This piece was originally published on April 9, 2018.
How was your Newspoll 30 party? We had a Peter Dutton piñata at ours, which emitted a brown toxic sludge when hit, and we got a Scott Morrison lookalike anti-stripper, who arrives naked at your house and, to everyone’s relief, puts his clothes back on as ‘Bad To the Bone’ bangs out of a ghetto blaster.
All good fun and games until someone has an “I” out. That “I” of course may be Turnbull, but it may not be. There is no one else, and the notion that his failed leadership is to blame for the persistent 53-47/52-48 two-party preferred ratings is propaganda by the hard right, and a narrative by the meeja.
Turnbull is a failed leader of course; he wanted to be a Menzian figure, applying to the fractious world of politics his executive skills. Turns out he has none, and no political skills either. He lacks even the mediocre professional politician’s ability to read a political landscape, to know the terrain.
But the Turnbull hypothesis is the story being relentlessly spruiked by the right to cover up a greater truth: since 2007, a working majority of the population has been centre-left shifted, believing in a moderately proactive state, a notion of social “fairness”, and is sceptical of free-market and neoliberal approaches to social change.
Tony Abbott narrowly lost the 2010 election because he didn’t make a full commitment to that formula. He didn’t make that mistake in 2013, when he signed up to everything Labor was offering in terms of a social market state, diverging only on the carbon tax, and nipping them on refugee stuff.
The Coalition has been 52-48 or thereabouts since the 2014 budget, when that policy promise was welched on. In the five years since 2013, the conditions that turned people towards Labor — increasing inequality, the everyday life squeeze, the distinctly Australian mix of high income, high costs and high debt, which we call “prosperity” — have only got worse.
All around the world, people are turning back to modified forms of social democracy, and the idea that an interventionist government is a necessary instrument in a world run by Google, Billiton and Lendlease. The Australian right has, among right groups across the world, the least flexibility on this, because of the dominance of News Corp on the right’s intellectual terrain, and that organisation’s infestation with free-marketeers.
With a bit of luck, they can lose the right the next election, by bellowing “class envy” any time anyone proposes even the most modest correction to the accumulated mix of political kludges we have accumulated over 20 years, and which now constitute a policy suite. And, of course, by undermining Turnbull.
The reality of Turnbull’s performance is, of course, the opposite of what Newspoll is saying. He’s a terrible prime minister, but he won the 2016 election at a time when state Liberal and Coalition governments were falling as first-term wonders. The problem is not the leader per se, the problem is the party, and the problem is not the party per se, it’s the party’s politics.
Australia is a centre-left social democratic country; in the past two decades that has become overlaid with a hyper-individualistic culture, which has fooled some people into believing that that social democratic base has been dissipated. It hasn’t, and any party that doesn’t honour it — as has every successful non-Labor government from Lyons’ to Howard’s — courts failure, and a role as history’s piñata.