Paul Bongiorno
Turnbull’s home fires blazing

The prime minister and his immediate predecessor will commemorate Anzac Day on the site of a World War I battleground at Villers-Bretonneux. Tony Abbott will be there, at Malcolm Turnbull’s invitation. The atmosphere is expected to be cordial and tense. It will mark a truce in the Abbott-inspired culture wars within the Liberal Party, the wars that have been buffeting Turnbull.

The impetus for the invitation was the role Abbott played as prime minister in giving the green light to building a $100 million museum, the Sir John Monash Centre. The centre is on the site of the battles that established Monash as a brilliant general. The heroics of Australia’s diggers under his leadership achieved elusive victories on the bloody quagmire that was the Western Front. Not to be missed: “Monash Forum” is the name Abbott and his pro-coal warriors chose to give the ginger group within the government aimed at thwarting Turnbull’s efforts to win the decade-old battles over energy and climate change.

As with everything else when it comes to this government, that internal fracas cannot be divorced from the issue of Turnbull’s hold on the leadership. This is making Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg’s job near impossible. At time of writing, Frydenberg was optimistic the meeting of states and territories late this week would begin to resolve their concerns over the national energy guarantee. He says the guarantee, which he and Turnbull have fashioned, is the nation’s last best chance to unlock $200 billion worth of investment needed to keep the lights on by 2050. Frydenberg told the National Press Club that if politics torpedoes the guarantee, consumers will be the biggest losers.

The politics he is talking about is at every level, but it looks as though Frydenberg may have more luck with the Labor states and even the federal Opposition than he will have getting the final version of the guarantee through the government party room. One of the attractive features for Labor – deliberately designed this way by Frydenberg – is that its ambitions on emissions reductions and renewables can be scaled up by subsequent governments. Of course, what one parliament legislates another can always amend or repeal, but what is desperately needed for investment is a policy framework that gives certainty beyond elections.

Despite denials from the minister and from Turnbull that their technology neutral plan is not a carbon tax, Labor sees it as a de facto emissions intensity scheme. One senior Opposition strategist says Frydenberg could be in trouble “if the knuckle-draggers in the Coalition party room twig to this”. This bipartisan consensus model certainly doesn’t fit in with Abbott’s prescriptions on the need for stark differences from Labor. But the stakes are too high for this sort of hardball partisanship to triumph, at least as far as Frydenberg
is concerned. And he has not been afraid to call out Abbott over it.

On the day the government recorded its 30th consecutive Newspoll loss, Abbott championed either renationalisation of coal-fired power stations or direct federal investment in new ones. When asked about it on Channel Nine, Frydenberg said that Abbott “is always going to cut across what the prime minister has been saying lately”. That drew a stinging rebuke from Sky News presenter and former Abbott chief of staff Peta Credlin. Credlin said these comments had “diminished” him in the eyes of conservatives. She went on to say “it certainly wouldn’t have helped him with the base”.

Here the story gets very murky. Frydenberg has made no secret of his ambitions to one day follow his predecessor in the seat of Kooyong, Sir Robert Menzies, and become prime minister. His conservative credentials with the Abbott camp were, up until now, impeccable. He walked by Abbott’s side, in front of the TV cameras, to the party room meeting for the leadership showdown.

A sure sign of his plunge in esteem is the amazing claim from Credlin that she disciplined him after his comments. She said she “had a conversation with him, I’m not going to go into it on air, but I don’t think you will see that again”. She went on: “I think afterwards he probably reflected and decided it wasn’t funny.” It is important to remember that Credlin no longer works for the government or has official power inside it. She’s a television commentator.

Labor’s Anthony Albanese wasn’t alone in saying it was “extraordinary” for a person such as Credlin to be seeking to “dictate to cabinet ministers what they say”. Others believe she thinks she is still in government as a prime minister’s svengali.

Credlin is no run-of-the-mill commentator. One veteran Liberal says there’s no doubt she’s one of the key campaign strategists for the Abbott camp. “She’s a player,” he says. Just how big a player is hard to determine. But so deep are the suspicions within the party that another backbencher says he wouldn’t be surprised if she had a hand in a sensational story, in the News Corp tabloids, saying Turnbull has personal investments worth a million dollars in a fund that profits when Australian companies lose. The Daily Telegraph headline: “Mal’s bet on Aussies to lose”. Whoever was behind the story, it was proof positive that the destabilisation of Turnbull is on in earnest.

Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton is widely believed to be the frontrunner to succeed if Turnbull “falls under a bus”. So far, none of the contenders have fessed up to wanting to actually push the leader under any vehicle. Dutton is wasting no time positioning himself as the heir to the Howard legacy of conservative Liberal Party leadership. The most compelling evidence of this is an extensive interview he gave a couple of weeks ago to Guardian Australia. That news outlet had previously been dismissed as “dead to him”, along with other “crazy lefties”.

The message of the interview was that he is a steadfast man of conviction who nevertheless accepts that a leader – prime minister – has the “responsibility and a desire to bring people together, but still expressing principle”. While Liberals in New South Wales and Victoria fear a Dutton leadership would be poison to their voters, the conservative base, which Credlin holds so dear, has a different view.

The article quotes one such disaffected conservative saying he would support Dutton but not Turnbull: “He’s an honest man and gets things done. He doesn’t mince his words. Give him a chance.” This Liberal says the electorate would find he is not “as extreme right as they paint him”. Dutton’s record says otherwise. A moderate Liberal says he’s “nothing but a pre-Fitzgerald corruption inquiry Queensland walloper”.

Dutton won’t get the top job without a fight. Squarely in the frame is Treasurer Scott Morrison. There is a view among Liberals that Morrison has 15 party room votes in the bag. If he has, that is a huge increase from the five votes he is credited with directing Turnbull’s way in the showdown with Abbott. Although Morrison says he voted for Abbott, the dumped PM and his allies, such as Kevin Andrews and Eric Abetz, haven’t forgiven him for what they see as a betrayal of Abbott. Alex Hawke is Morrison’s numbers man, ironically from his position as assistant minister to Peter Dutton. He is ignoring queries about how many he has in the treasurer’s column.

In three weeks, Morrison gets a huge opportunity to shine when he delivers the budget. He was not amused this week when the new Nationals leader, Michael McCormack, took the occasion of being acting prime minister to steal some of Morrison’s limelight. In a piece of naive ebullience, he described the treasurer as “Scott ‘Santa Claus’ Morrison”. He said the treasurer would have plenty of “goodies” and emphasised a record infrastructure spend.

The budget is already suffering from the belief it will be the last one before the next election. Theoretically, Turnbull could delay calling an election until May 2019 but that would only confirm the perception he is hanging on for dear life. Former treasurer and prime minister Paul Keating used to bemoan the fact that the electorate discounts whatever governments do if it is seen as no more than “blatant vote buying” ahead of a poll.

Morrison was reported to be furious. He called McCormack late on Monday night and bawled him out. Next day the treasurer assured us there would be no “Christmas in May”. He would not be Santa Claus or the Grinch but fiscally responsible. How he does that while at the same time giving significant personal tax cuts and even bigger ones to corporations costing $35 billion will be something to behold.

Much of the treasurer’s claims for fiscal responsibility and his economic fix were debunked by analysis released by The Australia Institute, and signed up to by 40 eminent Australians, showing Australia is a lower-taxing nation than most developed countries, including Canada and New Zealand. This situation will lead to bigger structural deficits and massive overseas borrowing. It could only be remedied by draconian spending cuts or raising taxes. All of that would hit well beyond the next election. But a survey by the same institute found 64 per cent support for more public spending on services, delivered by tax revenue, to tackle inequality.

While all is quiet on the Western Front for Turnbull, the home front resembles a war zone.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 21, 2018 as "Keeping the home fires blazing".

A free press is one you pay for. In the short term, the economic fallout from coronavirus has taken about a third of our revenue. We will survive this crisis, but we need the support of readers. Now is the time to subscribe.

Paul Bongiorno
is a columnist for The Saturday Paper and a 30-year veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery.

Our journalism is founded on trust and independence

Register your email for free access or log in if you already subscribe

      Keep Reading                 Subscribe