Turnbull better be ready for a street fight

Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown or, it might be observed, the top hat.

Apologies to Shakespeare's Henry IV Part 2 but Malcolm Turnbull finds himself in circumstances that invite Shakespearian comparisons, beset, as he is, by rebellion from within and without having eliminated his predecessor, as did Henry in the case of Richard II.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull prepares for a jolting resumption of parliament this coming week. Photo: Brook Mitchell

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull prepares for a jolting resumption of parliament this coming week. Photo: Brook Mitchell

As Turnbull prepares for a jolting resumption of parliament this coming week and a Labor leader buoyed by electoral success, he will find himself in a street-fight, not his preferred terrain of courtroom advocacy.

That fight is vastly complicated by an insurgency on his own backbench and on the airwaves over leadership and other issues like climate change and coal – glorious coal. Turnbull supporters might dismiss the klaxon call of Alan Jones but a revolt by conservative commentators tears at the base. And not just the base.

Listen to pensioner Elaine on 2GB:  “I’m an aged pensioner who’s down to two meals a day. I don’t gamble, I don’t drink, I go to church and that’s it … We’d rather put up with Mr Shorten for a term and then we can vote him out.’’

Now, Elaine may never have voted conservative in her life but in those last words she encapsulated real peril for the government and its “kill Bill’’ strategy.

People might not like Bill Shorten, they may actively dislike him, they may even despise him but if they perceive a government is “mean and tricky’’ and “out of touch’’ the preferred leader measure can be the length of the Flemington straight and it won’t matter.

The “mean and tricky’’ reference derives from a memo sent in May, 2001 by then Liberal President Shane Stone to John Howard after the Liberal Party lost the blue ribbon Brisbane seat of Ryan in a byelection.

We’ll come back to the Ryan byelection lessons for Turnbull.

Whatever else might be said about the wash-up of the so-called Super Saturday byelections on  July 28, Turnbull’s authority has been shredded. He has himself to blame.

He should never have sought to defy history by seeking to make these byelections a leadership contest. In Australian politics governments don’t take seats off oppositions mid-term.

On the evidence a crude “kill Bill’’ strategy came up short.

Not only was Bill not “killed’’, there he was bouncing up and down on election night in the seat of Longman in Queensland after surviving his own night of retribution. Make no mistake the knives were out.

Colleagues regard Shorten as a liability but one they’re obliged to live with for the time being given the transactional costs involved in getting rid of him.

Illustration: Jim Pavlidis

Illustration: Jim Pavlidis

This returns us to the lesson of the Ryan byelection for Turnbull.

In Ryan’s aftermath Howard came to the Financial Review's offices in Darling Harbor for a briefing with senior editors. I was political editor.

At the time, twice yearly indexation increases in fuel excise were proving combustible politically. Howard assured us he was not for turning on the issue but within weeks excise was frozen at 38.14 cents a litre as then streetfighter Howard fought to restore his government’s fortunes.

People forget but in 2000 at the absolute nadir of the Howard government’s unpopularity, Labor under Kim Beazley led the Coalition 60-40, according to the Roy Morgan polling organisation.

It is history now but a lucky Howard survived a 2001 poll after he exploited the Tampa affair by refusing entry to refugees rescued at sea by a Norwegian freighter. He benefited politically from terrorist attacks on New York and Washington in September, 2001.

Two months later in a “khaki election’’ with Australian troops in Afghanistan, Howard won 82 seats to Labor’s 65. Under Beazley, Labor recorded its lowest primary vote since 1934.

If we fast forward to August, 2018 all is not bleak for Turnbull, although fracturing political loyalties are tearing at the base of both major parties. In the latest Fairfax Ipsos poll taken before the Super Saturday byelections the Coalition trailed Labor 49-51 within the margin of error.

Last week’s Newspoll shows Turnbull stretching his lead as preferred prime minister over Shorten. That aside, the byelection results have been over-interpreted in Labor’s favour.

The Braddon result in Tasmania showed a minuscule swing to Labor, far below the 3.8 per cent average against a government in a byelection recorded since 1901. The Longman result was bad for the government but there were extenuating circumstances, including a compromised LNP candidate.

All that should re-balance itself in a general election, assuming Turnbull jettisons – or re-engineers – his vote-losing company tax and re-directs those resources to increased small and medium sized business and personal income tax cuts and other benefits.

Coalition insiders, including Cabinet ministers, tell me they’re “not panicking’’ as long as Bill remains “unkilled’’. Perhaps they should start “panicking’’ bearing in mind one baleful detail. Malcolm Turnbull is not John Howard and nor are political windfalls for conservatives of 2001 likely to repeat themselves.

Footnote: Henry IV died in 1413 from a strange malady, possibly leprosy.