Alex Mitchell’s Weekly Notebook – PM Turnbull’s main danger is not Bill Shorten, it’s Abbott

Remember the grim days when Tony Abbott was Prime Minister? His opponent, Labor Leader Bill Shorten, was miles ahead in the polls as preferred PM.
Now that Abbott has been ousted by his own party and Malcolm Turnbull installed as Australia’s 29th PM, the polls have gone into reverse.
In this month’s Newspoll, Shorten’s rating as preferred prime minister fell to a wrist-slashing 14%. It equalled the all-time record low for a Labor leader in Newspoll’s history.
He’s gone from prime minister-in-waiting to dead duck in the 14 weeks since Turnbull replaced Abbott.
As a result, the mainstream media has decided there is no mileage in presenting a Turnbull v Shorten battle because most voters – even Labor ones – have decided that Turnbull is the better leader.
Instead, the media has decided to focus all its attention on the Turnbull v Abbott clash.
Rupert Murdoch’s Australian and his tabloids in Sydney (Daily Telegraph), Melbourne (Herald-Sun) and Brisbane (Courier-Mail) have appointed reporters to cover every move that Abbott makes and to provide him with open space to wage sniper attacks on the Turnbull camp.
Take this week for example. The resignation of two Turnbull ministers, Mal Brough and Jamie Briggs, was followed by drummed-up speculation that it was time for Turnbull to appoint Abbott to his Cabinet.
The charge was led by the odious Senator Eric Abetz from Tasmania who has become Abbott’s batman, publicist and promoter. A repeat of the nightmarish years when Kevin Rudd stalked Julia Gillard re-emerged as the New Year’s political narrative. This time it’s Abbott, with a dagger and an iPhone in his hand, stalking Turnbull.
You can confidently expect headline after headline, story after story and column after column in the agenda-setting Murdoch media with the others trailing along behind.
Murdoch’s Oz media will be following the line of its editorial campaigns in the UK and the US where the agenda has become even more deranged support for unregulated extreme capitalism as opposed to the mixed economy.
What an image: Murdoch, aged 84, with Ms Jerry Hall, aged 59, a broken-down former model from Texas on his arm, waging his last crusade on behalf of a crisis-ridden economic system which once liberated human endeavour but is now clapped out and beyond repair.
The great Euripides would have written a dark play of epic proportions about this moment. I hope that someone, somewhere, is working on it.

A question of bottle

Malcolm Turnbull is caught in the cross-hairs of two forces within his own party: 1) the Abbott and John Howard supporters who fashioned the Liberals into a hardline conservative party and 2) the middle-of-the-road, liberal-minded thrusters who want their capitalism but with a human face.
These opposing factions are normally divided into “dries” and “wets”.
The British Conservative Party is a case in point. After 15 years of Thatcherism, the Tories became a reactionary rump and Margaret Thatcher was bundled out of Downing Street in 1990 following a party room coup.
Leaders of the rescue party included her successor John Major (1990-97), William Hague (1997-2001), Iain Duncan-Smith (2001-2003), Michael Howard (2003-2005) and David Cameron who became Opposition leader in 2005 and prime minister in 2010.
In other words, it took more than a decade and five Tory leaders to bring the Conservatives back to electoral acceptability. Their recovery was aided in no small part by the pro-US and pro-City of London policies of Labor PMs Tony Blair and Gordon Brown but for the Tories it was an exhausting and casualty-strewn forced march from the margins back to the centre.
Can Malcolm Turnbull pull off the same feat? Can he reposition the Liberal Party from the era of the Howardistas and the Abbottstanis and remould its policies to suit the centre?
The expectation is that Turnbull, as former chairman of the Australian Republican Movement, should dump the English monarchy and declare a republic. This won’t happen.
Another expectation is that Turnbull, a former advocate of an emissions trading scheme, should re-introduce the scheme he once promoted. This won’t happen either.
Yet another expectation is that Turnbull, a previous opponent of Howard and Abbott’s “turn back the boats” asylum seeker policy, will end the navy’s secretive deployment and terminate the internment camp contracts on Nauru and Manus Islands. Nor will this happen.
There are no signs that Turnbull has the bottle or the inclination to open a battle with the hardliners in his own party. On the contrary, his current strategy is to appease them.
As a result, Turnbull is standing, albeit uncomfortably, by Abbott’s policies on climate change, coal, refugees, the republic and now the
Gonski package on education.
If he is to win the battle with the hardline right, Turnbull needs to get down and dirty himself in the street, the gutter, the sewer and the basement where the Abbott crowd live.

Patrician v plebeian

Can the patrician Turnbull turn himself into a plebeian for this career-defining fight to protect his prime ministership?
At 61, Turnbull can’t remake himself. He is self-made and, as he smugly keeps telling us, he’s immensely proud of it.
What he’s made of himself in those six decades is someone of over-weaning ambition, ruthlessness and immense private wealth. His single-minded navigation to the top of politics is chilling in its vanity and narcissism while his self-belief borders on self-delusion.
Like most people of ordinary talent, Turnbull has reached his ambition by being a user. Every step of the way he has used friends and connections to ascend another step up the ladder of success.
What happened to those he used? They are long forgotten: most either fell off the ladder or were never acknowledged or recognised again.
They offered a helping hand, a piece of advice or a critical social introduction, and then they disappeared from Malcolm’s world. He was on his way, they weren’t.
On the other hand, Abbott groped his way to the top, almost literally. His patrons were Catholic obscurantist and serial intriguer B.A. Santamaria, Rupert Murdoch and Cardinal George Pell.
If Abbott decides to stay in Parliament in April and organise a Murdoch and Pell-backed Jacobite faction, Canberra will descend into a chaos we have never known before.
No wonder Turnbull is now considering a snap election early in the New Year.
PS: And a Happy and Glorious 2016 to all family, friends and readers.

4 comments

  1. I’m more concerned that so many Aussies have suddenly relaxed just because a more likable personality has taken over yet the same basic policies remain. And frankly I don’t believe the polls can be that bad for Shorten when Labor is still up their in the late 40s after preferences.

  2. Agreed Alex. Turnbull has the fight of his life on his hands. But much of it seem to be fought in the shadows. Was the incident in the bar in Hong Kong a sting on a Minister who they knew had a penchant for the booze and the ladies? And whats with the close working relationship with Duncan Lewis? Labor is stuck with Shorten now. Too late to change leaders now.

  3. Good piece Alex. Always good to have your experienced and eloquent grasp of realities beneath the gloss. Poor Shorten has a helluva task ahead of him to turn around the public perception of such a smooth operator. I’m wondering if Turnbull will be brave enough to act on the causes he used to espouse once the electorate confirm his PM status. We’ll have to wait and see. Is Labor at all capable of rebounding? Maybe this business will bring about better clarity of true Labor values. Am I just ‘dreamin’?!

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