Other than the summer and Easter holidays, when voters are even more disengaged from politics than usual, Parliament’s winter break is the biggest block of time that MPs spend away from Canberra.
Our elected representatives ostensibly use this time “reconnecting” with their constituents, while the factionally favoured MPs who’ve scored an overseas “study tour” jet away to warmer climes on the taxpayer’s dime.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull could be forgiven for wanting to use the five-week break to recharge and reboot. Despite the inconvenience of Christopher Pyne’s leaked comments rattling the conservative nest of hornets, and Tony Abbott’s latest intervention, the PM has had a couple of good wins with the Labor-lite budget and Gonski 2.0.
No matter how much Abbott and the conservative choir say Turnbull needs to “return to the base”, it’s already been demonstrated that capitulation to the right won’t increase the Coalition’s approval ratings. It could even be argued the government’s poor standing in the polls is because Turnbull tried to appease the right soon after becoming PM, driving moderate voters who’d been prepared to consider voting Liberal back into the arms of Labor or the Greens.
In any event, Abbott and co’s entreaties are not what they seem. Far from wanting the PM to return to conservative values, they want Turnbull to morph into a clone of Pauline Hanson, apparently so he can use her special blend of xenophobic populism to bring back disenchanted Coalition supporters.
Even if Turnbull pulled off such a feat, Abbott’s enablers would undermine the effort by accusing the PM of being inauthentic. Turnbull is deliberately set up to fail — either being a traitor to the cause with moderate policies, or being a fake with conservative ones.
This is the nub of Turnbull’s problem: voters aren’t sure they know him any more. By flirting with the right and waffling on a range of policies, the PM has squandered the one quality that set him apart from most other politicians — voter confidence in what he stood for and what he would fight for.
That confidence no longer exists, giving Turnbull’s opponents free rein to fill the vacuum by reframing him as Mr Harbourside Mansion, which is now short-handed on social media with a derisive top hat emoji.
Interestingly, Treasurer Scott Morrison alluded to Turnbull’s disconnection with voters in a speech last weekend to the party’s governing body, when he warned that a similar affliction had beset the Liberals more broadly.
Morrison told fellow Liberals that “outside the bubble of Canberra, it is increasingly not about the conflict of partisanship” and that “these are old political fights and battle lines that hold little if no interest to everyday Australians”. As a result, Morrison argued, voters were fed up with 10 years of political brawling and had given up on politics because it was no longer relevant for them.
“They have chosen to forget us, the political class,” warned the Treasurer, and have “collectively reached for the remote and turned down the volume on Canberra’s noise, which includes more than just politicians. The media are similarly ignored.”
The only way to break through, according to Morrison, was to be authentic and genuinely engage with voters. “The public is demanding to be better heard, better understood and to ensure we focus on what matters to them, not us. And above all they want results.”
The Treasurer also stressed the party would “not get a leave pass from the Australian people for failing to constantly connect with them and their concerns, just because we have been a competent government with a good record of achievement. Which we have.”
Instead, he stressed, the Liberals must convince Australians that the party was “on their side”, not only through its action but also by communicating “candidly and with authenticity”.
This is sound advice, particularly for a PM looking to regain voter confidence.
Turnbull could put Morrison’s strategy into action, somewhat ironically, by co-opting another of the approaches for which Bill Shorten’s Labor is known — the town hall meeting.
Back in late 2015, Shorten embarked on an intensive round of town hall meetings in an effort to counter “the juggernaut that is Malcolm Turnbull”. By the time we saw him perform in the leaders’ election debates less than a year later, the Labor leader had clearly benefited from the regular gigs, which had honed his repertoire and loosened his stilted delivery style.
Even more importantly, the semi-public meetings had not only given party members and like-minded supporters the opportunity to see the leader in a more informal context, but to have their questions genuinely answered instead of having to decipher the maddening soundbites confected by politicians to avoid gotcha moments from the media.
It’s an old-skool, labour-intensive way of doing things, but if it can work for Shorten, then it could also work for Turnbull.
The PM needs to spend his winter break — and as much time as he can spare between now and the next federal election — doing something similar. Turnbull should go to Liberal branch meetings around the country to circumvent Abbott and assure the conservative base that he is not Karl Marx reincarnate. And he should hold a series of town hall meetings to reconnect and rebuild trust with the progressive base.
Reconnecting with the support base in this direct way is probably the only chance left for the Turnbull government to recover in the opinion polls.