In  2018, Australian federal politics went through some headline grabbing times – but what to make of the froth and bubble in much of the turmoil? Is social media out of control? Has tabloid media reporting side tracked serious debate? Or have our leaders become too distanced from ordinary lives to realise what is most important? As Newspoll numbers dominated discussion rather than tax reform or infrastructure development or energy prices, etc, the question was how could political leaders get back on top of the burning issues in voters’ lives? With a federal election just over a year away, Caroline Overington, Associate Editor, The Australian and Aaron Patrick, Senior writer, The Australian Financial Review on Wednesday 21 March 20 addressed The Sydney Institute to discuss some of the issues.

TURNBULL, SHORTEN, JOYCE AND ALL THAT – WHAT’S HAPPENING?

AARON PATRICK

Tonight we consider the most perplexing question in Australian politics: why has Malcolm Turnbull failed as Prime Minister?

Some might say it is too early to declare him a failure. He remains our national leader and can credibly claim several substantial policy achievements, or at least changes, including gay marriage, a deal to clear Manus Island and Nauru of refugees, a new Senate voting system, closing off superannuation tax concessions and a military-construction build up.

He presides over solid economic growth, low unemployment, low interest rates, and high property and share prices. In difficult negotiations with US President Donald Trump he has demonstrated that he can perform on the international stage. He won an election.

He presides over solid economic growth, low unemployment, low interest rates, and high property and share prices.

Yet most Australians do not regard the Prime Minister as a success. They see him as soft and uninspiring. He gets little or no credit for the economy, which is surely the most important task of any government.

Equally well disliked Labor leader Bill Shorten, a pragmatic politician with a lot of political baggage, is catching up to Turnbull in the personal approval stakes. At this trajectory they will soon be equally well disliked.

Bill Shorten, a pragmatic politician with a lot of political baggage, is catching up to Turnbull in the personal approval stakes. At this trajectory they will soon be equally well disliked.

The only people I’ve come across who say they expect Turnbull to be re-elected are government ministers, and not all of them seem convinced. We could call this gap between achievements and popularity the Turnbull Paradox. The root causes are located in the centre and the right.

When he was elected Prime Minister many swinging voters, perhaps most, perceived Turnbull to be a dynamic centrist who would quickly assert himself and implement what might be called a social reform agenda.

When he was elected Prime Minister many swinging voters, perhaps most, perceived Turnbull to be a dynamic centrist who would quickly assert himself and implement what might be called a social reform agenda.

The swinging centre

We all know that Turnbull entered the Prime Minister’s office with high expectations from voters. I estimate the removal of Tony Abbott as Liberal leader led between 500,000 and one million Australians to consider changing their votes from Labor to Liberal.

Key wishes of this group were symbolic but culturally important changes such as greater Aboriginal recognition and renewable energy subsidies, a republic, more sympathetic treatment of those seeking asylum and same-sex marriage.

Turnbull’s failure to act quickly on such inner-city priorities, and a realisation that he would not abandon much of the conservative agenda and tone of the Abbott government, disillusioned voters in the centre. The gap between expectations and delivery created a powerful sense of disappointment that Turnbull hasn’t been able to overcome.

The gap between expectations and delivery created a powerful sense of disappointment that Turnbull hasn’t been able to overcome.

Negative perceptions are much harder to reverse than positive ones, although quite possible after a dramatic external event. New York mayor Rudy Giuliani was a polarising figure until the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Centre, when his conciliatory and unifying reaction won respect across society. Nine 11s are, thankfully, rare, although a dramatic crisis may be what Turnbull needs to change public perceptions.

Opposition on the right

Overcoming the disappointment deficit wouldn’t be as challenging if Turnbull didn’t have such an intractable problem on his right.

Overcoming the disappointment deficit wouldn’t be as challenging if Turnbull didn’t have such an intractable problem on his right

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Parts of the conservative media establishment, encouraged by a Tony Abbott-led internal resistance, refuse to accept the legitimacy of Turnbull’s leadership.

They treat him as an alien in his own party, which in a way he is. Turnbull is a centrist in charge of a party becoming more conservative by the year, and was able to become leader because the moderate forces in the NSW division of the party have used their organisational skill to out manoeuvre the conservative-majority membership.

The reasons for this resentment on the right are varied, and are as much personal as ideological. They originate well before Turnbull became leader.

Abbott’s public challenges of the Turnbull government’s policies have their roots, I believe, in Abbott’s belief that he was the victim of a conspiracy led by his successor to bring him down. His sense of grievance must be particularly acute given his success at removing Labor from power and building a parliamentary margin that Turnbull all but lost in 2016.

His sense of grievance must be particularly acute given his success at removing Labor from power and building a parliamentary margin that Turnbull all but lost in 2016.

Abbott’s downfall

The conventional wisdom holds that Abbott’s downfall was due to his own political missteps and the aggression and autocratic behaviour of his chief of staff, Peta Credlin. This may be true. But I believe that there was an orchestrated effort by Turnbull supporters to undermine Abbott, and that it succeeded brilliantly.

