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Is Malcolm Turnbull out of the danger zone?

15 December 2017

Political year in review | A lack of state or federal leadership coups made for an unusual year in Australian politics. And the strangeness didn’t end there


A topsy-turvy year: prime minister Malcolm Turnbull (centre) and Liberal candidate for Bennelong John Alexander campaigning in Epping on 15 December. Mick Tsikas/AAP Image

A topsy-turvy year: prime minister Malcolm Turnbull (centre) and Liberal candidate for Bennelong John Alexander campaigning in Epping on 15 December. Mick Tsikas/AAP Image

With Christmas almost upon us, it seems certain that 2017 will be the first year since 2000 in which no leader of a major party, federal or state, has been felled by a leadership coup. At least one leader has been brought down in every year since 2001, with five voted out by their colleagues in the single most coup-prone year, 2008.

Unusually, Malcolm Turnbull has been both the victim and the beneficiary of this phenomenon. Six years after losing the Liberal leadership to Tony Abbott in 2009, he became the seventy-second MP since 1971 to become leader of a major party as a result of the overthrow of the incumbent (see table below). The seventy-third, Tim Nicholls, recently resigned after losing the Queensland election.

Turnbull was the sixth MP in Australian history to succeed to the prime ministership in this way. Before 2010, there were just three — Arthur Fadden, who replaced Robert Menzies in 1941; William McMahon, who replaced Gorton in 1971; and Paul Keating, who defeated Bob Hawke in 1991. But then came three in quick succession, with Julia Gillard replacing Kevin Rudd in 2010, Rudd returning the favour in 2013, and Turnbull displacing Abbott in 2015.

Barring a very bad result in Bennelong, a challenge to Turnbull in the near future seems unlikely. Indeed, nearly all commentators take the view that he finished the parliamentary year on a high. Yet his leadership will continue to be a focus of acute internal conflict.

Just a week before parliament rose, some pundits had all but written Turnbull’s political obituary. The ever-excitable Australian’s front-page headline on 2 December had Liberal elder statesman John Howard calling for an end to the “madness.” Its staunchly conservative political editor, Dennis Shanahan, declared that Turnbull’s “authority is gone,” whether or not he survives. For the paper’s Paul Kelly, this was a government torn by two epic conflicts — between conservatives and progressives in the Liberal Party and between Liberals and Nationals as coalition partners. Kelly quoted former deputy prime minister John Anderson describing the cleavage within the Coalition as “a national crisis” for which the PM must take the blame. “Conservative voters are deserting us in droves,” said Anderson. “They don’t feel there is respect for them… The PM must show respect for the five million people who voted No, most of whom are his supporters.”

The sense of crisis had been building for weeks, but intensified after Labor retained government in Queensland and One Nation picked up around 14 per cent of the vote. Several National Party MPs became openly rebellious, and Liberal backbencher Ian Macdonald expressed the view that changing from Abbott to Turnbull had been the start of a disaster. Most spectacularly, NSW deputy premier and National Party leader John Barilaro told Alan Jones that Turnbull should resign in the interests of the party and the nation. Such a call by such a senior party figure is unprecedented.

Turnbull had been dealing, not always adroitly, with three difficult issues: marriage, banks and dual citizens. Although the marriage ballot had delivered a decisive result, new lines of contention had opened up. Bakers and florists were thrust onto the front line of a battle for religious freedom, and baristas can’t be far behind. Nevertheless, the bill sailed into law, with Turnbull appointing former cabinet minister Philip Ruddock to lead an inquiry into freedom of religion. But the divisions within the Coalition, genuine or confected, were on full display.

After vigorously resisting the option for eighteen months, and doing so right up until the eve of his reversal, Turnbull finally agreed to a royal commission into the banks. It was a forced shift; Turnbull knew he couldn’t control the numbers if a bill to establish a commission came before the house. He prolonged the political pain for himself by resisting for so long.

Running throughout was the unforeseen crisis triggered by revelations that some MPs were, or were suspected to be, dual citizens. With Barnaby Joyce and John Alexander missing from its ranks, the government’s majority in the lower house was on a knife edge. Turnbull abandoned one of the two remaining sitting weeks, an action not taken since after the Bali bombing in 2005. It looked like the work of a leader in panic.

These crises were further fuelled by leaks. In mid November, a front-page report revealed that cabinet had been discussing options for a royal commission into banks, a revelation seen as evidence of dissension at the highest levels. Julie Bishop called for a formal investigation of the leak, which she described as a criminal offence. If the leaker were by some mischance to be identified, though, it would have escalated the embarrassment even more.

Another curious incident fed into the hothouse atmosphere. Abbott cheerleader Andrew Bolt publicised an anonymous threat by an unnamed MP to quit the government in two weeks if Turnbull were still leader. The MP was later revealed to be the National Party’s George Christensen, who had denied being the MP concerned in a TV interview. On the grounds that Turnbull had by this point called the bank royal commission, Christensen abandoned his threat. Bolt was not amused, but didn’t seem to think the episode reflected poorly on his own credulity.

Perhaps the most significant feature of these extraordinary events, though, is the fact that they are no longer seen as abnormal. The conflict within the government is far more explicit and bitter than it has been in any other Coalition government in living memory.

The roots of the current troubles lie in the two leadership conflicts: coup number sixty-two, the December 2009 defeat of Turnbull by Abbott, and coup number seventy-two, the 2015 vanquishing of Abbott by Turnbull. The conflicts embodied in and exacerbated by the two coups — personal, factional and ideological — continue to wreak havoc within the Coalition.

The psychological impact of being overthrown as leader — the public humiliation and personal hurt — shouldn’t be underestimated. Like two other federal Liberals, Robert Menzies and John Howard, who returned for a second long and successful tenure, Turnbull’s own bitter experience means that he is closely and constantly watching for any possible challenges from within.

Normally a new leader enjoys an immediate honeymoon, but in very few earlier cases have hopes and expectations been as high as those that welcomed Turnbull. Partly, it was relief at the end of the divisive and sterile Abbott era; partly, it was the fact that Turnbull was a cut above most Australian politicians — articulate, intelligent, competent; a “modern” Liberal close to the mainstream. After his accession, the Coalition’s poll figures quickly recovered from their seemingly hopeless position; a majority of respondents said they approved of the change, and Turnbull’s own approval had a two-to-one positive margin. (In his last Essential Poll as prime minister, Abbott’s net approval rating was –24.)

But the initial euphoria didn’t translate into a convincing election victory ten months later. In the House of Representatives, the Coalition managed a wafer-thin one-seat majority; in the Senate, the double dissolution produced the largest number of minor-party and independent senators in history. The result not only exposed Turnbull to an unpredictable Senate and an energised Labor Party; almost as importantly, it also meant he lacked the internal authority to deal with his critics.

Polling now finds Turnbull a much-diminished figure. The fire with which he has had to fight Labor means that the partisan divide is much sharper than it was two years ago. His determination to forestall an internal challenge from the party’s right wing has shifted his public persona and policy stances in that direction.

On immigration policy, for instance, he has barely changed the party’s Howard and Abbott–era rhetoric or practice regarding asylum seekers. He joined with Peter Dutton in proposing new, more stringent citizenship tests for migrants. He proposed abolishing section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, a move that was predictably defeated in the Senate. He supported Dutton’s attempt to create a large new department focused on “homeland security.”

Politically, these moves were primarily a blend of fearmongering and dog whistling. They were not measures of the kind previously associated with Turnbull. They appear to have been agreed to partly to lock in Dutton, who is sometimes seen as a possible conservative leader of the Liberals, and to appease the party’s right wing.

Meanwhile, Abbott’s hurt and vindictiveness still runs deep. His friend, Cate McGregor, was quoted in April saying that the former PM was now even angrier at his removal than he was when it happened, and that his desire for revenge has deepened. In July, after one of the recurring series of eruptions, new Liberal Party president Nick Greiner said that Abbott and Turnbull needed to sit down together and resolve it face to face. But his view that “everyone needed to be adults” fundamentally misunderstands the situation: from Abbott’s viewpoint, the sharpening of conflict is the aim. There is no wish for a “solution.”

During the debate over new rules for preselection and other processes in the NSW branch, for instance, Abbott declared that the party was “haemorrhaging members” and called for its members to be liberated from factional powerbrokers. When someone leaked a recording of Christopher Pyne talking to fellow moderates about how well they were doing in Canberra, Abbott was among those expressing outrage: “I can understand why some of my colleagues are saying that his position as leader of the House now seems difficult to maintain.” Before the release of the Liberal Party’s review of its 2016 election campaign, Abbott expressed a hope that it would be “a candid report rather than a mealy-mouthed report.”

In this determination to cause problems for his successor, some have likened Abbott to Kevin Rudd. Like Rudd, he would cut in whenever the government wanted the air clear for a political initiative. He led the backlash over reductions in funding for Catholic schools in early May, undermining the Gonski 2.0 initiative. When the government’s chief science adviser issued a major report on energy designed to advance consensus around the issue, Abbott declared he wanted to have a big fight with Labor. At the time of the May budget, he described Australia as part of the weak government club. His consigliore, Peta Credlin, chimed in with the observation that the budget owed more to Labor than to Liberal fundamentals, and Abbott laboured the same point.

But the differences between the two vanquishees are more important than the similarities. Rudd, always more popular in the polls than his successor, had a plausible prospect of returning to the leadership. All his moves were focused to this end. His public statements may have been disruptive, but they were usually framed in ways that made it hard to pin a charge of disloyalty. Much of his destabilising was done through leaks and briefings.

Abbott’s actions have weakened his leadership prospects. As late as March this year, the respected political commentator Tom Switzer could assert, “It’s still possible that Malcolm Turnbull will be knifed by the very bloke he backstabbed nearly eighteen months ago.” Rather more implausibly, he also claimed that “Abbott is the man the ALP most fears.” By October, McGregor believed that Abbott’s “stocks have never been lower.” He would not “reach double figures in the party room today such is the outrage at his disloyalty.”

Abbott’s first salvo for 2017 was fired in late February. He used a book launch to unveil a sweeping conservative manifesto: cut government spending; cut immigration; slash the renewable energy target; abolish the Human Rights Commission; and gut the Senate’s ability to block the government’s agenda. As Turnbull was quick to point out, Abbott’s comments were designed to attract maximum publicity just before a Newspoll survey. Whether or not they had any effect, the poll found a huge 55–45 two-party-preferred majority for Labor.

Abbott often casts himself as the conscience of the Liberal Party, the keeper of the flame, with a duty to ensure it stays on the right track. “I can assure you, I’m in no hurry to leave public life, because we need strong liberal conservative voices now, more than ever,” he said in late June. “I will do my best to be a standard-bearer for the values and the policies that have made us strong.” And: “We need to make Australia work again — because our country, plainly, is not working as it should.”

The longest-running battleground was the territory on which Turnbull’s first leadership faltered — global warming and environment and energy issues. When the long-scheduled closure of the Hazelwood power station — Australia’s oldest and most polluting plant — was imminent, Abbott said it should be kept open, criticising what he portrayed as its French owners’ ideological fixation. As always, he spoke as if this were a cost-free option, defying the commercial reality that was driving the owner of this privatised operation.

On policies to combat climate change, Turnbull has seemed in constant retreat. He favoured an emissions trading scheme up until 2010. Then, when his minister Josh Frydenberg released a discussion paper that included the option of an energy intensity scheme, he vetoed it within twenty-four hours in response to internal criticism. That move might have reflected the balance of opinion inside the Coalition, but most other major players — the Business Council of Australia, the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the National Farmers’ Federation, Energy Networks Australia, the NSW Liberal government, and conservation groups — wanted to see an emissions intensity scheme introduced as quickly as possible.

Turnbull then commissioned chief scientist Alan Finkel to draw up an options paper. Finkel’s scheme included a renewable energy target, which immediately became a target of the conservatives. According to one report, fully twenty-one MPs told the party room they either opposed the proposal or had major concerns. When controversy was at its height, a headline story (never denied) claimed that Abbott told Turnbull he would vote against any attempt to legislate for the target. Another Turnbull retreat resulted.

