Turnbull's uncertain road to glory



Media reaction to Malcolm Turnbull's decision to recall Parliament on 18 April was remarkably glowing. The move was acclaimed as a masterstroke and his decisiveness applauded. However the story about the path Turnbull has laid out and the roadblocks that still remain is actually more complex.

Chris Johnston cartoon has Malcolm Turnbull trying to nail shut the coffin of the Abbott government with a nail called Double Dissolution His plan may turn out to be too clever by half.

Turnbull faced two roadblocks. One was a recalcitrant Senate while the other combined a conservative Liberal party and a disgruntled Coalition partner.

Both were overhangs from the Abbott era. The Senate roadblock by the micro-parties was famously linked to the failed 2014 Budget, the most important element in the demise of the Abbott government. But, despite Turnbull's decision to undertake Senate reform, this roadblock had already diminished in public importance since he became Prime Minister last September.

The more important road block was internal. He had cornered himself when he negotiated the leadership and then been further blocked by conservative party colleagues, continuously led from the backbench by Tony Abbott.

It was his internal party and Coalition compromises on social policy plus indecision over taxation reforms which weakened his public profile. His falling public support was not related to failure to pass legislation through the Senate.

Turnbull's strategy is to deal with both of his roadblocks together by linking industrial relations reform for the building and construction industry with Senate reform. His hope is that both his party and his Coalition partner will unite behind him on an iconic conservative parties' issue, thus resolving both his internal and external problems in one swoop.

That assumption may misread the nature of modern Liberal factional politics. While his internal conservative party opponents are interested in economic and industrial policy that may no longer be their major interest. They have become cultural warriors rather than old-style economic advocates.


"If the legislation does pass the Senate he could still use another trigger to call a double dissolution, but that would look like a tricky breach of faith."


The second aspect of getting on top of things for Turnbull is to ultimately win the election convincingly, thus earning a mandate within his own party and with the electorate. However, neither successfully treading the path to a 2 July election nor winning that election convincingly is certain.

He has recalled the parliament for three weeks discussion and debate of his industrial relations legislation. In doing so he has challenged the cross-bench to pass this legislation so as to avoid a double dissolution trigger. However he has also promised that if the legislation is passed he will not call a double dissolution.

He must be supremely confident of gaining a double dissolution election, but a lot remains outside of his control. If the legislation does pass the Senate he could still use another trigger to call a double dissolution, but that would look like a tricky breach of faith.

If he opts for an ordinary election then there are two consequences. First, the micro-party senators will still be humiliated. He will have to deal with their anger not just until the next election but, in the case of all but Senator Madigan, until 2020.

Secondly, Turnbull must now deliver a popular Budget despite severe financial constraints. It can't be a normal pre-election Budget loaded with inducements for voters. Personal income tax cuts have effectively already been ruled out by the Treasurer, Scott Morrison.

Any surprises in the Budget must be attractive because the electorate is in no mood for further hits. By then we should all know what sort of election we are going to face and when it will be. We should know whether the first Morrison/Turnbull Budget is a short-term election special or business as usual.

Furthermore the popularity of the government remains much less predictable than it seemed to be last Christmas. The polls have tightened. The Labor Opposition has been given a small sniff of victory, while the Greens are flourishing.

Turnbull has set out on a long and winding road which might look clearly marked but is still paved with uncertainty.


John WarhurstJohn Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University and a former chair of the Australian Republican Movement.

Topic tags: John Warhurst, Malcolm Turnbull, double dissolution



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Existing comments

The way I see it, success with the first set of issues will depend on Turnbull's ability as a salesman to convince the voting community of his positions. Not easy but not impossible either. Turnbull is in a no-win position on the second aspect. If the Government wins convincingly he will still have the same right wing reactionaries who are currently wedging him. The Abetz-Andrews-Bernardi-Christensen group will still be mischievous. He might possibly also get Sophie Mirabella back - what a wonderful gift from the electorate if that happens. If the Government wins only narrowly his internal opponents will become more strident. If the Government loses (unlikely but bear with me) Turnbull is gone. Turnbull may indeed be too clever by half. Simple as that.

Brett | 23 March 2016  

It's hard for me to see how Morrison's first budget can possibly be a winner. After all we've been told about the need for austerity and the end of welfare, it will be ridiculed if it doesn't come in hard. On the other hand, if it does come in hard it will be seen as unfair and favouring only the silver tails. And Morrison is already seen as the 'work-experience treasurer who is not really competent in ordinary times let alone this era of never before excitement and challenge. There is no doubt about Turnbull's business acumen but that's not necessarily what is need to be a successful political leader who has to mange both politics and policy. The problem for Turnbull is that when he does have to compromise it is seen as a weakness rather than a strength because everyone knows that he cannot and will not put down the right wing ideologues and cultural warriors like those who John lists most of whom have been put into the Senate by the state party machines rather than the electors and will still be there after the election come what may. Another hung parliament is what he deserves.

Ginger Meggs | 29 March 2016  

Even though Turnbull is the PM, his detractors in his own Party are still hard at it trying to undermine him. I agree with John's analysis and also see merit in Brett's comment. If Turnbull is turfed , do we get Abbott or one of his henchman back in the Lodge?If so its dark days ahead for ordinary Australians.

Gavin | 29 March 2016  

Professor Warhurst is correct. The media commentators who, almost reflexly, described the PM's gambit last week as a "masterstroke" were surely engaged in compliant hyperbole: as if they were writing for his election speech, in some cases. To me his action spoke more of panic. I think that his rush to Yarralumla was because someone with a better knowledge of constitutional law than the PM waned him that his plan for a "double dissolution" was legally under-cooked and could come unstuck at the last minute. Hence the proroguing and then recall of the Parliament. The failure to tell his Treasurer (and no less importantly, the Head of Treasury) strongly suggests the same thing. It would be in the interests of the "cross-bench" Senators, in the end to pass the ABCC Bill and let the PM take the consequences, whatever they are. They they could try for more comprehensive legislation later on. It would deprive the PM of a plausible DD option (and force him to work through his political difficulties) and would call his bully's bluff in trying to dictate to the "independent" Upper House. It would also serve their interests: they would remain if office until 30 June 2020 -- a not unappealing prospect for them.

John CARMODY | 30 March 2016  

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