A prime minister who would rather not face the Parliament is a leader in terminal trouble. Let’s face it, PMs owe their position to their command of the party room and of the House of Representatives. But Malcolm Turnbull’s fear of both shows that his leadership has, at best, become a day-to-day proposition.
The government’s excuse for putting off the parliament just doesn’t wash. House leader Christopher Pyne says that all the parliament has to consider before Christmas is same sex marriage and citizenship; but just a day earlier the government had demanded that the parliament pass the company tax cuts as soon as possible. As well, there are at least 50 pieces of legislation the House could be dealing with while waiting for the Senate to finalise gay marriage. But the real reason for the delay is the risk of losing on the floor of the Parliament while the government is down two votes; together with the Prime Minister’s inability to explain to his backbench how he’s going to keep his commitment to protect freedom of religion which he’d earlier said he believed in even more than in same sex marriage.
Liberal MPs are mutinous over both the government’s policy direction and its political management. Except where it’s maintained its predecessor’s policy, all the Turnbull government’s decisions have been Labor-lite: the superannuation tax, the bank tax, the Gonski spend-a-thon, and the National Energy Guarantee that puts reducing emissions ahead of cutting power prices.
MPs are also appalled by the government’s utter lack of political foresight. Instead of double-and-triple-checking all its MPs’ citizenship status and quietly working with the opposition to manage what was clearly a problem for both sides of politics, Turnbull attempted to bully the High Court and then to claim some dubious high moral ground against Labor.
The instant Turnbull made his declaration about religious freedom, the government should have started working on options for improved protections once the plebiscite passed. Instead, it’s making it up on the run. Selectively importing a UN covenant into Australian law is more likely to enable further assaults on Christian faith than it is to allow religious schools and health care institutions to maintain their ethos and practices. The determination of some National Party MPs to support a royal commission into banking is partly payback for Turnbull’s triumphalism over the SSM result and seeming indifference to the religious freedom he said he’d protect.
Turnbull doesn’t seem to understand that more Coalition voters opposed same sex marriage than supported it. So if he gets same sex marriage into law, without also protecting religious freedom, he will face a very sullen party room indeed.
If Kristina Keneally were to win the Bennelong by-election – now a real prospect – every Liberal on a margin of less than 10% would panic. And the Queensland election result is almost certain to hurt Turnbull. If a lacklustre Labor state government is returned, he will almost certainly get part of the blame. If the LNP limps over the line with One Nation preferences, that won’t help Turnbull because he’s the Liberal leader Hanson voters like least. And even if Liberal National leader Tim Nicholls were to storm home, the contrast would be drawn between a state leader with policies you could see, hear, taste and touch (build a dam, start a mine, and open a power station) and a prime minister who’s better at taking selfies than getting things done.
Until now, Turnbull has been protected by the absence of a clear rival. For more than two years, to justify the coup, Turnbull backers have had to demonise the Abbott government; and to explain the PM’s poor performance in office, they’ve had to claim that Abbott was undermining him. That makes it hard for Abbott to return, at least this side of a federal election. Peter Dutton is probably the government’s strongest minister but he hasn’t differentiated himself from Turnbull and is untested in top-level politics.
That leaves Julie Bishop and Scott Morrison. The foreign minister and the treasurer have formed an alliance of convenience based on Bishop’s alleged popularity and Morrison’s success in stopping the boats. Bishop is supposed to appeal to the middle ground and Morrison to the conservative base. But Bishop has lost too many leaders not to be seen as the Lady Macbeth of the Liberal Party and Morrison has been a poor treasurer. Neither is likely to address the Liberals’ basic problem: no one really knows what they stand for and how they’re different from Labor.
For months now, the Turnbull government has been propped up by those who insist Bill Shorten would be worse. Probably, he would be; but Turnbull’s cluelessness is making a Shorten prime ministership almost inevitable. The choice is not an exclusive one between Turnbull and Shorten ; it could also be between Shorten and a better Liberal with more chance of winning and more capacity for good government. But the Liberals have to work out who that is.
Ross Fitzgerald is Emeritus Professor of History and Politics at Griffith University. He is the author of 39 books, including the political/sexual satire ‘Going Out Backwards : A Grafton Everest Adventure’, which was shortlisted for the 2017 Russell Prize for Humour Writing. Professor Fitzgerald’s blog is available via this link