Any LNP MP who accepted a portfolio in the recent Cabinet reshuffle did so at his or her own risk. Malcolm Turnbull is now edging close to his deadline of thirty adverse two-party-preferred opinion polls, which by the yardstick and his own reckoning demands that a poll-blighted PM simply must be be rolled. Whilst he now regrets saying as much — you bet he does! — he has never disavowed his original logic.
In modern-day, 24-hour news cycle politics, if a PM can’t resuscitate his popularity within thirty polls, it seems more than likely he or she will lead the party that loses the next election. If so, allowing that he has the honesty and decency to acknowledge grim fact, Mr Turnbull must perforce admit it is time for his own exit. Otherwise, the LNP will sink into defeat and the opposition benches, having squandered an opportunity to refresh its leadership, renew its policies and reinvigorate its message.
Once in opposition, it is not clear if the Liberal Party would continue to exist. The fracture lines, as yet largely untested by rival factions, could well see a full-blown splintering, with those of deeply held conservative principles, those committed to small government, decamping to Cory Bernardi’s Australian Conservatives or new parties of their own devising. Heading in the other direction, the wet and wobbly social democrats — a small-l liberal party, in other words — would make their “progressivism” and further pledge their fealties to Big Government, Big Debt, Big Brother, Big Immigration and Big Electricity Bills.
A key problem the Coalition faces is that there is no obvious leader-in-waiting, as was clearly the case when Mr Turnbull was whetting his knife on Q&A and scheming to white-ant Mr Abbott’s prime-ministership. Leadership decisions for conservative parties were once made in smoky, late-night, all-male meetings of party elders in the Hotel Kurrajong or the Melbourne Club. Now, when Mr Turnbull’s time comes, as it must, by what measure must a prospective leader’s potential be judged? Expedience might nominate Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, but such a choice would appall the conservative wing — Turnbull in heels with a Hermes handbag bereft of both principle and loyalty.
Turnbull’s major “win” as PM has been with a policy (the same-sex marriage public vote) that Tony Abbott proposed and he initially opposed. Even so, that has done little to turn around the two-party vote against the LNP, mired dangerously at or around 53-47. His other triumph came at the Bennelong byelection, when he awarded himself a victor’s laurels for a result that saw a safe seat rendered less so.
The PM may trumpet improved economic conditions in Australia, but the biggest factors in these have been the Trump-led US recovery (i.e. when Wall Street stopped sneezing, and Australia’s cold cleared) and the continued economic growth of China (against many doomsayer predictions).
Meanwhile, Australian manufacturing has slipped further into the “Do Not Resuscitate” zone – appropriately accompanied in Victoria by “voluntary assisted dying” of a more personal bent. As usual, it is the mining and resources sector which has been leading Australia’s renewed growth. This, of course, is the sector the ALP and Greens wish actively to damage as part of their ritual sacrifices to Gaia and the gods of global warming.
Without the Senate majority Turnbull maladroitly sought to obtain via a double dissolution (did he not understand that quotas are halved when the entire chamber is up for election?), his government has been unable to reform Australia’s burgeoning and unaffordable welfare sector. Indeed, it has worsened the situation with an extravagant, incompetently rolled-out NDIS, not to mention the Coalition’s me-too Gonski II package.
At the other end of the spectrum, Turnbull’s own former portfolio of the NBN steams Titanic-like towards a financial iceberg, one that may add another $100 billion to what is already $500 billion in public debt. Unfortunately, minus Celine Dion’s vocals, this ship lacks even a good theme song, although the Beatles’ Can’t Buy Me Love springs readily to mind. Turnbull’s defense of the gigantic mess has been an Oscar-losing performance, if ever there was one.
Who among the current batch of LNP Ministers might save the party? Morrison wants the job, but has revealed mixed abilities as Treasurer; it is a subjective appraisal, admittedly, but he doesn’t light up the public stage with leadership qualities. Christian Porter would be a breath of fresh air, but he soiled his copybook by leading the expanding debacle of the NDIS. Among the younger set there is Matt Canavan, but he is in the wrong chamber and would need to “do a Gorton” and move to the House, plus persuade Liberal colleagues to support a National, which previously required the prime minister of the day to go for a swim and not return to shore.
Peter Dutton? There’s the problem with his marginal seat — 3.2% in his case — plus, just like Abbott, he represents a strain of political thought the mainstream media abhor, and can therefore count on much the same slanders, smearings and besmirchings.
It would require a big jump for these contenders, or any other hopeful for that matter, to seize the reins. But a jump, however risky, is preferable to an uncontrolled plunge that ends in an abrupt and splattering stop, which is what those dreadful poll numbers suggest will happen when voters get the opportunity to register their feelings about a Liberal Party that Malcolm divided in the interests of personal advancement.