Mungo MacCallum: Malcolm Turnbull and the old economic leadership line

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Cartoon by Mark David / @mdavidcartoons.

Malcolm Turnbull still doesn’t get it. While desperately playing down the significance of his own 30th Newspoll loss on the unconvincing basis that he wished he hadn’t mentioned former PM Tony Abbott’s, our leader has taken what he apparently considers the high road.

Prime Minister Turnbull declared shamelessly:

“What I promised to do was provide economic leadership and traditional cabinet government and I have done both.”

Well, the first is at least dubious — the much-vaunted jobs growth is welcome, although it has done little to reduce unemployment. But debt and deficit have got worse and stagnant wages, for those who have them, are the real problem. Still, Turnbull’s boast has some connection to the world of voters, so it cannot be dismissed out of hand. 

But cabinet government? If Turnbull thinks that talking about the 30th Newspoll is confined to the political insiders and can, therefore, be dismissed by the masses, how does he reckon they feel about cabinet government in the front bar of the local pub? Agog with indifference? Comatose with enthusiasm? Euphoric with apathy? Catatonic with ebullience? Give us a break. 

Despite his pledge to eschew political slogans and treat the electorate with respect, our Prime Minister remains so far above the real concerns of his hard-working Australians as to be barely able to articulate their worries. He is still hammering the constant meme of "jobs and growth", although disillusionment set in over that three-worder some two years ago. 

And surely by now, it is time to admit that not only is the great Enterprise Tax Plan economically suspect but politically flawed. In fact, although Turnbull is determined to have another go at it in May, he could be forgiven for hoping that the Senate knocks it back yet again, so he would have the largesse to distribute where it might attract more voter gratitude. 

Whatever happens, it appears that the budget will be a frantic exercise in bribery and spin, and however lavish the handouts to targeted electorates, history suggests that they won’t produce the kind of bounce in the polls Turnbull needs. But, as he and his spruikers keep telling us, the situation is not irretrievable — yet. While Opposition Leader Bill Shorten is the alternative there can still be life and hope. 

So brace yourselves for the negative campaign to beat them all — a "Kill Bill" onslaught that will leave Abbott’s "Ditch the Witch" effort over then PM Julia Gillard seem positively civilised. But to make it work – or even give it a fighting chance – Turnbull needs to convince his troops it will all be worthwhile and there are disturbing signs that some, at least, are ready to tap the mat; that even those whose seats are rock solid are preparing for a mud wrestle for the spoils of defeat and a stint in opposition. 

The idea, especially from the unforgiving zealots of the Monash-Murdoch Forum, is that after the cleansing fire that will despatch Turnbull and his core supporters, the true believers can then resume their rightful place as the conservative heartland of the party of John Howard. Or perhaps Robert Menzies, or maybe Genghis Khan — any role model who will crush the unions, the Greens, Labor and, most of all, any heretics within the Coalition who still harbour centrist – or worse still, marginally progressive – tendencies. 

And after the events leading up to and following the 30th Newspoll, it is clear that the rats in Turnbull’s ranks are not about to let up. The big one this week will be the National Energy Guarantee (NEG) which Environment and Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg will try and negotiate through COAG in the belief that this will finally be the game changer. This will show the mob that the Government is not just a bunch of brawling incompetents – which it obviously is – but a bunch of brawling incompetents with a plan to save the nation. 

Mission impossible, it may appear; but Frydenberg, while a dead-set conservative, is a reasonably intelligent and convincing politician, and is confident of persuading the States and Territories to agree to some version of his agenda, ready to announce it – and presumably legislate it – through the budget session of Parliament. But there is a catch — the party room has signed off on the bare bones of the original plan, but the details are yet to be filled in by the State and Territory ministers, so it will have to go back to the party room. 

And this will be the real test of the right’s sincerity: will they remain committed to their stance on coal at all costs, wrecking Turnbull’s precious circuit breaker and foreshadowing an unending and unwinnable feud that may well scuttle Turnbull his regime but will inevitably lead to defeat at the next election? Or will they back down, gracelessly no doubt, but with the risible claim that they are putting their party (if not their country) first? 

This latter is Turnbull’s admittedly wistful expectation and he needs it to be true because his leadership is now on notice: former Deputy PM Barnaby Joyce, now firmly in the Abbott camp of avengers and recalcitrants, reckons that around Christmas patience will run out. If the polls don’t improve – and that means more than switching from catastrophic to merely very bad, we want a genuine turnaround that gives at least some of the marginals a chance of survival – then, says Joyce, our Prime Minister must do the honourable thing and step aside. 

It is not at all clear who would take over; one must assume that Joyce’s pick would be the unutterable Minister for Home Affairs Peter Dutton, but fortunately, Joyce will not have a vote in the Liberal Party room. Fantasy, perhaps, but the sound of knives being sharpened in anticipation, either in the event of political assassination or just preparing to slit wrists, is becoming all too audible. 

Of course, that’s the apocalyptic option; the more likely outcome, if one can so describe it, is that things will just drag on, business as usual as Turnbull calls it. The more rational members of the Coalition may well be defeatist, but they are not totally suicidal — they acknowledge that a coup, by anyone, would only make things worse and some of them cherish the hope that a redemptive miracle can yet happen. 

Turnbull, of course, has no need of miracles: he remains utterly convinced in his own invincibility. As I said, Malcolm Turnbull still doesn’t get it. 

Mungo MacCallum is a veteran journalist who worked for many years in the Canberra Press Gallery. This article was published on 'Pearls and Irritations' and is republished with permission.

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