The Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, must regret many of his political comments, but surely none more than the words he announced so loudly on September 14, 2015, the day he challenged Tony Abbott for the leadership of the Liberal Party: “We have lost 30 Newspolls in a row”.
They’re only eight simple words among the thousands he’s mentioned since becoming Prime Minister but, over the next month, they’ll become the most lethal ones used in recent Australian politics. They’re likely to see the demise of Turnbull’s leadership and, with that, the end of his political career. At the time of the challenge, he also added that it was clear “the people have made up their mind about Mr Abbott’s leadership.” Has the Australian electorate also made up their minds about Turnbull’s leadership?
In the most recent Newspoll, the Liberal–National Coalition recorded a two-party preferred vote of 47 per cent, a result, if repeated as a uniform swing at the next federal election, would see the Coalition lose 15 seats, and hold only 60 of the 151 federal seats (there will be an additional seat at the next election). This was their twenty-eighth consecutive loss in Newspoll.
And, the figure the mainstream media always likes to use in support of Turnbull, the mystical and largely immaterial preferred Prime Minister rating, has evaporated – Turnbull is preferred as Prime Minister by 36 per cent of the electorate, while Opposition Leader, Bill Shorten, is preferred by 34 per cent.
These are not figures strong enough for Turnbull to ward off potential challengers.
Much has been said about how the Newspoll results are edging closer to the magical number of 30, but often overlooked is the other major pollsters out there – Essential, Ipsos and ReachTEL – and, in all polls taken since the last federal election on July 2, 2016, the Coalition has been behind in all 96 polls, holding an average of 47 per cent in the two-party preferred vote.
Given the Coalition has been far behind in the polling for most of time since the 2016 election, and in disarray since the 2018 political year began, it’s safe to say that when Newspoll releases it data on the evening of April 1, the Coalition will be behind for the thirtieth consecutive Newspoll, the same threshold that was used to remove Tony Abbott back in 2015.
It’s difficult to see how or what the Coalition could do to turn this around.
What will the Liberal Party do then? Parliament won’t be sitting after the April 1 Newspoll is released until the Budget, due to be released on May 8 – by which time, the thirty-third consecutive Newspoll Coalition loss will be released. Although Turnbull has had solid support from the mainstream media, it’s hard to see how each negative Newspoll for Turnbull won’t be used to bang the drum even further and add pressure for his removal, especially with the ongoing background commentary coming from Abbott, recently saying Turnbull will need to “show cause” for maintaining the leadership and “explain why the [Newspoll] test was right for one and not right for the other”.
If Turnbull is challenged for the leadership, who will the contenders be? Realistically, there are five possibilities – Julie Bishop, Peter Dutton, Tony Abbott, Scott Morrison and Josh Frydenberg – and none of these options offer very much hope for the short-term future of the Liberal Party.
Julie Bishop, the Asbestos Queen
The current Minister for Foreign Affairs, Julie Bishop, has been in federal parliament since 1998 and, although she commands a high national profile, her domestic performances have largely been lacklustre, including Ministries in Ageing and Education, Science and Training in the Howard Government; and a stint as Shadow Treasurer in 2008, a position she held for only five months, before she was forced to resigned, due to poor performance in the portfolio. While she has been competent in Foreign Affairs, every domestic portfolio she’s held has been beset with problems, a portent to what her time as Prime Minister could be like.
Before politics, her major case as a legal partner at Clayton Utz was defending CSR Limited against claims from asbestos workers that had contracted mesothelioma, where she asked the court why workers should be entitled to “jump court queues just because they were dying”. She’s probably lost the asbestos worker vote, but there’s little doubt that she ever had it in the first place.
Peter Dutton, the Potato Brother
Peter Dutton is the current Minister for Home Affairs, and appears to be one of the few politicians with a ministry to suit their personality. Dutton’s ministerial performances have also been lacklustre, including stints as Minister of Workplace Participation; Revenue; Assistant Treasurer; Sport; and Health.
Dutton became Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, and avoided the major bungles that occurred in his previous portfolios, mainly because of the lack of scrutiny and openness in Immigration, typically hiding behind ‘operational’ and ‘on-water’ matters. Dutton seems to revel in applying draconian measures to people that have few resources and abilities to defend themselves – refugees and asylum seekers caught in the waters between Australia and Indonesia, or helpless people that he wants to deport – incarcerated them indefinitely on Nauru and Manus Island.
Just like Julie Bishop in Foreign Affairs, Dutton only survives in areas where there’s no scrutiny and domestic focus. It’s hard to see how the Liberals could improve their electoral stocks with such a low performer. Why ‘Potato Brother’? It was used in a Chinese–Australian news portal, Yeeyi, in 2017.
Scott Morrison, the ScoMo
The current Treasurer, Scott Morrison, also has a checkered parliamentary background and became Treasurer after delivering the numbers to Turnbull against Abbott in the 2015 leadership spill. Like Dutton, he excelled in an area that had little scrutiny and was shrouded in secrecy, becoming the Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, before becoming Minister for Social Services.
Like his predecessor in Treasury, Joe Hockey, Morrison has yet to have a Budget passed the Senate, and is usually berated by the Speaker of the House, Tony Smith, for using props during Parliamentary Question Time, most infamously, when he used a lump of coal to accuse environmentalists concerned about the impact of the coal industry of having “an ideological, pathological fear of coal.”
When Morrison became Treasurer, national government debt was $368 billion. It currently sits at $615 billion. After railing against the Labor government for having a large debt ($257 billion when they left office in 2013), he has failed to explain in economic terms why a $615 billion debt is acceptable in 2018, and is a solid supporter of the government’s supply-side economic strategy to reduce corporations tax to 25 per cent, a cost to government revenue of $65 billion over the next decade.
It’s hard to see how the former Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, could reclaim the leadership position – but he could act as a stalking horse for another candidate, such as Peter Dutton, who has strong support within the conservative rank of the Liberal Party. Abbott, of course, was destructive as Opposition Leader between 2009–2013, taking the Coalition to victory in the 2013 election. But, as Prime Minister, he was inept, leading the nation for just on two years, before he was replaced by Turnbull.
While there’s always a possibility the Liberal Party could return to Abbott, it’s doubtful whether the electorate would be so accepting. His time as Prime Minister was ill-defined, lacking in purpose, and he was intent on continuing the destructive pattern from his time as Opposition Leader.
The only other candidate is the current Minister for Resources and Energy, Josh Frydenberg, but he has a very limited range of political and life experience, and tends to fill any vacuum with words, rather than meaning. He may not even be an eligible member of Parliament, after it was revealed his mother is potentially eligible to be a Hungarian citizen, rendering him ineligible under Section 44 of the Australian Constitution. He would be the classic compromise candidate, if the two main rival factions of the Liberal Party cannot agree on a leader.
Other options for the Liberal Party
It’s also quite possible the Liberal Party could just wallow away in the lead up to the next election, which can be held as late May 18, 2019 (for a joint House and Senate election), and decide that Turnbull, far from being the one to retrieve the party from the incompetence of Abbott, has gone in an almost opposite direction with his own brand of inept political leadership and management.
The dynamics of the Liberal Party are so dysfunctional, that a crushing defeat at the next election may be the only remedy to their internal ailments. It’s just a question of whether they decide to burn Turnbull alone, or a series of other leaders in the process as well.