The view from Billinudgel

Leader’s block
How can Turnbull overcome the Coalition’s ongoing poll woes?


From bollocks one week to bollards the next. Malcolm Turnbull’s response to everything that went wrong with the latest session of parliament was to ramp up the terrorist threat with his plan to install aesthetically pleasing roadblocks to deter truck-driving terrorists, and then to disappear into the outback.

And, in fact, it may not have been a bad idea, because as the augurs once more pore over the entrails of Turnbull’s dismembered government, Newspoll reveals that parliament has become a no-no for our prime minister – after a fortnight in the bearpit, the voters tend to turn against him. To put it more brutally, the more they see him, the less they like him.

If this is in fact the case – and the numbers tend to confirm it – it is very, very bad news for his Coalition colleagues. Successive Newspoll results show that the rot has not only set in for the government but also seems to have become entrenched. Even so, they have one desperate straw to cling to: however much the voters loath them collectively, at least their leader is preferred as prime minister over the unlovable Opposition leader, Bill Shorten.

So there is always a chance that Turnbull’s popularity – or at least his relatively lesser unpopularity – may, just may, be able to leverage his party to lift it back into the race. The argument is always that although Turnbull has not met expectations – in fact he has been a crashing disappointment – the voters still keep a vestige of hope that he may yet become the man they had thought he was back in those dim dark days when he knocked off the despised Tony Abbott.

But the Newspoll figures suggest the opposite: the punters are well and truly over Turnbull, too. If anything, he may actually be hindering any faint prospect of a revival before his self-imposed deadline of 30 losing polls reaches the point of no return. And if this is the case, it will be the right-wing warriors’ own silly fault.

After the last election, the received wisdom was that Turnbull had been too restrained, that he needed to get seriously belligerent about Shorten and all his works. So he did: parliament has resounded with outrage and bombast. But this is not the man’s style; the urbane Sydney lawyer was never trained in cage fighting, and it showed.

For all his rhetorical talent, Turnbull is just not convincing in the role of bare-knuckle, no-holds-barred aggression in which Abbott excelled. The more the urgers of the right egg him on to greater excesses, the less it appeals to the broad section of the electorate who prefer their politics to have at least an edge of sincerity, not to mention civility. Turnbull’s rusted-on supporters, those who have not already deserted him in despair, keep telling him to be himself, to revert to the old Malcolm. It may be too little too late, but it may also be the last card left in the well-thumbed pack. Our prime minister needs to become more prime ministerial.

It is something worth pondering in the next few days as he rambles around the outback marginals before returning to parliament, and to what even his advisers have acknowledged has been a shambles.

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum was a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Much of his work can be found here: The View from Billinudgel.

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