Parliament 2016: The year in which Turnbull nearly lost government

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Federal Parliament 2016 — looking back on a messy year of the Turnbull Government chasing its tail, with The Conversation's Nick Economou, Carol Johnson and Natalie Mast.

Nick Economou, Monash University

THIS WAS the year in which Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull nearly lost government.

The national election was the biggest event of the year, which in turn provided highs and lows for all political parties. Labor did very well, at least in the lower house contest, but questions remain about Opposition Leader Bill Shorten’s ability to transcend his reputation as a factional bovver boy.

The Coalition, on the other hand, had a disastrous election. It nearly lost its lower house majority. It was also partly culpable for the increase in right-wing and populist senators, notwithstanding a ham-fisted attempt to block the “micro parties” with Senate voting reform. Whatever qualities Turnbull might possess, competence in electoral politics is not one of them.

Throughout the year, the Turnbull Government seemed to be beset with minor crises, many of which were self-inflicted. Musing on raising the GST and doing away with Sunday penalty rates resulted in serious swings against the Government in the economically stressed swinging seats. The Coalition's internal wrangling on racial vilification laws and marriage equality made the Government appear obsessed with boutique inner-city issues that are more usually Labor concerns.

Serious tensions developed between the Liberal and National parties. This was reflected by the propensity for National Party Whip George Christensen to command almost as much media attention as any Turnbull Government minister.

Honourable mention should be made of Attorney-General George Brandis, who did his level best all year to gain more media attention than even Christensen, especially in relation to his dealings with the solicitor-general. And, of course, Tony Abbott continued to haunt the government from the backbench.

It was all too easy for Labor, yet Shorten’s approval rating amongst the voters remained relatively low.

Thanks to the election, the Senate was the chamber in which the minor parties exerted a lot of influence over the policy debate. But even here, the sailing was not totally smooth. Family First’s Bob Day is going and the prospect of another One Nation implosion appeared to increase with every passing day.

Still, as the year ended, it appeared that the Government had found a way to navigate its agenda through the Upper House. This may point to a better year ahead for the government.

Given the state of the opinion polls, Turnbull will sincerely hope this will be the case.

Carol Johnson, University of Adelaide

This year has not gone as planned for Malcolm Turnbull. An ebullient prime minister was meant to sweep back into office, seizing our “exciting” times with his talk of innovation and agility. A convincing election victory was meant to confirm his legitimacy as leader, confounding both Labor and the Coalition’s social conservatives.

Instead, Labor came closer to winning the election than most expected, seriously damaging Turnbull’s credibility. The social conservatives within the party have had a resurgence.

Senator Cory Bernardi’s sojourn at the United Nations in New York might have been intended to get him out of the way for a while at an institution he despised. However, it merely enabled him to observe the Trump forces in action. Tony Abbott has been citing the significance of Donald Trump’s victory for the centre-right while threatening to play a divisive role if not returned to cabinet.

Turnbull risks losing his own identity as he increasingly bows to the social conservatives in the Coalition. Most recently, he failed to tackle Peter Dutton over the immigration minister’s remarks regarding Lebanese Muslims.

The prime minister who said that Pauline Hanson was not welcome in parliament is forced to deal with a fractious Senate crossbench in which One Nation has essential numbers. The Coalition – and particularly the National Party – deeply fear Hanson’s resurgence.

Nick Xenophon’s surprise victory on government procurement policy in the ABCC Bill negotiations suggest the Government is increasingly aware of the challenges its free-market policies face from those with reservations about globalisation and who wish to support Australian industry.

Meanwhile, Shorten seems to be settling into the role of opposition leader while still trailing Turnbull as preferred prime minister. Brexit and Trump’s victory have largely reaffirmed Labor’s election strategy of focusing on tackling issues such as class and inequality. Labor is currently doing well in the polls.

But Labor has risked damaging its relationship with some business sections. Labor will also be hoping that its focus on addressing economic disadvantage helps defuse chances of it being wedged on culture war issues, given its continuing support for socially inclusive policies on issues of gender, race and sexuality.

Overall, this was the Government’s year to win or lose and it has won by the narrowest of margins. In the process, it has kicked some extraordinary own goals, as the latest forays by Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce and Attorney General George Brandis graphically illustrate. Turnbull will be desperately hoping that the government’s success in finally getting the ABCC Bill through the Senate promises a better year to come.

Natalie Mast, University of Western Australia

This has not been a great year for the Turnbull Government. The overly long election campaign was draining and the narrowness of the victory made it seem more like a defeat.

With the ending of the parliamentary year, the government can now enjoy what must seem like a Pyrrhic victory, with the passing of the double-dissolution trigger, the ABCC legislation.

Ministerial gaffes and ineptitude from George Brandis and Peter Dutton, along with the failure of Treasurer Scott Morrison to cut through, have not helped the Coalition this year. But the heart of the Government’s problems rest with the fact that the Liberal Party is split between two very different agendas.

There is a core conservative group within the Liberals, including Tony Abbott, who believe that his Government could have been returned to power in 2016. The narrowness of the Turnbull victory in July is being used to corner the PM on issues such as same-sex marriageSection 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act and the Safe Schools program.

This has led to a situation in which voter satisfaction with the government is declining. The electorate is disillusioned that Turnbull is not delivering the leadership and policy change they had expected. The lack of unity within the Liberal Party is evident throughout the mainstream media.

The decline in support for the Government strengthens the anti-Turnbull faction, which limits Turnbull’s power to enact change, so voter support falls. He needs to break this cycle.

In September 2015, I suggested that the Rudd-Gillard saga had taught us that former prime ministers needed to be removed from parliament as quickly as possible. I argued that the Turnbull Government needed Abbott and his supporters to 'accept their loss and work for the good of the party'.

15 months later, Abbott commented that

“it is good we’re no longer talking about innovation and agility because that frankly loses people.”

This so openly undermines Turnbull’s agenda, that it is almost inconceivable that he could rejoin cabinet without further destabilising the government.

The conservative faction within the Liberal Party needs to face the fact they are part of the Coalition’s problem, not its solution.

The Liberal Party can’t continue to run on two agendas. If 2017 is going to be a better year and if the Turnbull prime ministership is to meet the expectations of the electorate, he needs to take control of his party and whip the malcontents into shape.

Meanwhile, Bill Shorten followed up his “almost victory” tour of Australia with a plan to wedge Turnbull wherever possible. Labor has bounced back far more quickly than expected following the Rudd-Gillard saga and used the long election campaign to present a credible alternative government.

Turnbull can’t afford to fight on two fronts. He has two years to deal with Labor, but his timeline for his internal troubles will be much shorter.

 is Senior Lecturer at the School of Political and Social Inquiry, Monash University,  is Professor of Politics at University of Adelaide and  is Associate Director, Performance Analytics, University of Western Australia. This article was originally published in The Conversation.

Shorten weighs in on Coalition Christmas plans (source: @SkyNewsAust).

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