The most visible evidence was the work of journalist Niki Savva, who was fed damaging inside information about Credlin’s behaviour. Her reporting – which was completely legitimate and as far as I can tell entirely accurate – badly undermined Abbott’s leadership by portraying him as unwilling or unable to rein in an unelected functionary exercising powers that elected ministers regarded as their prerogative.

Whether Turnbull was personally complicit in the briefing of Savva is unknown. He didn’t need to be for that flow of information to be orchestrated to make him party leader. I note Savva’s husband works or worked on his personal staff.

Whether Turnbull was personally complicit in the briefing of Savva is unknown. He didn’t need to be for that flow of information to be orchestrated to make him party leader.

Whether or not you agree with Abbott’s right to speak out from the backbench no matter how much it damages the government – and I think there are legitimate arguments on both sides – he has denied Turnbull the perception that he controls his own party.

Power sharing

I don’t believe that is reality. Even though he is a liberal in a conservative party, whereas Howard was a conservative in a conservative party, Turnbull has struck a balance between his own power and those of both party wings. He has put aside his own policy passions, such as the republic and climate change, in the interests of party unity.

His governing style is gradualist. The government compromises when it believes it has no choice – witness the banking royal commission – but mostly tries to methodically develop good policy that will improve society over time. This is not a government by press release.

His governing style is gradualist. The government compromises when it believes it has no choice – witness the banking royal commission – but mostly tries to methodically develop good policy that will improve society over time.

From what I can tell Abbott is on the margins of the Coalition party room. His internal challenges to government policy, sometimes supported by former ministers Eric Abetz and Kevin Andrews, are quickly shot down by their fellow MPs.

But Abbott has a following in Liberal party branches and a high media profile. As the only former prime minister in Parliament his unique authority magnifies the effect of his criticism and enthuses his right-wing media allies, including Andrew Bolt, Alan Jones and Ray Hadley.

Denied political legitimacy

The result is Turnbull is denied the internal political legitimacy that was bestowed on John Howard and Malcolm Fraser.

It makes him look weak, and weakens him. Decisions and policies that should create a sense of government achievement are challenged by his own side, undermining their political effect.

It makes him look weak, and weakens him. Decisions and policies that should create a sense of government achievement are challenged by his own side, undermining their political effect.

Turnbull finds himself caught between a centre disillusioned that he hasn’t executed its liberal wish list, and a right that doesn’t accept his leadership and doesn’t give him credit when he does pursue its agenda.

He is also badly constrained by the Senate, where 20 of the 75 MPs don’t belong to the government or opposition. The last Labor government often had a sympathetic Senate through its quasi-alliance with the Greens. Turnbull has to rely on Nick Xenophon’s party, Pauline Hanson and others. The house of review has become chaotic and unpredictable, complicating the task of governing.

Bad public debates

The state of public discourse isn’t much better. One recent case is the furore over proposed business tax cuts. There is bipartisan agreement this is necessary. But the debate didn’t really come alight until an ABC reporter published an article attacking the case for, which she was forced to rewrite by her editors because it breached the national broadcaster’s rules against comment.

In what looked like a case of Mean Girls meets Fox News, the reporter hired a lawyer and enlisted high-profile friends to support her case on social media. She was subjected to a counter-offensive by the warriors of the Murdoch press, whose readers delighted in the takedowns, which fuelled the left’s anger that one of its heroes was under attack.

Lost in the warfare was a discussion about how an open, mid-sized economy can continue to attract investment when other countries have lower tax rates. This is an argument the government needed to have. Instead of a serious discussion based on economics, we got a fight over personalities.

Lost in the warfare was a discussion about how an open, mid-sized economy can continue to attract investment when other countries have lower tax rates. This is an argument the government needed to have. Instead of a serious discussion based on economics, we got a fight over personalities.

Cost of dissent

Social media has given millions more people a voice in the political debate. It has also increased the cost to individuals of advancing unpopular opinions.

When a prominent political commentator has 100,000 followers on Twitter, they know using the phrase “trickle down economics” on TV will win them plaudits. Suggesting business tax cuts could help working people will deliver mass opprobrium straight to their phone.

Passing the tax cuts would likely be a big political victory for the government. It would give Turnbull a greater claim for credit for the healthy state of the economy.

Unemployment is 5.5 per cent, GDP expanded 2.4 per cent last year and consumer confidence is positive. The budget may even be on track to return to the black in three years. Share and house prices and strong. This is the picture of a fairly healthy economy.

Unemployment is 5.5 per cent, GDP expanded 2.4 per cent last year and consumer confidence is positive. The budget may even be on track to return to the black in three years. Share and house prices and strong. This is the picture of a fairly healthy economy.

Another Newspoll loss

Next week the Coalition may lose its 29th Newspoll in a row under Turnbull. Just one more and the Prime Minister will have breached the same standard he set for Abbott when he removed him as prime minister in 2013.

The media may use this milestone as a moment to question Turnbull’s future as Liberal leader. Liberal sources tell me that Tony Abbott has aspirations to return as leader in opposition.

I’m not convinced Turnbull is a failed Prime Minister, nor do I detect the resentment towards him that existed towards John Howard in 2007. Yet it looks like voters have already given up on the government. This is the Turnbull paradox.

I’m not convinced Turnbull is a failed Prime Minister, nor do I detect the resentment towards him that existed towards John Howard in 2007.