The PM is in real trouble, even if it’s not all his fault
Perhaps ironically, on a day when his continued hold on the prime ministership is in greater trouble than it has ever been, Malcolm Turnbull’s political judgement has been proved correct.
Today, the government reached a deal with the Opposition on a new citizenship disclosure regime. The deal gives Labor everything it wanted, or near enough: an earlier disclosure date of 1 December, while parliament is in the midst of a sitting fortnight, with more evidence to be provided.
Importantly, this requirement for more evidence was the subject of a damaging cabinet leak last week. Cabinet ministers including Peter Dutton criticised Turnbull for proposing the release of information on parents and grandparents, saying it was intrusive and could pose the threat of identity fraud. Sharri Markson at the Daily Telegraph reported [$] that the prime minister had been overruled by his cabinet on the issue. Typically, PMs resist putting forward plans when they know they may be overruled; such humiliations have been seen in the past as immensely destabilising.
Turnbull gets a lot of political calls wrong. But in this case his cabinet ministers ignored a key political rule: if you’re going to buckle, do it in one go. All they succeeded in doing was giving Bill Shorten another opening – and Shorten didn’t miss the chance. A few days later and Turnbull has been forced back to his original position.
There was a second leak, to Renee Viellaris at the Courier-Mail, who reported [$] that Scott Morrison had warned the PM, at the same meeting, that his plan might bring down the government. “Mr Morrison is said to be frustrated by the government’s inability to unshackle itself from the dual citizenship saga and wants to talk about real issues affecting voters, like cost of living pressures.” Morrison is right – this column said the same thing last Monday. But so what? According to the report he offered no alternatives.
This is the weird thing about this crisis. There is no doubt the PM is in real trouble. He’s also made some dumb mistakes along the way (the court “will so hold”). But there’s no real sense that any other leader would have avoided the problems.
You can’t argue the PM isn’t in trouble, though. A fresh Newspoll [$] shows the Coalition has drifted further from competitiveness to 45-55 two-party-preferred. Worse for Turnbull is the fact that his lead over Shorten as preferred prime minister – which has for a long time been referred to as his one saving – has shrunk to two points. Even worse, the trend over the past ten weeks is clear: Shorten is climbing while the PM falls.
Let’s jump away from Turnbull himself to his cabinet. Newspoll also asked questions about leadership alternatives, and found Julie Bishop well ahead of Turnbull. Turnbull remains just ahead with Coalition voters, but given that pool is shrinking, that might not be so helpful. Dennis Shanahan writes today [$] that Turnbull has “lost key support in cabinet”, and that last week’s cabinet meeting “radically changed attitudes to his leadership”. That this can be confidently written is a worrying sign for the PM, even though he would have received a pretty strong hint from the leaks last week.
All this would be pretty bad in itself – but then there’s the multiplication effect of an approaching election.
The Coalition’s best option would be to hold an election as far away as possible, with Turnbull still in the job. He’s still the best option, but more important than that, it would give the government time to deliver significant policy, and demonstrate genuine stability. Changing prime ministers would not fix the problems at the heart of this government. But if an election were seen as likely early next year, that discussion changes.
It’s worth saying that while things seem bad today, the chances of a successful leadership spill this side of Christmas remain very low. The marriage equality debate is messy, but the signs are that sensible conservatives know it needs to be dealt with. There was much fuss today over a bill from James Paterson seeking to allow rampant discrimination against gay people – but the reality is the bill is unlikely to go anywhere. The chance for chaos is in the Coalition party room, but as Mathias Cormann said today, “There won’t be a government position, there won’t be a formal party-room position.” It is “up to the parliament” to decide what bill to use. In other words, Cormann, and presumably his usual partner, Peter Dutton, just want this dealt with, and realise the “protections” debate is a retrograde distraction. Meanwhile, the citizenship train has a while to run. Anyone wanting to take over the leadership soon is mad.
There are two possibilities here though. The first is that less sensible conservatives move an “empty chair” spill motion against Turnbull, just as one was moved against Tony Abbott seven months before Turnbull knocked him off his perch. The motion would not succeed, but it would be very harmful. My guess is that this remains unlikely, but it depends on how the mood develops. (Yes, the “vibe of the thing”.) The second is that a leadership change occurs at the last possible moment early next year, and only if it is clear both that an election is about to happen and that Turnbull would be trounced.
Oh, by the way, Senator Jacqui Lambie might resign tomorrow, a newly sworn-in One Nation senator has already left One Nation, Scott Ryan became the new Senate president (which may also set back donations reforms), Liberal MP John Alexander resigned on the weekend and there will be a byelection on 16 December, and Malcolm Turnbull will this evening dine with Donald Trump in the Philippines. And a glimmer of good news for the government from the weekend: it looks to have the numbers to refer Labor MPs in citizenship doubts to the High Court.
Are things a little nuts right now? You could say that.
In other news
There will be no resolution until Turnbull deals with his conservatives
A trip to the Philippines reveals the human cost of the war on drugs
“Bodies have been found with hands bound in masking tape, faces covered. There have been celebrities, police and local government officials, including a mayor supposedly involved in illegal drugs who was killed along with nine of his bodyguards in a firefight with police near Duterte’s home city of Davao. Another mayor was killed in his prison cell, supposedly because despite being in jail he was armed and dangerous. This mayor was expected to give evidence against those involved in a drug ring run by his son. But most of the dead – the people who fear the sound of the motorcycle in the street or the knock at the door – are the poor.” (December 2016) READ ON
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