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Fed­eral par­lia­ment has now gone into its six-week win­ter re­cess. At his end-of-ses­sion party room pep talk, Prime Min­is­ter Mal­colm Turn­bull ad­vised the troops to recharge their bat­ter­ies and get in touch with their vot­ers. Many will flee the colder climes of Canberra for the con­sol­ing warmth of Europe or the United States. That respite will re­lieve them from what is in many ways a win­ter of dis­con­tent, if not dashed ex­pec­ta­tions, for Turn­bull and his govern­ment.

Deputy Prime Min­is­ter Barn­aby Joyce tried to buy time against any im­pa­tience with the Coali­tion lead­er­ship for not con­nect­ing bet­ter with vot­ers. He re­minded MPs there was plenty of op­por­tu­nity to turn things round. He said this time next year would still be 12 months away from the sched­uled elec­tion – an in­ter­est­ing po­si­tion in light of re­ports that Turn­bull was head­ing for an elec­tion as early as Au­gust next year. Of course, for him to do that the govern­ment would want to be trav­el­ling a lot bet­ter than it ap­pears to be at the mo­ment.

The prime min­is­ter him­self isn’t try­ing to scare his troops into line with the threat of an early elec­tion; he has spent most of the year ur­gently try­ing to shore up his stand­ing with the elec­torate. The most eye-catch­ing ex­am­ple: the May bud­get. It was a lurch to the cen­tre if ever there was one, and proudly la­belled as such by Turn­bull’s trea­surer, Scott Mor­ri­son.

Not sur­pris­ingly it was panned by the right-wing com­men­tariat and con­ser­va­tives on his back­bench as a sell­out to the left, “La­bor lite”, “big spend­ing and tax­ing”. It ditched the re­main­ing zom­bie mea­sures – un­pop­u­lar spend­ing cuts that were a legacy of the po­lit­i­cally dis­as­trous 2014 Hockey bud­get. It com­mit­ted to fully fund­ing the Na­tional Dis­abil­ity In­sur­ance Scheme and an­nounced a very pop­u­lar tax on the banks.

Since then Turn­bull has un­veiled a needs-based schools-fund­ing pack­age win­ning La­bor’s cham­pion re­former David Gon­ski to its cause. And he be­gan to look and sound like the Turn­bull of yore with a clean en­ergy tar­get scheme that takes cli­mate change se­ri­ously and sets out to re­duce emis­sions. For good mea­sure he has be­gun to bang the na­tional se­cu­rity drum more.

And yet the dark clouds have not lifted. This week’s Newspoll, which was 53-47 La­bor’s way, ce­mented the trend be­gun soon af­ter last year’s elec­tion that has gath­ered pace this year. Polling an­a­lyst An­drew Cat­saras says a close look at the poll shows that “noth­ing is hap­pen­ing here”. Though Turn­bull has main­tained a clear dou­ble-digit lead over Bill Shorten as pre­ferred prime min­is­ter, this is not a lead in­di­ca­tor. Prime min­is­ters and pre­miers have lost elec­tions while still be­ing “pre­ferred”. More omi­nous is the shared net neg­a­tive ap­proval of the two lead­ers – an abysmal mi­nus-23. The num­ber cap­tures the mar­gin be­tween ap­proval and dis­ap­proval.

Polls this far out from an elec­tion are not pre­dic­tive, but they are in­dica­tive of how a party or govern­ment is trav­el­ling. The fact is nei­ther of the ma­jor par­ties is trav­el­ling as well as was the norm a decade ago, but our pref­er­en­tial sys­tem de­liv­ers a two-horse race and it is there that La­bor is ahead. And, as Tony Ab­bott mis­chie­vously but ac­cu­rately prog­nos­ti­cated, that makes Shorten favourite to win the next elec­tion.

Turn­bull doesn’t need much per­suad­ing. Any ves­tige of doubt he is fix­ated by the opin­ion polls, par­tic­u­larly Newspoll, would have been ban­ished af­ter his comic rou­tine at the re­cent Mid Win­ter Ball. There he con­tro­ver­sially mim­icked Don­ald Trump.

The sec­tion of the good-hu­moured piss-take that leaked re­vealed the prime min­is­ter’s frus­tra­tion that, de­spite his best ef­forts, the elec­torate seems un­moved. Turn­bull mocked the pres­i­dent’s reg­u­lar crit­i­cism of the “fake polls” dur­ing his long cam­paign to take the Repub­li­can nom­i­na­tion and then the top job it­self. “We are win­ning and win­ning in the polls. We are. We are. Not the fake polls. Not the fake polls. They’re the ones we’re not win­ning in. We are win­ning in the real polls. You know, the on­line polls. They’re so easy to win, did you know that?”

Turn­bull may now re­gret it, but he laid down the marker of 30 neg­a­tive Newspolls in a row as rea­son enough for a change to an­other cap­tain of the ship. Shorten’s of­fice put out an anal­y­sis of lead­er­ship changes on both sides all the way back to 2006. It found party rooms more of­ten than not struck long be­fore 30 bad re­sults were recorded. Whether the com­pi­la­tion was de­signed to spur the Lib­eral party room to an­other de­cap­i­ta­tion or not is ar­guable. The fact is there is no hugely pop­u­lar or ob­vi­ous al­ter­na­tive who would guar­an­tee an im­me­di­ate boost. There’s no Bob Hawke, Kevin Rudd or even a Mal­colm Turn­bull in the wings.

Surely the les­son of dis­patch­ing sit­ting prime min­is­ters is that it achieves noth­ing if it doesn’t unite the govern­ment be­hind the new leader. This is es­pe­cially the case if the van­quished hangs around brood­ing and re­sent­ful. In the Rudd–Gil­lard years that was cer­tainly the case. What is mak­ing things worse for the cur­rent prime min­is­ter and govern­ment is that the di­vide is not only in­volv­ing an ego bent on re­venge – the Rudd par­a­digm – but also a pol­icy di­vide. There is a bat­tle for the heart and soul of the Lib­eral Party as ei­ther a mod­er­ate cen­trist or­gan­i­sa­tion or a con­ser­va­tive right-wing project. This is a lethal mix be­cause it keeps re­mind­ing the elec­torate that the govern­ment is deeply di­vided. Ab­bott, un­like Rudd, is very up­front about it. He makes strong use of his reg­u­lar ap­pear­ances on Ra­dio 2GB, of­ten with a pool news cam­era in the stu­dio that then turns up as footage on na­tional TV news bulletins.

This has to go a long way to ex­plain­ing why the govern­ment goes into deep win­ter with a fran­tic lack of achieve­ment. Just when Turn­bull is po­si­tion­ing to end the cli­mate wars thanks to the work of the chief sci­en­tist, Alan Finkel, his party room is re­sist­ing the key rec­om­men­da­tion of a clean en­ergy tar­get of 42 per cent. This week it agreed to 49 of the 50 rec­om­men­da­tions but not to the one that is cru­cial to de­liv­er­ing a ra­tio­nal tran­si­tion to cleaner, cheaper en­ergy. One Lib­eral back­bencher ex­plained aver­sion to the aim in terms of it be­ing too close to La­bor. “It would be crazy to adopt this tar­get hav­ing ar­gued so long and hard against La­bor’s ir­re­spon­si­ble 50 per cent,” he says.

So de­spite a most un-Lib­eral-like in­ter­ven­tion in the ex­port gas mar­ket, to as­sure do­mes­tic sup­ply, and a move to stop elec­tric­ity util­i­ties ap­peal­ing against the reg­u­la­tor’s price de­ci­sions, the per­cep­tion is re­in­forced that Turn­bull is a cap­tive rather than a leader of his party. Such is the pres­sure on the prime min­is­ter, he says he’s even open to fund­ing new coal-fired power sta­tions. He even uses the much-loved con­coc­tion of “clean coal” when “slightly less dirty” is the truth.

Turn­bull’s other at­tempt to gazump La­bor on ed­u­ca­tion turned into an­other po­lit­i­cal sham­bles thanks to in­ter­nal party dis­sent and a mis­han­dling of the huge Catholic schools sec­tor. Make no mis­take, it is not only that sec­tor that is off­side. The New South Wales, South Aus­tralian, ACT and North­ern Ter­ri­tory gov­ern­ments have lost the gen­er­ous deals they signed with the Com­mon­wealth in the dy­ing days of the Gil­lard govern­ment. Ed­u­ca­tion Min­is­ter Si­mon Birm­ing­ham was un­re­pen­tant. His view is they were over­funded thanks to des­per­ate spe­cial deals.

In the end Turn­bull and Birm­ing­ham were able to per­suade the se­nate cross­bench that they had pro­duced a gen­uine needs-based fund­ing ap­proach and were pump­ing $23.5 bil­lion more into schools than his pre­de­ces­sor Tony Ab­bott was planning. On Tues­day an ex­as­per­ated prime min­is­ter, fac­ing push-back from Ab­bott, Kevin An­drews and re­tir­ing West Aus­tralian sen­a­tor Chris Back among some oth­ers in the party room, re­torted with the home truth that Ab­bott’s cuts were timed to come in this year.

In the end Birm­ing­ham, un­der pres­sure not to deal with the Greens, gave up on them. Their leader Richard Di Natale kept up­ping the ante as he tried to keep his restive party room on side. The min­is­ter, mean­while, pulled off a deal with 10 of the other cross­bench se­na­tors and with­out telling Di Natale brought on the bill. The irony is that much of what the Nick Xenophon Team wrung out of the govern­ment was orig­i­nally in­spired by the Greens.

Turn­bull painted La­bor’s im­pla­ca­ble op­po­si­tion as crass op­por­tunism based on what he called the hoax of its $20-bil­lion-ex­tra 10-year plan. Shorten hit back with the rea­son­able point that the govern­ment can find $65 bil­lion for cor­po­rate tax cuts dur­ing the same pe­riod but not the much less amount for in­vest­ment in ed­u­ca­tion.

Apart from all the dis­tract­ing govern­ment in­fight­ing, there is also an­other per­sua­sive ex­pla­na­tion for why noth­ing is hap­pen­ing in the polls: un­der­em­ploy­ment, stag­nat­ing wages fall­ing be­hind the ris­ing cost of liv­ing and higher bank in­ter­est rates. Not a good time to be seen to be do­ing noth­ing about a cut in week­end penalty rates. At least some­one on the govern­ment side gets it: the Na­tion­als’ Ge­orge Chris­tensen fi­nally crossed the floor to make the point. But then again, in do­ing so he highlights his be­lief that

• the govern­ment is out of touch.


PAUL BONGIORNO is a colum­nist for The Satur­day Pa­per and a reg­u­lar com­men­ta­tor on the ABC’s

RN Break­fast.

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