presidency in the United States has created a situation of extreme peril.

The fanning of fascist sentiment by Russia’s Putin government, marrying traditional propaganda skills with pervasive digital technology, helped put Trump in office, get Brexit up, and generally destabilise Europe. There is no sign of Putin letting up. Rather, he is emboldened, as the recent attempted assassination in Britain of Sergei and Yulia Skripal shows.

Then there is the money politics being played by the Chinese government of Xi Jinping to buy off small countries and the politicians of larger ones alike, its South China Sea expansionism, and Xi’s recent assumption of indefinite power, otherwise known as dictatorship.

If the US and North Korea go to war, or a flashpoint occurs in the South China Sea, or if Trump sacks special counsel Robert Mueller sparking a full-blown US constitutional crisis, or if Trump’s trade policies plunge the world into recession or worse, is Malcolm Turnbull really the person to lead us through it?

And they are only the acute dangers. What about the chronic and cataclysmic issue of climate change? Turnbull runs a government determinedly opposing science and decent energy and environmental policy. If there is one thing that symbolises his weakness and hypocrisy, this is it. It is unconscionable.

Once a case could be made that Turnbull was the lesser evil when it came to the Liberal leadership. As he became a willing then enthusiastic tool of a right dominated by its nastiest elements, however, it is no longer a tenable argument. This is no time for Australia to indulge a mediocre prime minister.

 

As in the 1930s, there is a dreamy, sleepwalker-type quality to the West’s drift into big trouble. Historical parallels are never exact and they aren’t this time either, but there are enough commonalities to justify something beyond deep concern, closing in on outright alarm.

Turnbull and his government do not seem to have worked out that the tide has turned and their policies, platitudes and abuses are no longer applauded by citizens sick of being divided in order to be ruled.

The message of the Liberals’ South Australian election win is not that voters like the Turnbull government’s energy policies; it is that governments rarely get five terms in a row.

Nor does the Liberals’ win in the Tasmanian state election provide succour for the federal Coalition. It was the product of covert electioneering and massive campaign spending by the gambling industry – another “bought” election.

Dazed Coalition MPs this far out from the election can keep pretending all is well under Turnbull. He may yet sail through Newspoll 30 with the fixed grin he has sported for months. But the numbers will catch up with him eventually. Newspoll 30 might not get him, but electors will, unless his colleagues do first.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 24, 2018 as "Hero marks thirty". Subscribe here.

Chris Wallace
is a historian at the ANU in Canberra and the biographer of Germaine Greer.

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