The conventional view seems to be that the Turnbull government is on a one way road to electoral oblivion, too incompetent and bereft of leadership to prevent a massacre at the next federal poll.
Turnbull’s image as a weak and passive leader has also taken hold, an assumed truth that does not stand up to careful examination. Beyond the spin of a government spiraling out of control, there’s actually considerable room for optimism for both Turnbull and his government.
This weekend, Deputy PM Barnaby Joyce comfortably held his seat of New England, achieving a record swing of 7 percent, the most for any sitting government in history. In a fortnight’s time, John Alexander will recontest the seat of Bennelong. While the contest is much tighter, it is likely the Coalition will hold the seat. In the event that it doesn’t, the government already has the assurance of crossbench support from Cathy McGowan and Rebekha Sharkie.
Barring an unforeseen casualty in the ongoing citizenship crisis, it’s unlikely the government will fall any time soon. The next election won’t be until May 2019. A week is a long time in politics, let alone 18 months.
The citizenship crisis is an unfortunate distraction for the government, but not one confined to the Liberal-National Coalition. The Greens and One Nation have seen MPs fall, and two MPs on Labor’s own side, Justine Keay and Susan Lamb, have admitted they were dual citizens at the time they nominated for the 2016 federal election. Labor is the only party yet to face up to its own culpability.
By Christmas, the Turnbull government will have successfully legislated same-sex marriage. History will show it was the Liberal Party and Malcolm Turnbull that finally secured the long awaited reform. Opponents will point to the expensive and drawn out process of the postal plebiscite (in politics, that’s called pragmatism), but it is a Liberal MP, Dean Smith, whose private member’s bill will make same sex marriage a reality.
Ironically, Labor senator Penny Wong has somehow been held up as the hero during the entire debate. This is the same MP who lacked the conviction of her principles (sound familiar?) and opposed same-sex marriage when Labor had six years to legislate it. Kevin Rudd opposed it. Julia Gillard was too weak to attempt it. Tony Abbott flat out dismissed it, while Malcolm Turnbull used the only means necessary to navigate rough waters and get it done. Same sex marriage is a significant achievement for the Turnbull government, and history should reflect that fact.
There’s room for optimism in other policy areas too. Turnbull has now neutralised Bill Shorten’s campaign for a royal commission into the banking sector. It speaks volumes that most of the media spun the story as evidence of Turnbull’s weakness. Yes, Turnbull back flipped, acquiescing to the Nationals, but isn’t good government the ability to internally debate the merits of policy proposals and arrive at a decision? By clearing the road for a royal commission, Turnbull has neutralised the issue and settled tensions within the coalition.
On the economy, the government can point to continued growth with record household spending. Business growth is healthy and interest rates remain low. The government’s wise plans to cut the company tax rate to 25 percent is also in the pipeline. The national debt, however, continues to rise, but this is the result of the continued Labor-Green blocking of savings measures in the Senate. Since 2014, Labor has acted like a deranged arsonist, setting the house on fire but preventing the fixers from reducing the flames. It then later has the audacity to point blame for the house burning down.
Turnbull has also made successful inroads on energy policy. The previous Labor government recklessly opened up gas exports at the expense of domestic consumers. The 2012 energy white paper, released by the Gillard government, warned the then government that opening domestic gas imports would impact upon prices for consumers. They ignored the advice and persisted regardless, and five years later the current government has been tasked with intervening to fix the mess.
The government has wisely followed the advice of the Finkel review into energy security, which advocates a ‘technology agnostic’ approach to energy policy, advising an orderly transition to renewable energy while utilising coal and gas to secure base load power. This pragmatic and responsible approach to energy is a far cry from Labor’s irresponsible, unrealistic and recklessly arbitrary 50 percent renewable energy target that compromises reliability and drives up power costs.
Attempting to apply an arbitrary percentage to power sources is an incredibly dangerous approach to setting government policy, since it bypasses the inconvenient complexities of managing reliability and cost for consumers. One only has to look to the blackouts in South Australia as evidence of how dangerous it is to set unrealistic renewable targets at the expense of providing consistent and cost effective energy.
The Turnbull government can also point to its successful implementation of the long awaited Gonski reforms to education. Australian students will now receive record needs-based funding through the vision David Gonski originally laid out back in 2011.
Finally, there’s a point to be made that this image of perpetual chaos is not confined to the Turnbull government. The ubiquity of social media, the 24 hour news cycle and the inexorable torrent of information and accountability has resulted in western governments around the world struggling to present an image of unity and stability.
Voters, more than ever, are now privy to the internal policy debates and leadership tensions that exist within the upper echelons of power. The question is not if this is unique to one government, but if it has always been this way. It is true that there is an ideological struggle between progressives and conservatives in the Liberal Party, but this tension has existed since the party’s inception in 1945. It is hardly new.
Those critical of Turnbull really need to ask if Bill Shorten, the architect of the political assassination of two prime ministers, will really be so different. While Turnbull has no credible challenger (no, there will be no spill this Christmas), Shorten has a list of potential rivals who aren’t particularly fond of him, first in line being Anthony Albanese followed by Tanya Plibersek.
For all the noise of impending doom for Turnbull, the truth is that he will not face the polls again until at least May 2019. The government has already made some notable achievements and with a solid year in 2018, it’s probable that Turnbull’s tenure as Prime Minister may extend to a third term. The fact that Turnbull consistently leads Shorten as the most preferred PM indicates voters’ desire to see him succeed. I dare say he will.