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702 words

End game

20 August 2018

Has the Liberal Party passed the point of no return?

Right:

Prime minister Malcolm Turnbull and energy minister Josh Frydenberg talking to journalists at Parliament House this morning. Lukas Coch/AAP Image

Prime minister Malcolm Turnbull and energy minister Josh Frydenberg talking to journalists at Parliament House this morning. Lukas Coch/AAP Image


A Fairfax–Ipsos poll showing Labor ahead of the government 55–45 after preferences has dropped at just the right time, with the right result, for Malcolm Turnbull’s opponents inside the Liberal Party.

Over the past week or so we have witnessed a largely News Corp–driven leadership semi-frenzy that was starting to spread to the rest of the mainstream media. The media plays a vital role in generating momentum in leadership changes. If it’s not reported — over and over — then how can it gather steam?

The strange all-but-universal political-class interpretation of a modest swing to Labor in the Longman by-election last month as “disastrous” for Turnbull tilled the soil, but Liberal MPs more attuned to objective reality would have seen a general narrowing of the national polls that was finally making the next election look like a real contest. Now that’s been blown away by Ipsos.

Yes, one opinion poll can have such an impact. Only in Australia?

When Turnbull lost the Liberal leadership almost nine years ago, it was attributed to his determination to support the Rudd government’s emissions trading scheme. That was a valid explanation up to a point, but the real driver was a sustained period of very poor opinion poll results. Had the Coalition been ahead, or even only behind by a little, Turnbull probably would have survived. After all, the party room had tolerated John Howard’s professed enthusiasm for an emissions trading scheme in 2007 in the belief, or hope, that he would prevail at the polls.

Once again it’s climate change and energy policy that look like burying Turnbull, and once again it’s really about the coming election, and the Coalition’s lagging in the polls over a long period.

Peter Dutton is the subject of all the speculation — he “has the numbers,” according to his supporters — but enjoys negligible electorate enthusiasm beyond the rabid Coalition base. Tony Abbott longs to regain the crown, and actually enjoys a little more support in the community, though also more ferocious opposition, and not just from left-wing voters. He would presumably settle for the home affairs or defence ministries (and seeing Turnbull humiliated).

Is it strange that Turnbull remains (or did, until this week) a reasonably well-regarded prime minister, according to the opinion polls (including this Ipsos)? The only alternative popular in voterland is Julie Bishop, but the party conservatives would not abide her.

And, at time of writing, the prime minister continues capitulating to his opponents’ demands on climate change policy, a process of hollowing out his public persona reminiscent of Kevin Rudd’s decision to drop his emissions scheme in April 2010. That event drove a big drop in public satisfaction, which dragged down the government’s voting intentions and facilitated his political execution eight years ago.

But back then Rudd had a choice. Turnbull’s options seem to be going out either with a bang, à la 2009, or with a whimper.

So far it looks like option 2.

Back in 1991 Bob Hawke, with his government sagging badly, was forced to make way for the even less popular Paul Keating, partly because it was believed Keating had the political skills to mount a turnaround. That’s the idea today, but neither Dutton nor Abbott is remotely like a Keating, and it’s an incredible stretch to believe either can win the next election by flicking the switch to immigration and electricity prices.

If, as looks likely, Turnbull is dragged down, whoever replaces him will presumably need to disavow any remotely meaningful action on climate change, and instead pledge allegiance to coal. It is difficult to believe the party room would really install such a harsh ideological warrior as Dutton, susceptible to getting carried away by alt-right memes such as the “plight of South African farmers.”

But stranger things have happened.

If not Dutton, Abbott or Bishop, then who? There’s another figure who (like Dutton) attracts about 5 per cent support in leadership surveys. He was the conservatives’ golden boy before he fell out with them over the 2015 leadership change, but would probably be tolerable to them — and preferable to Dutton among the party moderates.

Step forward Scott Morrison — Peter Dutton with a human face? •

 

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