Thirty Newspoll losses in a row: this is the leadership test that Malcolm Turnbull used to justify his coup against Tony Abbott. Turnbull has now lost twenty Newspolls in a row and there seems to be no light at the end of his tunnel. So what does the Prime Minister do when he fails his own leadership test? This is the question that must be haunting Turnbull. And what does the Liberal Party do when its leader fails the leadership test that he himself set? This is the key question that Liberal MPs are facing.
As Alan Jones has been reminding the Liberal faithful that listen to him every weekday morning, in ten of Abbott’s losses, the Liberals’ primary vote remained above 40 per cent. But in every one of Turnbull’s losses, the primary vote has been under 40. It’s currently stuck in the mid-30s and, with a revived Pauline Hanson party and a Cory Bernardi party competing for votes on the right, is most unlikely to shift.
It seems that Turnbull can’t be shamed into resigning and right now the Liberal Party isn’t ready to sack him. But the Turnbull era looks doomed to end in tears: either he will be removed by the party; or the party will be removed by the electorate. That’s why matters are likely to come to a head by the first quarter of next year, when the thirtieth losing Newspoll is likely.
Only extreme political necessity could justify the overthrow of a first-term, democratically elected prime minister. Turnbull tried to validate his coup on the most primal grounds: imminent electoral defeat based on polling. But he who lives by the sword dies by it also. Having made Newspoll the ultimate test of leadership, imagine the difficulty Turnbull will face once he’s failed it himself. Imagine trying to run the country when every media conference begins with the question: how can you claim to be a leader when you’ve failed your own test?
This explains the government’s manic determination to shift the polls by a flurry of announcements late in every week preceding Newspoll weekends – and its anxiety to blame others when the tactic doesn’t work. After the most recent Newspoll, government operatives were briefing that Tony Abbott had deliberately timed announcing he could cross the floor against new subsidies for renewable energy in order to sabotage Turnbull. But the truth is that Abbott has been signalling for months that he (along with some other backbenchers) couldn’t support a Clean Energy Target grafted onto a Renewable Energy Target that was already too high.
If you listen to the PM and his boosters, nothing is ever Turnbull’s fault. A fortnight ago, it was the states that were to blame. Then the blame shifted to Alan Jones’ alleged spell over state politicians who would otherwise have permitted further gas exploration and production. Truly! If Turnbull is capable of learning, perhaps he might follow the broadcaster’s example – if not by adopting all of his policies, at least by aping Jones’ proven ability to develop a clear and cogent message and then stick to it.
The trouble is that Turnbull is a climate change warrior who’s trying to respond to the problems that the policies he supports have created. It was Turnbull who commissioned the Finkel Report and enthusiastically embraced it, even though adopting the Chief Scientist’s recommendations would mean 42% of power coming from renewables by 2030, compared to Labor’s 50% RET that conservatives have rightly been attacking.
What used to be a state responsibility has now become the federal government’s nightmare: how to keep the lights on and the air-conditioning operating this summer when it couldn’t be done last summer — even with the giant Hazelwood coal-fired power station that has since closed. But the fact is that if Turnbull immediately started building Hazelwood 2.0, along with Snowy 2.0, it would take years to get more generation into action.
Turnbull’s past as a strong supporter of green ideas, including Kevin Rudd’s emissions trading scheme, means that his belated conversion to coal looks and sounds deeply insincere.
With the gas companies recently agreeing to maintain supplies for domestic customers and meet their export contracts from the spot market, Turnbull had a much-needed win. On the other hand, AGL looks set to defy him by insisting on the replacement of the giant Liddell coal-fired power station with a subsidised solar farm and a big battery — despite the reliability risks.
The only short-term fix to the power crisis is to get mothballed gas plants into action straight away. But that would mean immediately changing the economics of generation by freezing the RET.
The good news for sensible policy is that Environment and Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg seems to have abandoned the Clean Energy Target, which opens us the possibility of debate in the Senate and the House of Reps that could make the coalition government the party of reliable energy and Labor the party of intermittent and unreliable energy.
The same-sex marriage issue is currently also still quite messy. If “yes” prevails, as expected, Turnbull will have to find a way to guarantee freedom of religion that satisfies conservatives without alienating activists generally opposed to Judeo-Christian values. If, in a boil-over, “no” gets up, Turnbull would be forced to justify the definition of marriage that he’s long pledged to change.
Although Turnbull’s fiercest conservative critics concede that a Shorten government would be worse, voters are unlikely to focus much on Labor until the calling of a federal election. Turnbull could try to break the poll hoodoo by calling an early election, but this has risks, as PM Teresa May’s poll-driven election in Britain demonstrated.
As long as Prime Minister Turnbull looks like he’s responding to events rather than shaping them, the polls are unlikely to improve for the PM. And after 30 losses, the time would surely be well and truly up for Turnbull. After all, that’s the standard he set.
Ross Fitzgerald AM is Emeritus Professor of History and Politics at Griffith University and the author of 39 books, including the sexual/political satire ‘Going Out Backwards: A Grafton Everest Adventure’, which was shortlisted for the 2017 Russell Prize for Humour Writing. Fitzgerald blogs at www.rossfitzgerald.com/