PM may need to stand on his pre­de­ces­sor’s shoul­ders to reach the high bar he set

The Weekend Australian - - INQUIRER - GERARD HEN­DER­SON

No Lib­eral Party leader has set the bar of po­lit­i­cal suc­cess so high as when Mal­colm Turn­bull re­placed Tony Ab­bott two years ago.

Only four Lib­eral lead­ers have led the Coali­tion to vic­tory from op­po­si­tion: Robert Men­zies in 1949, Mal­colm Fraser in 1975, John Howard in 1996 and Ab­bott in 2013. Ab­bott was the only one not given the chance to lead the Lib­er­als to the next elec­tion.

In an­nounc­ing his lead­er­ship chal­lenge on Septem­ber 14, 2015, Turn­bull declared the Ab­bott gov­ern­ment had not been “suc­cess­ful in pro­vid­ing the eco­nomic lead­er­ship that we need”. Joe Hockey said at the time that Turn­bull had never made this crit­i­cism in cabi­net dur­ing the pre­vi­ous two years.

Soon af­ter, the new Prime Min­is­ter made the sort of er­ror most politi­cians try to avoid. He com­mented on the opin­ion polls, say­ing: “The one thing that is clear about our cur­rent sit­u­a­tion is the tra­jec­tory: we have lost 30 Newspolls in a row; it is clear that the peo­ple have made up their minds about Mr Ab­bott’s lead­er­ship.”

It is not clear how Ab­bott would have gone had he led the Coali­tion to the elec­tion last year. As Prime Min­is­ter, Turn­bull lost a net 13 seats (in­clud­ing one to the Nick Xenophon Team), with the Lib­er­als losing sig­nif­i­cant sup­port in Tas­ma­nia, western Syd­ney and Western Aus­tralia.

The Turn­bull gov­ern­ment sur­vived pri­mar­ily be­cause the Na­tion­als, un­der Barn­aby Joyce, were able to hold off chal­lenges in NSW by in­de­pen­dents Tony Wind­sor and Rob Oakeshott, both of whom had sup­ported the Rudd and Gil­lard La­bor govern­ments. The Na­tion­als lost no seats. And the Lib­eral Party in Vic­to­ria won a seat from La­bor.

Last year’s elec­tion was a dis­ap­point­ment for Turn­bull, who sur­vived nar­rowly. Even so, se­nior gov­ern­ment fig­ures con­sider the po­lit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion in the Se­nate to be bet­ter for the Coali­tion than it was be­fore the elec­tion.

How­ever, the com­bi­na­tion of the changed Se­nate vot­ing sys­tem and the dou­ble dis­so­lu­tion brought about a sit­u­a­tion whereby Pauline Han­son’s One Na­tion has re-emerged as a po­lit­i­cal force. Un­der a nor­mal elec­tion for the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives and half the Se­nate, Han­son would prob­a­bly have won a Se­nate va­cancy in Queens­land. But she now leads a One Na­tion team of four se­na­tors.

The re-emer­gence of One Na­tion has put pres­sure on Lib­eral and Na­tion­als mem­bers and se­na­tors in Queens­land, NSW and WA. This has been com­pounded by South Aus­tralian se­na­tor Cory Bernardi’s de­ci­sion to break away from the Lib­er­als and set up the Aus­tralian Con­ser­va­tives.

The ev­i­dence sug­gests that when La­bor loses votes to the Greens, about 85 per cent of Greens vot­ers pref­er­ence La­bor ahead of the Coali­tion. But when the Coali­tion loses votes to One Na­tion, a much smaller per­cent­age of One Na­tion vot­ers pref­er­ence the Coali­tion ahead of La­bor.

De­spite the Prime Min­is­ter’s com­ments two years ago, the poli­cies of the Turn­bull gov­ern­ment have broadly been con­sis­tent with those of the Ab­bott gov­ern­ment. This is scarcely sur­pris­ing, given the likes of Julie Bishop, Mathias Cor­mann, Scott Mor­ri­son, Josh Fry­den­berg and Michaelia Cash have held se­nior po­si­tions un­der both prime min­is­ters.

There has been sig­nif­i­cant spec­u­la­tion about Turn­bull’s po­lit­i­cal fu­ture as the tra­jec­tory of the Newspoll clock moves closer to 30 losses in a row. Yet there ap­pears to be no great de­sire in the party to bring down another prime min­is­ter so soon af­ter Ab­bott was dumped by a ma­jor­ity of his Lib- eral col­leagues. This was only the sec­ond time the Lib­er­als re­moved an in­cum­bent prime min­is­ter. In March 1971, the party re­placed John Gor­ton with Wil­liam McMa­hon. Gor­ton had be­come prime min­is­ter in Jan­uary 1968 af­ter Harold Holt drowned, and won the 1969 elec­tion de­spite a large swing against the Coali­tion out­side Vic­to­ria.

In 1969, the Gor­ton gov­ern­ment was saved by the pref­er­ences of the anti-com­mu­nist Demo­cratic La­bor Party. The DLP had also saved the Men­zies gov­ern­ment in 1961. As it turned out, McMa­hon led the Coali­tion to de­feat in late 1972 when La­bor’s Gough Whit­lam be­came prime min­is­ter. Af­ter that, the Lib­er­als changed lead­ers only when in op­po­si­tion. In April 1982 An­drew Pea­cock un­suc­cess­fully chal­lenged Fraser, the in­cum­bent prime min­is­ter.

In De­cem­ber 2009, Ab­bott re­placed Turn­bull as Lib­eral leader in op­po­si­tion. Af­ter the Coali­tion’s nar­row loss in 2010, Ab­bott ap­pointed Turn­bull to a se­nior po­si­tion as com­mu­ni­ca­tions spokesman. He held the same port­fo­lio in the Ab­bott gov­ern­ment un­til be­com­ing prime min­is­ter two years ago. De­spite re­ceiv­ing ad­vice to the con­trary, Turn­bull did not re­turn the favour af­ter last year’s elec­tion and kept Ab­bott on the back­bench.

This has caused prob­lems, as Ab­bott is one of the best com­mu­ni­ca­tors in con­tem­po­rary Aus­tralian pol­i­tics and at­tracts con­sid­er­able me­dia at­ten­tion. He has a strong body of sup­port among the Lib­eral Party rank and file, along with so­cial and po­lit­i­cal con­ser­va­tives. His ex­clu­sion from the cabi­net is a mis­take but not one that is likely to be rec­ti­fied. So the sit­u­a­tion has de­vel­oped whereby Ab­bott’s pres­ence is not wanted even as Turn­bull moves closer to some of Ab­bott’s poli­cies.

Turn­bull was al­ways a sup­porter of border pro­tec­tion. How- ever, in the past two years he has moved closer to Ab­bott’s tough line on na­tional se­cu­rity.

And now the ev­i­dence sug­gests that the Prime Min­is­ter’s sup­port for a re­new­able en­ergy tar­get is soft­en­ing and he is mov­ing closer to Ab­bott’s po­si­tion on the need for baseload power, even to the ex­tent of hint­ing that a Turn­bull gov­ern­ment has some sym­pa­thy for the con­struc­tion of a high-ef­fi­ciency coal-fired power sta­tion.

The in­creas­ing price and un­re­li­a­bil­ity of power is prob­a­bly the only area where Turn­bull can put pres­sure on La­bor leader Bill Shorten in the lead-up to the next elec­tion in about two years. It is here that the Prime Min­is­ter can demon­strate the eco­nomic lead­er­ship whose ab­sence he be­moaned on Septem­ber 14, 2015.

Ab­bott’s pres­ence is not wanted even as Turn­bull moves closer to some of Ab­bott’s poli­cies

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