So much has been happening since my Commentary last Friday 1 December that it is difficult to sort out what is important and what is not. The surprise improvement in the Coalition’s polling on 4 December from a negative 45/55 TPP to a negative 47/53 TPP, and in Turnbull’s net satisfaction rating from minus 29 points to minus 25 points, has led some commentators to see this as the start of a recovery for Mr Turnbull (see attached Crowe on Newspoll). Certainly, by announcing Cabinet approval of the establishment of a Royal Commission into the alleged misconduct of Australia’s banks and other financial services entities after he had previously rejected it on several occasions, Turnbull bought off the threat by a National’s MP to move in Parliament for a public banking inquiry. He also claimed support for the Coalition from the favourable swing of about 12% in Barnaby Joyce’s winning by-election, although he played no part in Joyce’s campaign. And he has been helped by the withdrawal of the threatened resignation by Coalition MP George Christensen (initially kept secret to highlight the “crisis”), who reportedly claimed that Joyce’s win gave the National’s a “reinvigorated leader”.
At the same time, however, other developments suggest Turnbull’s Prime Ministership remains hanging by a thread. These include
* The NSW leader of the National Party, John Barilaro, signalled the National’s unhappiness with Turnbull by calling on him to resign.
* Academic Fitzgerald portrays “an allegedly conservative government that’s increased taxes, increased spending and increased regulation”, “that’s slugged self-funded retirees and bank shareholders with big new taxes, blown billions of borrowed dollars on the left’s Gonski changes, put cutting emissions ahead of cutting power prices, and just agreed to a royal commission into the banks that it had resisted for two years”.
* Business analyst Terry McCrann pointed out on 5 December that, inter alia, the swing to Joyce reflected the absence of Windsor (who got 29% of the vote in the 2016 general election but did not stand in the by-election).
* Columnist Janet Albrechsten wrote an excellent article in yesterday’s OZ surveying Turnbull’s “achievements”. Among a range of such achievements, she included “his capacity for delusion as just one of the reasons he earns a D this year for his 2017 performance as Prime Minister …this delusion reaches comic proportions given the growing number of voters who have decamped from the Liberal Party to One Nation, and increasing numbers looking closely at Cory Bernardi’s breakaway conservative party… despite a little poll boost this week, the Turnbull government has trailed Labor all year, for 24 polls now. Its best result was a lag of four points. This week it was a six-point lag behind Labor… the gap reflects Turnbull’s D and his desertion of the Liberal brand”.
* Albrechsten also drew attention to Turnbull’s “dabbling” in reforming free speech and his ability to claim that he could not achieve it because he could not persuade other left-leaning Liberals, which she described as “LINOs — Liberals in Name Only”.
Today The Australian has published an article by John Stone which covers some of the same ground as his recent Spectator article but now describes Turnbull, politically speaking, as “a dead man walking” and predicts a Labor win in the Bennelong by-election partly because “Turnbull reneged on his clear promise” that religious freedoms would be protected in the same-sex marriage legislation. Stone concludes
“Some things have now long been obvious. First, Turnbull must go. Second, the sooner the better. Third, his replacement must be from the party’s right (ruling out Julie Bishop). Fourth, as Chris Kenny wrote last month in The Weekend Australian, while there are costs to any leadership change, “one leadership alternative will always remain for the Coalition”: a reversion to “reinstall someone elected in a landslide in 2013 and robbed of a chance at re-election”. Kenny is right. If the Liberals want to hold Bennelong, they should not only replace Turnbull immediately, but also choose a leader whose own commitment to traditional marriage is unquestionable. Only one person fits: Tony Abbott”.
In contrast, Columnist Niki Savva, a long standing supporter of Turnbull, argues that “if the Liberals replace their leader this side of the federal election, which could be sooner rather than later thanks to the rolling, roiling citizenship saga, they will be signing the government’s death warrant”. Yet she offers no justification for this conclusion when the opposit conclusion seems more realistic, particularly as she also acknowledges that opponents of Turnbull will continue criticism “partly because they can, partly because this government often gives the impression it has a death wish, and partly because of the number of political missteps, there is no good reason or incentive for them to stop”. She also acknowledges that, while “Turnbull has sharpened up…he has to stay sharper without let-up. He has to get out more; then, when he is out and about, he has to have fixed in his head what message it is he wants to transmit, and — while we are at it — stop checking his watch, keep his hands out of his pockets or stop folding them behind his back so they are always ready to shake or hug”.
To me this sounds like a message of doom on which Turnbull would be wise to acknowledge and change course – but which Liberal MPs should recognise and move in their own interests to remedy ASAP as Stone has recommended.