Monday, February 6, 2017

Today by Jamie Hall

Cory to give PM the kiss-off
Bernardi’s plan to abandon the Coalition is just one of Turnbull’s problems this week


Last week was a tough one for Malcolm Trumble, President of Australia. But this week will be even worse, with the PM now facing three critical problems. On the right, Senator Cory Bernardi is about to quit the Liberal Party. On the left, moderate MPs are pushing for a parliamentary vote on same-sex marriage, forcing the PM to block a change that he himself supports. And hanging over his head are the government’s awful polling numbers from this morning’s first Newspoll of the year.

Earlier today, a series of leaks all but confirmed that Cory Bernardi is about to form a new political party, an idea with which he’s been openly flirting for a long time. His announcement will coincide with the first session of federal parliament for the year, which begins tomorrow. The impact on politics depends on the answers to two questions: Will he bring anyone from the government with him? And how does he plan to survive where so many other minor parties have failed?

At first glance, George Christensen seems like an obvious flight risk (though of course he denied it earlier today). The Nationals MP has previously toyed with the idea of joining One Nation, and he shares Senator Bernardi’s love of the limelight, his white-hot homophobia, and his determination to stem the tide of halal snack packs and other Muslim incursions into Australian culture. But self-interest should lead him to stay with the Coalition. As a senior MP in the Nationals, he regularly and publicly extracts concessions from the PM by threatening to withdraw his support. But as soon as he actually leaves, he’s just another kook on the crossbench.

It remains to be seen how Bernardi’s new party will survive. If he persuades significant numbers of people to defect from the Coalition parties, especially in his home state of South Australia, he’ll solve a problem that is usually fatal for new groups: he’ll have an organisation staffed by experienced people rather than enthusiastic neophytes. But his guiding principles are highly idiosyncratic. He constantly wants to talk about lower taxes and fewer public services, whereas most on the Australian far right would like more protectionism and state intervention in the economy. The “small government” bit is also a tough sell in South Australia, the centre of the Outsider Belt that depends heavily on federal subsidies. Presumably he’s betting that his well-known religious and social bigotry will establish enough common ground with his voters.

Speaking of bigotry, half a dozen government MPs have become fed up with waiting for same-sex marriage, now that the plebiscite bill has achieved its intended effect and brought the debate to an impasse. This reform is long overdue (even Alabama has gay marriage now) and the conservative right have been resorting to procedural tricks to stop it. They’re fighting a losing battle, as public support for the change has gradually increased to roughly a two-thirds majority. Today saw news of similar support levels from Coalition voters in key marginal seats for a free vote (admittedly in a poll commissioned by an advocacy group). Most importantly, the prime minister himself is a supporter of same-sex marriage.

This situation is a gift for Bill Shorten. It allows him to paper over the problems that the ALP has faced over the years when dealing with this issue, and keep the focus on Turnbull’s character. In a speech to the National Press Club last week, Shorten referred to the PM as a “phoney” nine times [possible paywall] – the word must resonate with focus groups – and same-sex marriage provides a perfect opportunity to continue in the same vein. Shorten will be looking for every opportunity to keep same-sex marriage on the national agenda this week.

Today’s Newspoll [possible paywall] has the two-party preferred at 54–46 to the ALP, concurring with last week’s Essential poll. The numbers were 50–50 at the election in the middle of last year, but the government’s support has gradually deflated, and this week it happened to reach the same level as when Turnbull challenged Tony Abbott. In recent years, the largest gap in the two-party preferred numbers came soon after the disastrous Hockey budget of 2014, when Newspoll had the ALP leading 55–45. Could the coming weeks challenge that record? If today is any guide, the answer is yes.  

Today’s links

  • Stunning news from the royal commission on child sexual abuse: 7% of all Catholic priests in Australia since 1950 abused children. One in five of the Christian Brothers and the Marist Brothers were sexual predators.
  • Squeezed between an incompetent human services minister and an irate public, Centrelink staff are starting a series of strikes.
  • Are you embarrassed to realise how little you know about politics in our nearest neighbours, especially compared to the US? Me too. Let’s make 2017 a year of self-improvement, starting by following @AsianElections and subscribing to Erin Cook’s email blast.
  • A Fairfax poll finds broad support for more manufacturing in Australia. But economists will tell you that it makes much more sense to focus our attention on other sectors.
  • The weekly cycles in Australian petrol prices have been a mystery for years. Two academics have recently figured it out, and the answer creates a headache for regulators, explains Andrew Leigh.
  • In a new report, the Grattan Institute highlights a largely hidden problem in Australian schools: students who regularly feel bored, lost or disengaged in class.
  • Over at the Lowy Institute, Henry Sherrell explains how Australia could capitalise on Trump’s failures and become a world leader in immigration.
  • And the latest White House leak story brings a now-familiar mixture of the shocking and the bizarre.

Jamie Hall
Jamie Hall is a data scientist and former Reserve Bank modeller. @jamie_hall


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