Today’s Sunday Age interprets on its front page Turnbull’s address yesterday to the Victorian State Council as a warning to the Liberal Party to avoid moving to the right and to recognise that it should “build from the centre, bringing people together” ( see attached). As I have suggested previously, the problem is that the centre has moved to the right both here and overseas and, although Turnbull has very recently made conservative noises, it is difficult to forget his widely regarded left of centre position. Interestingly, President Michael Kroger told the Council meeting that the “Liberal Party has run too many weak and soft campaigns against the Labor Party”. That should have been Turnbull’s “message”.
In my last Commentary on 8 December I asked “How Long Can Turnbull Stay as PM?” That question has become even more pertinent after Friday’s disastrous meeting with the Premiers and the apparent confirmation in the media that Turnbull was behind the move to have an emissions intensity scheme examined in the 2017 review of climate change policy announced on 5 December. Today’s media is replete with reports of the meeting and the events surrounding the 5 December announcement but an exposition by Laurie Oakes in Herald Sun and Daily Telegraph captures the “thrills”(see attached “Oakes on Turnbull”). Bear in mind though that Oakes has probably embellished the story.
We are used to politicians changing their policy positions but, when they do, a question inevitably arises as to whether to accept the latest version as a genuine change. This is particularly relevant to policy positions announced by Turnbull given his well-known history of critiques of Liberal Party policies. So, how to assess what The Weekend Australian’s Paul Kelly describes as “a repositioning of Turnbull” and a preparedness all of a sudden to assault Shorten on character grounds (see Paul Kelly on Turnbull 26-27 Nov 2016)? In fact, not all the change-rationales are canvassed in Kelly’s piece – for example, Turnbull may have at last realised that “something has to be done” to reverse Labor’s favourable polling and to minimise the risk of a challenge to his leadership by Abbott during the Christmas-New Year period.
On Friday evening I attended the annual dinner of the HR Nicholls Society and gave the vote of thanks to the speaker, Senator Eric Abetz. His address was highlighted by The Weekend Australian giving it the front page lead story (see below) and the SMH also reported it, but not The Age. Abetz, who was dropped by Turnbull from ministerial ranks (he was Minister for Employment under PM Abbott) and from being Coalition leader in the Senate, used the HRN dinner as an opportunity to criticise Turnbull for failing to make reform of workplace relations a major policy issue at the election on 2 July. He pointed out that, with the ammunition provided by two major reports (the Heydon Royal Commission and the Productivity Commission), a policy advocating further reform had been a “gimme” and he noted that “not even the unlegislated elements of the 2013 election policy were taken forward such as changes to right of entry, transfer of business and individual flexibility arrangements”.
Yesterday’s The Australian detailed the bias we all know already exists at the ABC: in this instance our reference point is a TV presentation by ABC Four Corners, apparently approved by editorial director Sunderland (and with no reference to the almost invisible “new” CEO Guthrie). This presentation obviously grossly distorted the behaviour of the Nauruan community and the standard of government facilities in Nauru and, hence, its unsuitability to accommodate “refugees” trying to come to Australia. The ABC (and its sister SBS) are well known supporters of the refugee cause.
The reactions to Turnbull’s dinner at Kirribilli House with “dozens” of Muslims vary but will likely have only limited electoral influence in a context where the latest Fairfax –Ipsos poll shows for the second time that Labor is ahead at 51/49 on a TPP basis. While the Newspoll of marginal seats suggests this may not be sufficient to win (because the support for Labor is not fully reflected in marginal seats), the Fairfax poll seems to confirm that there has been a slight swing against Turnbull since the election started. In one sense this is surprising given the greater extent of promised additional unjustified expenditures announced by Labor, the fact that it has acknowledged that it would have higher Budget deficits than the Coalition over the next four years, and numerous policy announcements that provided the opportunity for extensive criticism, including the claim that Turnbull would privatise Medicare (Turnbull favours government interventions and the claim just gave him justification to confirm that without upsetting colleagues). But Turnbull has so far failed to exploit Shorten’s poor budget policy partly because the Coalition itself has already budgeted for high deficits and this makes it more difficult to distinguish between the two major parties. In addition, Turnbull has continued to announce expenditures which while claimed as already provided for in the Coalition budget estimates (The Australian’s SPEND-O-METER shows $5bn announced by Turnbull cf $16.2bn for Labor during the election campaign) give the impression that both sides are adding to deficits and that the differences between the two are small.
My Commentary sent out late Sunday (thanks to those who sent compliments) drew particular attention to the article by Judith Sloan on the Federal budget and her conclusion that “Labor is completely out of control fiscally; the Coalition is slightly better but no cigar”. This followed other strong critiques, including by John Stone. Meantime we have Turnbull and Shorten buying votes as they go from electorate to electorate and adding up to $100mn a day to budget spending. What does the odd million matter?
Like me, Mick Jagger was once a student at the London School of Economics (not long after I left there). He once wrote “you can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you might find you get what you need” (I would have said “if you keep trying”). My point here is that there are at last some signs that increasing numbers, even inside the ABC and other leftist media , are accepting that there is a real need to do something about the quasi-monopoly power unions have acquired. But can Tony Abbott recover his polling by increasing his recent attack on the Labor-union connection and identifying the problems with existing workplace relations?
My Commentary yesterday drew attention to the apparent adoption of a more aggressive Coalition policy strategy and the publication by News Corp of detailed information on union activities. Today’s media exhibits remarkably different priorities, with Fairfax press and the ABC barely touching on either Coalition strategy or the Heydon issue and News Corp going full blast on unions and Labor.
Today’s poll in Fairfax press shows the Coalition at 46/54 on a TPP basis, the same as in the previous poll, but Abbott is down one point at minus 24% on his net rating and Shorten is at minus 10%. In the Australian, Phillip Hudson notes that Howard had a similar experience after his first two years and suggests that it might help Abbott if he adopted a major reform strategy as Howard did by announcing a risky GST.