Liberals must confront the unthinkable
As prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull knows he’s in trouble. Why else would he have said that polls don’t matter, when losing 30 polls in a row was his justification for knifing Tony Abbott? With the regicide genie well and truly out of the bottle, and with no polls won since the all-but-lost federal election, his colleagues won’t need another 24 bad polls to conclude that leadership change is needed.
What’s becoming blindingly obvious is that there’s no politically palatable way to cut spending – which is what Australia urgently needs.
Yet even the no-part-pensions-for-millionaires change that Scott Morrison negotiated with the Greens as part of the 2015 budget is under attack now that older people are about to notice it in their bank accounts. The reality is that the Morrison measure targeted the aspirational citizens who are the Liberals’ heartland. It’s reinforcing the rage among the Liberal base triggered by Morrison’s tougher-than-Labor superannuation changes in the 2016 budget.
Because there are so many noisy and televisual critics waiting to pounce – from ACOSS to the Labor Party to One Nation – it’s close-to-inconceivable that Turnbull and Morrison will have the stomach for serious savings in the next budget. The only budget repair with a chance of passing the Senate will involve higher taxes on the Liberal Party’s traditional supporters – and that will create even more dissension on the conservative side of politics and more pressure on Turnbull’s leadership.
To counter the disillusionment of the progressives, and to give himself a legacy, Turnbull could be tempted to support a private member’s bill for same sex marriage. If Liberals had a free vote, it’s highly likely that gay marriage would have the numbers. But that would involve breaking the pledge that Turnbull took to the election: that the only way to have gay marriage in this Parliament is via a people’s vote. Within the Coalition, Turnbull’s fight wouldn’t just be with the supporters of traditional marriage but with all those who say that election commitments must be kept.
With budget repair in the too-hard basket and the industrial legislation passed at the end of the year, what the government really needs is a credible centre-right agenda for the rest of this term of Parliament. In this, Turnbull’s chief difficulty is that the things he instinctively believes in are different from the instinctive beliefs of most members of his party. This is why the issue is most likely not “if” but “when” Turnbull is replaced. What became obvious back in 2009 and what is obvious now is that you can’t have a centre-left politician successfully leading a centre-right party.
So who could hold the conservative side of politics together, devise policies that differ from Labor’s, and stay on message consistently enough to give the Libs a fighting chance of winning the next election?
It’s not Julie Bishop who was swiftly found wanting when she was briefly put under pressure as shadow treasurer. It’s not Scott Morrison who has lost his lustre and whose bombastic style is alienating him from ordinary voters. It’s not Peter Dutton, the most conservative member of the cabinet but who lacks the depth to be PM. And it’s probably neither the talented Josh Frydenberg nor Christian Porter who need another few years before they’re ready for the big time.
The most obvious candidate to do the job again is the person who’s done it before. But to replace Turnbull with Abbott, the Libs would have to admit that they got it wrong once before. Yet to replace Turnbull with anyone else would be admitting that they got it wrong twice. That’s why, however unlikely it might seem to many pundits, we could see an Abbott restoration by the middle of the year.
Ross Fitzgerald is emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University, and the author of 39 books.
The Canberra Times, Wednesday 4 January, 2017.
Also The Sydney Morning Herald and The Brisbane Times on-line.