Responding to Abbott’s public broadsides, several people pointed out that he hadn’t taken many of the actions he now advocated when he was prime minister, and that the chances of implementing several of them were next to zero. (Gutting the Senate, for instance, would require a constitutional referendum.) A strong theme of Abbott through the year was that Turnbull had promised at the election that same-sex marriage would be decided by the Australian people and not by a free vote in the parliament, and he had to keep that promise. Yet although Turnbull had also gone to the election promising a renewable energy target, Abbott said the Paris climate agreement (which his government had signed) shouldn’t be treated as a straitjacket. As Crikey’s Bernard Keane pointed out, Abbott has adopted seventeen different positions on climate change since it became a live political issue.

Conflicts over leadership have common features, but each is unique, reflecting the personalities involved and the circumstances in which they occur. The AbbottTurnbull struggle has two distinctive features: it is framed in terms of the assumed need for Turnbull to win over conservatives; and the insurgent’s campaign is fuelled by an unusually vociferous right-wing chorus in sections of the media.

Anti-Turnbull views are pushed relentlessly in the echo chamber of Murdoch tabloid commentators, and rather more verbosely in the Australian; by commercial radio shock jocks, notably 2GB’s Alan Jones and Ray Hadley; and by some talk shows on Sky News. Together, they amplify every criticism of Turnbull and applaud every statement of Abbott’s. This group is also notable for the ferocity and extremism of its language. On election night 2016, for instance, Peta Credlin and Alan Jones referred to those who overthrew Abbott as “bed-wetters.” This chorus of witches from Macbeth, as Guardian columnist Katharine Murphy memorably called them, has constantly foretold the doom of the usurper.

Their visibility feeds directly into the first unique aspect, encapsulated in February this year when Abbott told Bolt that the Coalition risked losing the next election because of the fracturing of right-wing politics and the allure of One Nation and other “grievance” parties. He also referred to the government as “Labor-Lite.” According to this logic, a victory by Labor and the Greens can only be forestalled by appealing more to One Nation voters: to defeat the left, the Coalition must move further to the right.

It is remarkable how often the government’s internal test has been out of line with public opinion. The conservatives sought to prevent or delay or complicate same-sex marriage even though it was supported — as the postal ballot demonstrated — by a clear majority of the public. An Essential Poll showed a clear public majority in favour of renewable energy (with the margin in other polls varying somewhat according to the wording of the question), but opposing renewables was an article of faith in sections of the Coalition. In each case, the political “test” for Turnbull was whether he could move further away from majority opinion. In fact, the disjunction between vocal opinion and public opinion has been a continuing feature of the Abbott insurgency.

Such fantasies were reflected in Abbott’s response to losing the postal ballot. He sees the No campaign as the nucleus of an organisation that could become a counterweight to the progressive campaign organisation GetUp!. It “could be deployed to defend Western civilisation more broadly and the Judeo-Christian ethic against all that’s been undermining it.” Yet again, this ignores how much Australia has changed. Support for the No vote was strong among Muslims, and among various culturally conservative Asian communities. But in what Abbott likes to call the Anglosphere, the Yes vote undoubtedly had more support than in the electorate as a whole. Abbott is obviously attracted by the romantic image of the leader who, as defender of Western civilisation, is licensed to do whatever he or she deems necessary.

It would defy all electoral logic for the Liberals to overthrow Turnbull, although not all their recent actions seem guided by political rationality. What we have seen instead is a new kind of fierce, open party warfare focused on Turnbull’s leadership. It seems unlikely to abate in the near future. ●

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Governments continue to focus on big-ticket spending: health minister Greg Hunt (left) and prime minister Malcolm Turnbull on a tour of the Heart and Lung Clinic at St Vincent’s Public Hospital in Sydney in May. Joel Carret/AAP Image

Governments continue to focus on big-ticket spending: health minister Greg Hunt (left) and prime minister Malcolm Turnbull on a tour of the Heart and Lung Clinic at St Vincent’s Public Hospital in Sydney in May. Joel Carret/AAP Image