Whatever might be said about Malcolm Turnbull and his government, he has proved better at responding to the alienation and anger of voters than his counterparts in the UK and the US.
The May government, and most of the UK commentariat, were shocked by the strong level of support for Jeremy Corbyn’s Old Labour in this month’s election. May’s handling of the Grenfell disaster — which may be the product of years of deregulation — has been so abysmal Corbyn now looks like the prime minister in waiting, and a damn sight more leader-like than May herself.
In the US, it’s been no surprise that Trump, who has betrayed pretty much anyone he has ever dealt with, has sold out the voters who put him into the White House on a wave of disaffection with business-as-usual economic policies. But Republican politicians are continuing to govern as though Trump’s election gives them carte blanche to implement a hardline neoliberal agenda beyond the wildest dreams of corporate America.
But Anglophone voters have had a gutful of neoliberalism and are expressing it at the ballot box — not necessarily in coherent or consistent ways, but expressing it they are. It’s a mistake to call it a shift to the left; there are plenty of conservative voters who are shifting further right as part of it. But it’s a shift away from market-based policies, curbs on government spending, open borders and the mantra that whatever is good for business is good for a country.
Turnbull has reacted to the shift better than the Tories in the UK, perhaps because he feels more comfortable governing from the centre, perhaps because compulsory voting (and lack of US-style gerrymandering) has made clearer the deep sense of alienation in the electorate. Turnbull nearly lost government, Nick Xenophon’s protectionist party seized both Senate and Reps seats, and One Nation has lurched out of the political grave to bring its stench of bigoted banality into the Senate.
On Gonski, on energy, on fiscal policy, Turnbull has shifted leftward in an attempt to claim the centre ground, conscious that if he continued to slavishly follow the dictates of the right, he’d be toast. On Gonski, he’s shifted even further left than Labor, promising to cut funding to wealthy private schools and taking on the gouging, unaccountable Catholic education lobby over its favouritism toward rich schools. On fiscal policy, he’s whacked a tax on the banks and increased the Medicare levy. On energy, he’s walking a fine line through his party room on trying to provide certainty for investors about climate action while fighting off irrational denialists like Abbott and other far-right backbenchers.
Of course, it’s not universal — Turnbull remains wedded to the right-wing approach to terrorism of relentlessly hyping the threat to national security from Labor, despite the fact that it never helped Abbott one iota, and it didn’t help Theresa May more recently. Maybe voters simply see through the claim from conservatives that when terror attacks happen on their watch, it’s magically the fault of their opponents in opposition.
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Turnbull’s opponents, needless to say, don’t care to see him succeed in this shift. Judging by today’s Newspoll, they’ve been successful so far. Labor is still portraying Turnbull, courtesy of some creative accounting and factual cherrypicking, as a rogue neoliberal hellbent on slashing schools funding, destroying Medicare and taxing low-income earners while handing out tax cuts to the top end of town. And Tony Abbott managed to make what had been a careful process of preliminary consideration of the Finkel review all about Turnbull’s leadership and the spectre of 2009.
The government is dead keen to nail down a deal on Gonski, preferably with the Greens, even if it costs a motza. It is dead right to oppose the greedy Catholic education sector, but a prolonged stoush is not in its interests. Already one backbencher, the retiring Chris Back, is threatening to cross the floor on the issue this week. Leaving the issue to fester over the winter recess will, at best, only create more static for the government. A worse outcome is it blows up and causes another internal brawl.
On energy, Turnbull is in no hurry, partly because he knows he can’t be seen to railroad anything on energy through the party room. But the same risk applies as with Gonski — the longer the issue goes, the more static it will create, the more likely it is that troublemakers like Abbott will exploit it. Plenty of reports say Turnbull and Josh Frydenberg are happy to wait until later in the year to settle the issue. That gives the denialists plenty of time to cause chaos.
What’s every bit as worrying as Labor’s persistent two-party-referred lead is the strong polling performance on One Nation. One Nation, courtesy of a lower than expected result in WA, and ongoing scandals and revelations of open contempt for the electorate, should be struggling. Instead, Hanson and her coterie of conspiracy theorists have bounced back into double figures. Turnbull is trying to address the very disillusionment that is fueling populists like Hanson, but it’s failing to have any impact so far.