Opinion

Sean Kelly
How Turnbull is stuck in reverse

After a brief period in which it seemed the only issue that mattered in federal politics was immigration – immigration and infrastructure, immigration and gangs, immigration and refugees, immigration and surrendering our sovereignty – this week, mysteriously, immigration vanished from the stage.

It was a pity, because two things happened this week that should have made us think a little about the place these issues occupy in our national debate.

The most significant was the release of the report from the coronial inquest into the death of 24-year-old asylum seeker Hamid Khazaei. There are any number of remarkable facts about this young man’s death – for example, that it was preventable, the result of “compounding effects of multiple errors”. One of those errors was the failure to ensure Manus Island stocked the right type of antibiotic.

You should be aware, too, that the coroner recommended the approval process for transferring sick asylum seekers from offshore detention be led by doctors, not bureaucrats. That’s not remarkable. That it wasn’t already the case is remarkable.

Finally, you should know the condition that led to Khazaei’s death began with a leg infection, and that the basic facts of his death have been known since 2014 – which makes it disturbing that Guardian Australia reported on Thursday there were two critical cases on Manus Island being left untreated. In better news, Peter Dutton this week transferred a child from Nauru to Sydney for urgent care – but only because the Federal Court ordered him to.

Given this steady drumbeat of inflicted horror, the fact that the government still sees asylum-seeker issues as a source of political strength, rather than weakness or shame, tells you much about Australian politics.

Another, less pessimistic reading is that it simply tells you something about where this government is at. But more on that later.

On Sunday, Christopher Pyne was sent out to defend the government’s byelection losses. There are people you invite to dinner parties because you know they’ll be happy to furiously disagree with people they completely agree with as long as it enlivens proceedings. Pyne is one of those people. And you can’t deny he’s fun to watch, especially when trying to do the ridiculous, such as spin Georgina Downer’s resounding loss in Mayo. She had created, he said, “a good base to win in May next year”.

And so he let slip the election will probably be May next year. It’s an odd choice, largely dismissed until now because it would involve campaigning over both Easter and Anzac Day – book your holidays now. Given May 18 is the latest possible election date, it also means the prime minister may be, once again, sentencing himself, and the rest of us, to a bonkers-long election campaign. If nothing has been announced by the time of the New South Wales election, in late March, both parties will go onto a permanent war footing. So much for the element of surprise.

I should add, for completeness, that it is open to the PM to hold the Senate elections in May and the House elections later in 2019. That would be stupid, but it would also be the type of glitzy celebrity lawyer move Malcolm Turnbull loves to pull, and which never works out for him. Think 2016’s early budget, or scheduling byelections to clash with Labor’s national conference. Or Godwin Grech. You should probably rule it out, but frisson with a side of self-sabotage is a dish the prime minister has made his own.

Which is a pity, at least for him, because in general the government’s performance has been improving. A Newspoll out on Monday, lost in the byelection clamour, shows Turnbull’s approval hovering at its highest level since early 2016, with the government edging ever closer to a 50–50 two-party-preferred result.

If this appears to mean the government is getting something right – perhaps the bit that involves knuckling down and not making a spectacle of itself – how much should the byelection losses cause a reassessment? As with any political event, we must guard against overreading. But some elements have been consistent across both the byelections and the 2016 election and should be taken seriously.

The first is that Labor’s campaigning, from its leader down to its volunteers, is in better shape than the Coalition’s. Aaron Patrick in the Financial Review this week pointed out that the Liberals have yet to preselect candidates for most marginal Labor seats. The second is that Labor knows how to frame and win the contest between health and company tax cuts. Neither of these augur well for Turnbull.

The third is large protest votes. As Peter Hartcher observed for Fairfax, “Wherever there was a credible independent or minor-party challenger to the duopoly, that candidate gained substantial support.”

The leaders are aware of this. You could tell from the sackcloth-and-ashes tour they immediately embarked upon. Turnbull vowed to look “very seriously and thoughtfully and humbly” at the results. Bill Shorten explicitly said “we hear you” to those who voted for third parties, and has spent the days since the vote repeating a version of this mea culpa: “We understand that you are over politicians just fighting each other.”

Both are right to be concerned. But the need to win over voters who are turned off by major-party politics is a greater problem for Turnbull, for a simple reason: he is in government. Incumbency was once a great advantage. But the mood of the electorate, encouraged by a faster, louder media cycle, is for protest. The raison d’etre of an opposition is to protest: the times suit opposition leaders. 

Shorten, like Tony Abbott before him, instinctively gets this. Improving upon the Abbott model, Shorten also sees that protest needs a focus. That is why he promised more policy on byelection night. This week he specifically flagged action on wages.

So far, the government’s only real response to the threat has been to try to parrot what it believes are voters’ concerns. And this is where we come to the second event that should make us rethink immigration politics. The government’s Days of Rage appeared to achieve nothing in the byelections.

Some, optimistically, will conclude this means the politics of race is a spent force. I doubt that. It does suggest it might not be as useful to the Coalition as some MPs believe. For voters who are racist, the government will never look as sincerely racist as One Nation. For voters who are looking to lodge a protest, an underdog party is always going to have a clearer appeal than the behemoth of government.

But just as the opposition has a particular advantage, so too does the government. It’s incredibly obvious, and I shouldn’t have to say it. The government – unlike every other party or individual MP in parliament – can do things. Paul Keating used to tell his MPs that he was the Road Runner, that the opposition leader was Wile E. Coyote, and that “if you run fast enough, you burn the road up behind you, there is no road for anybody else”.

The problem for the prime minister is not only that the government is failing to burn up the road – it’s spending most of its time in reverse. Minister Greg Hunt this week agreed to fix privacy protections around My Health Record. The Australian reported that Turnbull was getting more involved in negotiations with Catholic schools on private school funding. These are important issues, but if the government’s focus remains on fixing existing problems it will be difficult for it to get way out ahead on policy.

The government’s largest reversal looks set to come on company tax cuts. Coalition MPs were both publicly and privately calling for them to be dropped. In a reminder of what the government was like a few months ago, Scott Morrison and Peter Dutton delivered lines that were at odds with each other, or at least not sufficiently well coordinated to avoid that impression. Turnbull named a new chief of staff this week, and you would expect fixing confusions like this would be one of his priorities.

Dropping the tax cuts risks making Turnbull look weak and empty. But it is an opportunity, too. Turnbull has never convinced voters he has a vision beyond the piecemeal and technocratic. Concocted flare-ups over immigration simply draw attention to that lack. If he lost his job in 10 months, what sort of a country would he like to leave behind? If he can use the money saved from the tax cuts to begin to answer that question, he will be a lot closer to winning the election than he is now.

Turnbull has no time to waste – partly because there are always unexpected problems that will take up unexpected time. This week BuzzFeed reported that the Federal Police had referred its investigation into leaks from the office of Jobs Minister Michaelia Cash to the public prosecutor. On the Labor side, the controversy around MP Emma Husar continued. And in state politics, Labor staff and campaigners were questioned by police over the misuse of taxpayer money at the last Victorian election.

The government may sign up the states to the design of its national energy guarantee next week. That would be a major bit of progress, though Queensland and Victoria appear to be backing away. It would be both ironic and impressive if Turnbull’s largest achievement, in these hyper-partisan times, comes about because Labor gets on board. Shorten has been busy saying voters are over the Punch and Judy show. Is he paving the way for agreement, or taking out insurance?

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 4, 2018 as "The reverse road runner". Subscribe here.

Sean Kelly
is a political commentator and writer, and a former adviser to prime ministers Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard.