Turnbull, gone in 18 months


With our pollies going back to Canberra this week for the first time since the election, Labor Senator Sam Dastyari is shit-stirring, which I guess it’s one thing he’s good at it. I have always found him underwhelming for all the hype about a bright and sharp young political operator from New South Wales. This is not a purely partisan dislike; those who know me know I find most people on both sides of politics underwhelming.

Dastyari is now trying his hand at prognostication, perhaps reading his Tarot Cabcharge cards, and foreseeing that Malcolm Turnbull will last no more than another 18 months as the Prime Minister, before he is unseated by the ex-Prime Minister Tony Abbott.

The situation would be clearly absurd, mirroring Labor’s farce of Rudd-Gillard-Rudd prime ministership between 2007 and 2013. It would most likely end with a similar result, too.

Personally, why I appreciate Senator Dastyari’s intervention, if I were him I would be less worried that Malcom Turnbull might be gone in 18 months than that Bill Shorten still might not be.

But what if Dastyari is right? I happen to think that he is, at least partly.

I’ve mentioned to a few friends after the election I don’t think Turnbull will last more than 18 months, either because he will grow bored and/or frustrated and will chuck in the towel, or, much more likely, will be rolled by his own. There you have it, here in print, so you can laugh at me in a year and a half’s time if I’m wrong, like most pundits or wannabe pundits tend to be a lot of time.

Both the electorate and the party rooms are increasingly restless and fickle. Turnbull has got a limited time to convince both that he’s got what it takes to actually govern as opposed to just be a Prime Minister. By September last year, a lot of people have forgiven Malcolm his first, disastrous stint at the head of the Liberal Party, back in 2008-09. They did so, because Tony Abbott seemed so electorally toxic after two years as a PM. On that account, Turnbull delivered, winning the election that most people (though not all) thought the government was going to lose under Abbott. But that’s the extent of it. There was so much more to the Turnbull promise that has not eventuated. As a PM, Malcolm has spent almost a year in search of an elusive narrative, all the while floating more balloons than a carnival clown, only to run off to a next one the instant one gets popped. Winning elections is important, of course, and might work once as an argument for sticking with someone as a leader, but won’t be a credible argument by 2019 in the absence of anything else to show for it. And can anyone point to any real achievement of Turnbull PM so far? Over the past year or so, Mr 70% Popularity has quickly deflated, the voters having discovered that the emperor of Wentworth has no clothes. Scratch the shiny surface and there simply doesn’t seem to be much substance there, and what there is, generally goes against the sentiments of the Liberal Party mainstream. It’s not a recipe for either a happy base or an approving electorate.

Turnbull needs to start scoring goals, other than own, and he needs to start doing it fast. This will be made even more difficult by the crazy Senate; the result of a harebrained idea to have a double dissolution election. Senate aside, the early signs are not very promising. If Turnbull’s popularity, and more importantly the Coalition vote, won’t start improving – and since the Labor opposition can’t get any worse, this will only happen if the government starts doing something right – by mid-term backbenchers will be getting restless, and there are always plenty of nervous MPs sitting on wafer thin margins starting down the barrel of a Labor gun at the next election. In the end, politics is about survival, and the swinging vote in the party room will not continue to line up behind someone who is likely leading them into electoral oblivion (see also: Tony Abbott PM).

What is saving Turnbull in the top job in the foreseeable future is the lack of any serious competition. Here I part my ways with Senator Dastyiari; I don’t think that Tony Abbott is a serious contender. He might be making all the right noises to the party base disillusioned by the trendy and fickle Turnbull (don’t you wish Tony had more steel in him when he actually was the PM?) but I don’t think the electorate is going to warm up to him any time soon, if ever. Sure, there have been many comebacks in Australian politics, including of course Kevin Rudd (with a rather pathetic and unhappy ending) and John Howard (who was able not only to resurrect but also to reinvent himself), but Tony strikes me as more of a Rudd than a Howard, not in a sense of any real similarities (I certainly don’t think that Abbott is a borderline psychopath like Rudd) but in terms of a likely political trajectory.

Who else is there, if not Abbott? Julie Bishop would make a better Prime Minister than Turnbull, and certainly a better female PM than Gillard, but she doesn’t have enough support amongst her colleagues, many of whom resent her as an opportunistic survivor. Scott Morrison certainly wants to be a Prime Minister, but he doesn’t have what it takes, including the electorally important qualities of warmth and charisma. And that’s, no offence to others, it. There are some talented and promising younger MPs, but they won’t be experienced, ready and credible for another decade.

All this is good for Malcolm and his chances of survival, but bad for the Liberal Party, the Coalition government and Australia. But just because the other options are sub-optimal it doesn’t mean they won’t be taken, particularly in a desperate hour (again, see Rudd’s second stint as PM). So while my money is still on Turnbull not lasting the next 18 months (in the absence of an unlikely political flowering), I have little faith that what (or who) comes after him will be much of an improvement, or at least enough to save the Coalition government at the 2019 poll.

As I like to say, being a pessimist means you’re never disappointed. But oh, how I would like to be.