To suffer a significant downturn in one opinion poll might be due to chance, a statistical discrepancy or whatever. But to have the Herald/Nielsen, Galaxy and Newspoll surveys all moving in the same adverse direction indicates a clear assessment from the electorate. In short, the message from yesterday’s published opinion polls is that the Coalition ended the first half of the parliamentary year a long way behind Labor and the Opposition Leader, Malcolm Turnbull, is struggling to assert his political legitimacy.
Few doubt Turnbull’s talent. Success in politics, however, turns more on political judgment, and this is usually acquired over time. The evidence suggests that Turnbull, who entered Parliament at the October 2004 election, believed that leading the Liberal Party in opposition would be relatively easy. That’s why he fought so hard to win the top job.
Turnbull’s ambition and capacity for hard work is admirable. Anyone would have problems leading the Opposition at this time of the political cycle. Kevin Rudd has had Labor well ahead in the polls since he became ALP leader in December 2006, and his popularity was demonstrated a year later with his victory over John Howard.
Turnbull’s current problem is not that the Coalition is behind Labor. Rather, it turns on the fact that the most recent polls indicate there has been a substantial increase in his disapproval rating and a majority of voters would prefer Peter Costello and Joe Hockey to lead the Coalition, followed by Turnbull, narrowly ahead of Tony Abbott.
Turnbull’s handling of the OzCar controversy diminished his authority and diverted attention from the one area where the Opposition appeared to be punching through: the budget deficit and government debt.
There are no quick solutions evident to the Liberal Party’s present problems. Likewise, there is no evidence that a leadership change would make any difference to its predicament. Costello has announced his intention of quitting politics, Hockey is not ready for the job and Abbott would not have the numbers in the Liberal party room.
Nor is any present Liberal primarily responsible for the party’s discontent. Rudd is a very able politician who leads a strong front bench. Moreover, Howard failed as prime minister to do what he said he would do oversee an orderly transition of leadership in the way the Liberal Party founder, Robert Menzies, did in 1966.
If Howard had stepped down in early 2006 he would have been succeeded by Costello, when Labor was led by Kim Beazley. The ALP may or may not have replaced Beazley with Rudd. If Costello happened to win in 2007, there would be no problem now. If he lost, Costello could have stayed in Opposition until the emergence of a new leader which might have been a more experienced Turnbull.
After 2007, Costello was the obvious person for the Liberal leadership but he did not want the job. Brendan Nelson’s time as opposition leader did not work out. Turnbull was the next choice, even though it was known that he lacked political experience. This problem can only be mitigated by time and by appointing the most politically skilled Liberal MPs to key positions. There is not an abundance of talent.
In “Stop At Nothing” (Quarterly Essay, Issue 34, 2009), Annabel Crabb made some insightful assessments about Turnbull’s talents and flaws. She also provided an important critique of the Liberals who entered Parliament in 1996, following Howard’s victory. Put simply, they were non-political politicians who had little political experience and scant understanding of the Liberal Party.
Costello made a similar criticism of Jackie Kelly, the former MP for Lindsay, whose campaign team was involved in the improper fake ALP leaflet in western Sydney just before the 2007 election. In The Costello Memoirs he asked this question about a key member of Kelly’s team: How could anyone be so stupid?
Outside the leadership group (Turnbull, Julie Bishop, Nick Minchin, Eric Abetz), there are only a few Liberals who possess the skills required for opposition. Joe Hockey and Christopher Pyne have senior positions. Not so Tony Abbott (who performed extremely well last week), George Brandis, Andrew Robb and Tony Smith. All could be better used. A few others, including Marise Payne, are yet to be given an adequate chance to perform.
An experienced political team should be able to stop providing Labor with the rationale for an early election. It is in the Coalition’s interest that the Rudd Government brings down a budget next May.
The Liberal Party machine needs to ensure that young men and women, experienced in politics and/or political debate, are preselected for winnable seats. In Victoria, Josh Frydenberg and Sarah Henderson have won preselection for Kooyong and Corangamite, respectively. Both have the talent to succeed in Canberra. Tom Switzer deserves serious consideration when Nelson vacates Bradfield in Sydney, and there will be an opening after Costello’s retirement in Higgins. Without an influx of young MPs, there is little chance of reviving the party within a decade.
The Rudd Government is about halfway though its first term. The Coalition’s task is to put the debate back where it was a couple of weeks ago, when Turnbull was beginning to make some headway in the polls. The motto is obvious: It’s policy, stupid.
When the Opposition returns to Canberra in August, its focus should be on the economy with particular reference to unemployment. Discussion of old utes would be best left to second-hand car yards.