Malcolm Turnbull is now fighting for his political survival

Here's a question: has the Turnbull government entered the valley of the shadow of death politically, a bleak cul-de-sac in which divine intervention is nowhere in sight?

Has mishandling of the citizenship fiasco severed lines of retreat as the government edges perilously close to defeat on the floor of Parliament following John Alexander's resignation?

These missteps include: the Prime Minister's ill-advised pronouncements on the likelihood of the High Court ruling in Barnaby Joyce's favour; ludicrous accusations against those seeking clarity of engaging in a "witch hunt"; an implausible process of self-regulation in lieu of an independent audit for MPs to get their houses in order; and now, inevitably, politicisation in which tit-for-tat referrals to the High Court are threatened.

Then there is the Governor-General sitting in Yarralumla.

What does he make of all this, including his responsibilities under the constitution to ensure Parliament itself is properly constituted, according to the law?

Sir Peter Cosgrove would be remiss if he were not contemplating – in the event of an impasse – nudging the PM towards early elections to enable Parliament to be reconstituted with a clean slate of representatives untainted by citizenship issues.

The High Court has spoken.

As a new week begins with little apparent respite for a government under siege, among the few glimmers of hope for Malcolm Turnbull is that he will be out of the country and thus removed somewhat from endless questioning on domestic issues.

  Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull's best hope of surviving this next treacherous phase is to find a way to get ahead of the news cycle.  Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull's best hope of surviving this next treacherous phase is to find a way to get ahead of the news cycle.  Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

What is clear is that Turnbull is fighting for his survival in an environment that could hardly be less propitious for an incumbent beset by challenges on many fronts, and confronting enemies within and without.

In the AFR Magazine's Power Issue, former Liberal Party director Brian Loughnane was quoted as saying of an unfriendly political environment for incumbents: "Political leaders are now having to play defence … They're more worried about defending their positions with whatever political capital they have got remaining. It's day-to-day survival."

  Out of the way: the Prime Minister arrives in Da Nang, Vietnam, for the APEC Summit. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

Out of the way: the Prime Minister arrives in Da Nang, Vietnam, for the APEC Summit. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

He could have been describing Turnbull's predicament in which a PM finds his "political capital" dissipated.

Not least of Turnbull's problems are the agitprop activities of a phalanx of hyper-critical conservative commentators augmented by disaffected former Tony Abbott-era staffers whose views play out incessantly in a Sky News echo chamber. 

All this is occurring against the background of a country that has lost confidence in its elected representatives anyway. This is reflected in a splintering of support for the major parties, and rising populism given voice by Pauline Hanson.

What should be spooking Liberal and Labor is that their share of the primary vote is under constant pressure. In the latest Newspoll, the Coalition is polling a disastrous 35 per cent on primaries. This is wipe-out territory.

Having traversed thousands of kilometres of heartland Australia – including Queensland – I can tell you contempt is hardly a strong enough word for the disregard in which the political establishment is held.

The Coalition in Canberra has reason to be anxious about results in the forthcoming Queensland state election on November 25, where Hansonism is threatening to degrade, if not plunder, the conservative base.

The Coalition holds 21 of 30 seats federally in Queensland. Lose Queensland and lose government, it goes without saying.

Turnbull loyalists maintain that if the government can put the citizenship mess behind it, preside over a successful conclusion to the same sex marriage plebiscite, including follow-up legislation, and somehow make it through to the new year without further mishap, a sunlit uplands beckon.

This might be regarded as a bit of a fantasy.

Two years into the Turnbull leadership, little purpose is served by dwelling on mistakes, of which there have been many, including an initial failure to embrace comprehensive tax reform and thus budget repair.

What is clear is that the PM's attempts to straddle his party's moderate and conservative wings while clinging to a shifting middle ground are precarious at best.

In the process, he has yielded that most precious commodity for a political leader: authenticity. Put simply, it is not clear what Turnbull himself stands for in his attempts to accommodate his party's disparate elements.

A transactional Turnbull has not proved to be Turnbull in popular expectations.

If you were to put yourself in the shoes of the PM's advisers, what advice might you proffer to a headstrong leader, and one who is now proclaiming himself as an accomplished "crisis manager"?

Leaving aside foolish talk of replacing Turnbull, what the PM needs to do is to remind himself of what made him appealing when he had a plus-38 approval rating (he is now minus-28, a 66 point turnaround).

Strategically and tactically he needs to be prepared to fight an early election if necessary, and not one to which he is dragged kicking and screaming. In other words, his best hope of surviving this next treacherous phase until elections can be held in the normal course of events later next year is to find a way to get ahead of the news cycle. That means getting the politics right, and perhaps more important, asserting control over his own fractious party.

Disunity is death politically.