Opinion

Paul Bongiorno
Life after 30 for Malcolm Turnbull

The traffic jam of black ZIL limousines in the car park outside Stalin’s dacha is a potent image of the “dysfunctional circus” that the government of Australia now presents. In the Armando Iannucci film The Death of Stalin, currently amusing and horrifying audiences, the ambitious and conniving members of the politburo rush out of their just deceased leader’s villa and into their cars. Their refusal to give way to each other not only hinders their progress but scarcely avoids a pile-up.

The only way this metaphor breaks down is in the fact that the Australian leader is neither a strongman nor dead, although the arrival of the 30th consecutive losing Newspoll on Monday certainly heightens the risk of Malcolm Turnbull’s political demise. While the prime minister chose to go on the front foot, reaffirming his determination to stay vertical and in the top job, four of his cabinet colleagues indicated their willingness to replace him. Two of his highest profile backbenchers nominated a timetable for his departure.

You know a leader is in trouble when he has to make statements such as this: “I can assure you I will be leading the Liberal Party and the Liberal–National Coalition to the next election, which will be held in the first half of next year.” You also know he is on shaky ground when those pledging loyalty “while he is prime minister” believe that their own best interests are served by “being honest about their ambition”, as Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton proffered on “Newspoll Minus Thirty Day”.

The fact that a newspaper’s regular opinion poll could generate this much interest and activity – the most exciting political event since the 2016 election – is entirely down to Malcolm Turnbull creating this benchmark for failure when he toppled Tony Abbott. It is also completely due to the fact the prime minister and his senior colleagues decided to mark the day by giving numerous interviews. They could hardly ignore it, but there seemed to be a conscious effort not to downplay it.

The same strategic miscalculation was at play when other ministers decided to answer journalists’ questions with the same candour as Dutton. It was simply extraordinary that Treasurer Scott Morrison or Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg didn’t see that the last thing the government needed was them adding to the perception that new leadership would be needed thanks to Turnbull’s failure.

The most agile was Foreign Minister Julie Bishop. Her answer should have been a template for the others. She said her priority was to focus on the “jobs and responsibilities I have now”. Sure, she didn’t deny her ambition, but she shielded Turnbull from it. The only conclusion can be that the others didn’t do this because they are off and running and want to make sure their colleagues in the party room know what their options are.

This is certainly the way some of Turnbull’s moderate allies read it. They believe destabilisation will only get worse if the opinion polls don’t improve. And this could trigger an end-of-year strike at Turnbull. It is very different to the treatment John Howard received when he was allowed to claw his way back from oblivion in three of his four election wins. This is where former prime minister Abbott and former deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce come in. Joyce went on Peta Credlin’s show on Sky News to urge Turnbull to do “the honourable thing” and quit by Christmas if things haven’t improved.

Abbott chimed in with a similar sentiment. He told Radio 3AW he would “expect” Turnbull to “have a sense of whether he can win the election six months out from the poll”. The dumped prime minister spent the week in Lycra, on his bike with the nation’s TV networks and media in tow. He lavishly used the opportunity his annual Pollie Pedal gave him to criticise Turnbull’s failure and policy agenda. His colleagues have no doubts Abbott wants to be drafted back into his old job but only if Turnbull, who Joyce says is smart enough to see when he’s finished, steps aside.

The chances of Turnbull following that script would be remote in the extreme. But there is enough panic and despondency in the government party room to encourage a “tap on the shoulder” closer to the election. Another political assassination would be the final proof for voters that the Liberals – like Labor before them – need a period back in opposition to sort out their differences.

Abbott’s siren song to the back bench sounds like this: it would be easier to attack Bill Shorten if the government “had a strong sense of what it stood for”. He says: “It is much easier to attack the other side if people think that there is something crystal clear that you stand for yourself. Now, I was obviously extremely critical of the Rudd and Gillard governments, but when I was leader of the party no one was in any doubt of what we were trying to do.”

This conveniently ignores that it is 2018 and not 2013. It is now his side at war with itself and his policy prescriptions then have been tried and have failed, especially on energy prices. Abbott has the hide to say the Liberals have to be “the party of low power prices ... higher wages and more affordable housing”. The fact that none of this has been delivered after five-and-a-half years of Liberal government either hasn’t occurred to him or he is disingenuous.

There are others close to the Liberal Party who are making a strong case for a change of leader and direction as the path to survival. Economist and former Coalition staffer John Adams has written a speech for Peter Dutton, or whoever is willing to challenge Turnbull. He published it in The Spectator, to the consternation of ministers to whom he had also sent it.

Adams took his inspiration from John Howard’s first speech to the parliament when he came back as opposition leader against the Keating government. Here’s a sample of his proposed spiel: “Who has given us the highest level of household debt in our history (both absolute and relative to disposable income)? Malcolm Turnbull ... Who has given us the lowest level of household savings since the global financial crisis? Malcolm Turnbull. Who has given us the biggest financial bubble in our lifetime? Malcolm Turnbull ... Who has given us the highest electricity prices in our history? Malcolm Turnbull. Who has given us the highest level of Commonwealth debt? Malcolm Turnbull.”

Of course, it would be impossible for any challenger to credibly promise he or she could turn any of this around before the next election. Senior ministers Christopher Pyne and Mathias Cormann took heart from a tightening in the Newspoll to 52-48 Labor’s way. But an analysis of all the published polls suggests the situation is back to where it was before the Barnaby Joyce affair hit the government. Labor’s poll average at the end of 2017 was a 4.8 per cent lead. It’s average now is the same. The Barnaby effect has worn off and we are back where we started. The government has managed no momentum and no recovery.

This week it was reported that Turnbull and Morrison have already signed off on the budget’s tax cuts and big-ticket items. The PM is convinced once the argument is back on the government’s strong suit, the elusive recovery will finally show up. If it does, and if Newspoll gets stuck on 52 per cent for Labor, Liberal MPs are convinced he will call a snap election to head off the end-of-year killing season that Abbott and Joyce have in mind. Prompting their thinking is the fact that in his final pep talk before the parliamentary recess Turnbull urged his members to get out and fundraise, a prerequisite for any election. In Queensland, federal preselections have been timed to be in place by budget day. But in Victoria, the ACT and South Australia, electoral boundaries won’t be finalised by the Australian Electoral Commission before July, holding up the party processes.

It’s hard to see what sort of shape the government can be in to fight an election whenever it is held. Most of its energies are consumed with campaigning against itself and there are no signs that’s about to end anytime soon.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 14, 2018 as "Thirty seconds do mar". Subscribe here.

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