Barnaby Joyce, Malcolm Turnbull and Julie Bishop in the party room this morning
Barnaby Joyce, Malcolm Turnbull and Julie Bishop in the party room this morning

Poor Malcolm Turnbull, reduced last week to snarking about Bill Shorten undertaking an unjustified “victory lap” when he had won the election, while other Liberals consoled themselves that “a win is a win”. Shorten had a canny post-election strategy: play up Labor’s unity — the party of Rudd-Gillard-Rudd embarks on its second term under one leader! — and conduct a tour of seats that had fallen to Labor to high-five the successful candidates.

Meantime, Turnbull, now an elected Prime Minister in his own right, has to replace fallen ministers and deal with a backbench revolt. Perception is most of politics, and the current perception, however inaccurate, is that Shorten is a winner and Turnbull is weakened and facing difficulties on all fronts.

At some point reality will out, of course. After the 1984 election, Liberals rejoiced in their unexpected success under Andrew Peacock, his rivalry with John Howard was put on the backburner and Bob Hawke’s aura of invincibility seemed to have vanished. It didn’t take too long before the Liberals ripped themselves apart, and then the Nationals did, too. But that was another Parliament House, and another political era.

However, Turnbull faces perception problems on the two big issues he must deal with immediately: the superannuation revolt and the reshuffle necessitated by the loss of ministers.

[Who really opposes the superannuation changes? Not Liberals.]

The revolt over the government’s proposed superannuation tax changes is one of those dispiriting moments when you wonder how anything difficult is going to get done in this country ever again. The reforms proposed by Scott Morrison are eminently sensible and much-needed; like a real reformer, Morrison is proposing changes that hurt his side of politics. For a country that has ratings agencies publicly questioning whether it can return to budget surplus, they’re a policy no-brainer — end a pointless handout to the wealthy for the benefit of the budget bottom line.

But from the outset Morrison and his colleagues mishandled the proposals with a silly insistence that the backdating of the contributions cap to 2007 wasn’t retrospective. Having senior ministers not being across the policy detail didn’t help, although the Foreign Minister can hardly be blamed for not being across the minutiae of a transition-to-retirement element of superannuation policy.

But at the start of June, when Arthur Sinodinos appeared to suggest that the government would be consulting MPs on the policy after the election, Turnbull had to forcefully respond from the campaign trail that any changes would be confined to administrative detail and Morrison said that the policy would be implemented as per the budget.

Now, Turnbull has backtracked on that. “Obviously in the implementation and transition there is work to be done,” he said yesterday:

“There always is with tax changes and they will go through the normal Cabinet and party room process. We are listening very keenly, I am listening very keenly and carefully to concerns that have been raised by my colleagues, and of course by other people in the community as well.”

Last week, the government was flagging that any changes forced by the party room would have to be offset by superannuation savings elsewhere. Now that, too, appears to have disappeared.

The far-right anti-Turnbullites have seized on the super changes to undermine Turnbull (and isn’t it interesting, by the way, that the far right within the Liberals are refusing to provide the same sort of unity to Turnbull that Abbott enjoyed from moderates after his own putsch in 2009?). They know that Turnbull’s weakness is his distance from the party base — the reason he lost the leadership in 2009 — and what better issue to exploit than the right of wealthy middle-aged Liberal members to continue enjoying absurdly generous largesse from taxpayers.

So there’s a double perception problem for Turnbull: if he caves in to his internal opponents, he does himself no favours, and he’ll do the nation’s credit rating no favours either, since such a climb-down is exactly what ratings agencies have been warning about in recent days. If a government can’t even reduce by a small fraction the unjustified tax handouts enjoyed by the wealthy, then what hope for more difficult budget measures?

[Morrison can run but can’t hide from S&P]

The reshuffle poses a different kind of problem for the Prime Minister. It will inevitably mark a shift to conservatism by a government already seen as out of touch and disagreebaly resistant to its leaders’ progressive sentiments, simply by dint of the elevation of more Nationals, with anti-abortion campaigner Matt Canavan frequently mentioned as being promoted to cabinet.

The elevation of other conservatives — like the peculiar Canberra reactionary Zed Seselja — would further push the government rightward, although speculation about the promotion of north Queensland anti-Islam enthusiast George Christensen is surely too absurd to possibly be true; it would signal the complete obliteration of whatever remaining moderate credentials Turnbull has at a time when Pauline Hanson has returned to tear our social cohesion apart.

Turnbull isn’t alone on that score. Bill Shorten has a potentially bigger reshuffle ahead of him. Ostensibly, Shorten has the nice problem of more talent to choose from given Labor’s significantly increased numbers. But those numbers will include South Australian right-wing powerbroker and former minister Don Farrell, who has now returned to the Senate and who will expect a spot on the frontbench.

His SDA colleague Jacinta Collins is also said to be pushing for a spot: Collins is also a hardline anti-abortion campaigner and a recognised advocate of “Christian Values”. As it turns out, the near-defeat of a conservative government might lead to both government and opposition presenting more conservative cabinets to the electorate.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey