The toppling of Tony Abbott in 2015 hit the conservative wing of the Liberal Party hard. One of its own had been vanquished; one of its enemies had been elevated. In the immediate aftermath of the party-room coup, white-knuckled anger consumed the conservatives, but when sober reality dawned it became clear to the more rational and pragmatic of them that they had three options: to retreat, to fight or to manage.
To retreat would have betrayed the conservative cause. And to fight – openly, at least – would have sparked a war not unlike the Gillard–Rudd conflict that destroyed the previous Labor government. So it was the third option that has prevailed – in effect, managing Malcolm Turnbull.
Measuring by its effectiveness in constraining the prime minister’s moderate tendencies, or even his tendency to think moderate thoughts out loud, the strategy has worked brilliantly. But whether it has worked for the government, or even Malcolm Turnbull, is another thing altogether. What it has done for the country as a whole, however, is to induce a crippling policy paralysis at just a time when policy boldness is called for amid global uncertainty and a flagging economy.
The government continues to lag behind Labor in the polls, and the prime minister, seen as a captive of the party right, continues to lose popular support. For the government to survive the next election, it must do two things: first, defy a trend of governments losing ground the longer they remain in office and, second, find a way of winning back voters who were not persuaded to vote for the Coalition this year.
With the next election more than likely to be in the latter half of 2018 (to avoid a messy half-Senate election), just eighteen months or so away, there isn’t a lot of time for this to happen. And just how these hurdles might be surmounted is problematic in the extreme.
Just twelve months ago, still on his prime ministerial honeymoon, Turnbull outlined his innovation agenda, proclaiming, “There has never been a more exciting time to be an Australian business… There have never been more opportunities on the horizon for Australians.” There is no doubting his genuine belief in, and enthusiasm for, innovation, but the heady rhetoric not only failed to resonate with a wary electorate, it was openly sneered at by his own right wing, which saw little there of relevance to its own agenda of social conservatism. In July, Western Australian conservative MP Andrew Hastie came out and criticised the Coalition’s innovation-focused campaign strategy, saying it was “alienating ordinary people.” There was a disconnect, he said, between Turnbull’s policies and voters’ everyday concerns about the future.
As the political year wore on, the strategy of managing Malcolm Turnbull began to form a pattern: party-room grumblings would find their way into the media, then someone from the right would go on the record – people like Andrew Hastie on innovation policy, Craig Kelly on the Turnbull plan for resettlement of refugees in the United States, and Cory Bernardi on climate.
Each of these interventions – and there have been others – served as a public reminder that Malcolm Turnbull’s authority is very much conditional; if the right thinks he is straining too much on their leash, he will be called out. It is not only humiliating for the prime minister, it is also a disturbing window into the ideological turmoil that rages within the senior governing party. No previous Liberal prime minister has had to operate under such conditions.
The result is to force Turnbull into humiliating political contortions that further erode his authority and his rapidly declining credibility. In an interview last month on SBS, for example, he said that immigration minister Peter Dutton had been “misrepresented, recklessly so” over comments that appeared to link Lebanese migration in the 1970s with concerns around planned terrorist activity today. For the record, this was what Dutton said, under parliamentary privilege, on 21 November: “The advice I have is that out of the last thirty-three people who have been charged with terrorist-related offences in this country, twenty-two of those people are from second and third generation Lebanese-Muslim background.”
Precisely why Dutton said these words has not been explained, but we might reflect on the hard reality that very few things in government happen by chance. Dutton, a Queensland conservative and former policeman, is among those from the right who are seeking to have provisions of the Racial Discrimination Act repealed. His carefully chosen words, which delighted the conservatives, very clearly demonstrated just what could be said safely once the pesky act was amended – and to hell with the consequences. It was another swipe at the prime minister and the small-l liberalism so loathed by the right.
If he had his way, Turnbull would most likely prefer not to have Dutton in cabinet – he’s a plodding minister presiding over a dysfunctional department – but his conservative credentials as well as his Queensland base, where Turnbull is weakest, put him among a protected species. The embattled George Brandis, a serial embarrassment to the government, continues in cabinet thanks to the same geography.
Can Malcolm Turnbull loosen the shackles? It’s difficult to say. In his favour, there is no clear-cut alternative as leader right now, the right having lost enthusiasm for Scott Morrison, initially over his having declined to campaign for Abbott in the Turnbull challenge but since then over his less than impressive performance as treasurer. But with the right happy to go public in any spat, any overt resistance on Turnbull’s part is likely to inflame tensions and further damage the government’s standing – so the line of least resistance equates with survival and an uneasy co-existence.
If Turnbull did decide to assert himself more vigorously, it’s possible that the result would be threats to cross the floor on contentious issues by figures on the right. Outspoken conservative National MP George Christensen already threatened to do just that if the government pushed ahead with a $500,000 lifetime cap on non-concessional superannuation contributions. The government capitulated. More recently, Christensen vowed to quit the Liberal National Party if the government retained its so-called backpacker tax. The government reduced it. The same MP has sounded a further warning to Turnbull against allowing a free vote on marriage equality, a move he says would be in breach of the Coalition agreement.
Despite its precarious one-seat majority in the House, the government would be unlikely to suffer damage if Christensen or another rebel did cross the floor over a pet issue; crossbenchers like Bob Katter and Cathy McGowan would most likely support the government. There is perhaps more scope to cause embarrassment in the Senate, with right-wingers like Bernardi, Eric Abetz and Chris Back among potential rebels.
Malcolm Turnbull can, of course, call the conservatives’ bluff, but he will need to pick his issue carefully. In the meantime, the policy of appeasement – such as was seen in the abrupt backdown over much-needed climate policy review – keeps the peace but binds the government to inaction.
The irony at work here is that Turnbull’s personal popularity, a major factor in his replacement of Abbott, is nowhere near what it was. A threat to confront the right wing and court popular support might no longer be possible, and the more Turnbull is muzzled, the more that support wanes further. He is, to all intents and purposes, a captive.
Although dreams of an Abbott restoration appear to have faded, the continued presence – and instant media availability – of the former PM constitutes a powerful weapon in the armoury being used to manage Malcolm Turnbull. Abbott continues to assert his right to speak on any matter – a veiled threat designed to reverse his exclusion from cabinet – and his running commentary, whatever its intention, continues to erode what remains of Turnbull’s authority.
But the sheer risibility of Tony Abbott’s condescending endorsement of his successor’s performance appears to have escaped wider notice. In an interview on Sky News, Abbott praised Turnbull as an “orthodox centre-right prime minister,” adding, “I think this is a sign that Malcolm is growing into the role of prime minister.”
He continued: “He appreciates that it’s one thing to appeal to a certain constituency when you are the would-be, but when you are the man your constituency is first and foremost the party room and, secondly, the people who are going to vote for the Coalition or who you want to vote for the Coalition at the next election.”
The Abbott prime ministership, one of Australia’s most inept, was not so long ago; Abbott famously ignored each of these precepts, and that eventually led to his downfall. His advice is akin to the designer of the Titanic pontificating on the seaworthiness of other vessels.
But then these are unusual times. •