The events of the weekend rather put the political shenanigans of last week in their proper context. It seems obscene to focus on politics at a time like this, and if it was business as usual it would be. Dismayingly, there’s another, longer-term national crisis looming that must be addressed as well.
Despite the fierce debate over the stimulus package, however, normal politics has been suspended for the day. There’ll be no Question Time, which has been replaced with condolence motions for the victims of both the fires and floods. Fires and floods. It seems a mockery to write that, but there it is.
The Senate inquiries into the stimulus have also been put on hold for the moment. And the Prime Minister, appropriately, remains in Victoria. He looked this morning like he’d been kicked in the guts, and probably felt exactly that.
The Coalition’s position on the stimulus package seems to have had the anticipated effect on its polling, at least according to Newspoll — the ALP up, the Coalition and Turnbull down. I was inclined to the view that it would be more of a slow burn effect, as voters comprehended the magnitude of the economic crisis unfolding and began to realise that failing to do anything — even if it isn’t enough — is the height of folly. I even wondered for a moment whether I’d missed something obvious that meant two and two didn’t equal four, but instead equalled a wholly different number suggestive of some sort of political brilliance on the part of Malcolm Turnbull. But no. The numbers are similar to the ALP’s position at the end of last year after the late-night Senate debacle, which plenty of people dismissed as a rogue poll. Well, it ain’t a rogue no more.
Not that that has discouraged Dennis Shanahan, who boldly declared on Saturday that Turnbull had wrongfooted Rudd with his opposition. Shanahan’s right, in the sense that if your opponent insists on inflicting grievous damage on themselves of their own volition, then you might wonder what on earth is going on. But quite what advantage it affords the Coalition isn’t clear. Rudd would be happy to have two left feet if wrongfooting earned such polling numbers. Shanahan persisted today, declaring Turnbull satisfied with having correctly predicted a battering (genius!) and claiming to divine “undercurrents of doubt” about the Government’s proposed debt levels. The “undercurrents” turned out to be among Liberal voters and the elderly — ie rusted-on conservatives. You’d think they’d have tsunamis of doubt about a Labor spendathon, but what do I know.
Moreover, Shanahan said, “there is no clear message that most of the $12 billion in giveaways is going to be spent fast.” This was demolished by Newspoll’s own Martin O’Shannessy, who told ABC NewsRadio that the numbers showed most of the people surveyed intending to spend most or all of the handouts. Look out Glenn Milne, there’s a new delusional in town, and he’s packing some heavy-duty pharmaceuticals.
There is some logic, however, to the argument that Turnbull has “energised the base” of his party with his decision. Undoubtedly diehard conservatives, either because they believe no level of public debt is ever justified, or they think government is always the problem, not the solution, or just because, like Warwick McKibbin, they don’t believe there’s a crisis, hate the Government’s stimulus package, and will enthusiastically support Turnbull.
There are some complicating factors, however. Turnbull’s own proposals for a stimulus package aren’t much shy of the same level of debt, again showing just how little difference there is between the major parties on this supposedly vast ideological issue. Moreover, whether it has “energised the base” depends on where you stand. When John Howard did this sort of thing to Labor, it was called “wedging” and hailed as a masterstroke, leaving Labor caught between the natural instincts of its supporters, and political reality. As it happens, Rudd didn’t even try to wedge Turnbull. Turnbull accomplished it all by himself.
Most fundamentally, however, we’re now nearing the middle of the Government’s first term, and the Liberal Party is still trying to fix its base up. This is a bad state to be in at this stage of the electoral cycle. As the disaster of Brendan Nelson’s leadership unfolded last year, Coalition MPs were worrying that he was eroding the party’s base — the people the party relies on for feet on the ground, campaign donkey work and donations. Nearly twelve months on, and Malcolm Turnbull doesn’t seem to be in too dissimilar a position. The party’s polling is just as bad, and its leader is busy focussing on fixing the party base. Unfortunately your base is a necessary but entirely insufficient condition of electoral success.
It hasn’t been a good couple of days for Turnbull. Josh Gordon busted him for having received a $50,000 donation from a US investment bank associated with predatory lending practices. Umberto Eco in Foucault’s Pendulum spins a splendid yarn of some publishers who for their amusement devise their own vast conspiracy theory, only to discover that it’s actually true. In similar fashion, Kevin Rudd, for his own purposes, devised an elaborate explanation for why Malcolm Turnbull is part of the vast neo-liberal conspiracy that has brought the world economy to its knees.
This initially looked nonsensical, but, disconcertingly, Turnbull keeps producing evidence that supports it.