Turnbull is starting to push his progressive hand

Turnbull is starting to push his progressive hand

Having given them four weeks to get used to the new Government, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull last week commenced the delicate task of pushing back against his harshest critics.

Not the Labor Opposition, but conservative MPs within his own party.

Turnbull had gone to some effort when he first became leader to placate the right, not only in the Liberal Party but also in the Nationals. This reportedly included disavowing any move to reintroduce an emissions trading scheme or exchange the plebiscite on same-sex marriage for a parliamentary vote.

Such commitments would have provided some comfort to the right, but also exposed Turnbull to the obvious criticism that nothing about the Government had materially changed.

However, in a series of statements and announcements last week, the Prime Minister finally started to show his progressive hand. In detailing how his regime differed from Abbott’s, Turnbull was testing the limits of hardliners’ opposition to his planned progressive reforms to better understand how far and how quickly he could move the Government to the more competitive political centre.

First the PM referred to his Government’s support for greenhouse-friendly public transport in contrast to the Abbott regime’s narrower focus on fossil fuel-intensive roads.

Then there was the pointed omission of any praise for the harsh Abbott-Hockey economic reforms when Turnbull paid tribute to the departing former Treasurer. This was followed by an announcement that the 2014 budget’s cuts to family tax benefits would be softened to secure Labor support.

These hints of the PM’s determination to put his progressive mark on the Government were joined by an announcement that funding for climate contrarian Bjorn Lomberg’s think tank was no longer available, and a parliamentary statement denouncing continued efforts to water down the Racial Discrimination Act.

Each of these moves can be seen as an attempt by the PM to find the weak spots in Liberal conservatives’ resistance to progressive policies, as well as identifying the points where the right (and their supporters in the tabloid media) are likely to dig in before waging an unedifying war upon their own kind.

Same-sex marriage appears to be once such touch-point, given it was the only issue that provoked squeals of indignation from the right last week when PM Turnbull canvassed the binding nature of a marriage equality plebiscite on the Parliament.

“When the Australian people make their decision, that decision will stick. It will be decisive. It will be respected by this Government and by this Parliament and this nation,” Turnbull said.

Former Liberal Senate Leader, Eric Abetz, hit the airwaves, labelling a proposal to automatically legalise same-sex marriage if the plebiscite was successful as unhelpful and an ambush.

Even before Turnbull had addressed the issue in Parliament, arch-conservative Liberal Concetta Fierravanti-Wells warned the PM to tread carefully on the matter or risk alienating the Liberal Party’s conservative base.

Speaking to the National Press Club in her capacity as the newly-appointed Assistant Minister for Multicultural Affairs, Fierravanti-Wells said the party’s “mostly conservative” base was “devastated” by the leadership change, and that she had done her best to talk people into staying “for the good of the Liberal Party that we all serve”.

“A Coalition policy that directly supports same-sex marriage could place under threat some of our most marginal seats which have disproportionately high religious and migrant communities,” she said. The Assistant Minister based this assertion on her own analysis of the religious and cultural makeup of 14 marginal seats across Australia.

However, the most recent opinion poll on the subject suggests 69 per cent of all voters now support same-sex marriage, including 53 per cent of Coalition voters.

These numbers suggest Turnbull could attract more “new” Liberal voters by taking a centrist position on marriage equality, than the number of existing voters he’d lose by doing so.

Having identified same-sex marriage as one of the points on which the right will aggressively push back, Turnbull desperately needs those opinion polls to be accurate.

The Coalition’s conservatives may be prepared to waive their principles on welfare cuts and free speech in the interests of party unity, but it appears they’ve decided to make opposition to same-sex marriage a totemic issue.

Consequently, Turnbull needs to convince the right that opposition to marriage equality stands between them and re-election. Even then, the conservatives may still prefer electoral oblivion to having to concede the issue to their new progressive overlord.

Can Turnbull court the progressive vote and maintain the hardline asylum seeker policy?

Given Malcolm Turnbull based his leadership pitch on the Coalition’s poor opinion poll standing under Tony Abbott, he will be relieved to see what appears to be a dramatic improvement in the Government’s fortunes, according to the Ipsos poll in today’s Fairfax newspapers.

Less than a week ago, a 50:50 per cent two-party result in Newspoll suggested voters were yet to be convinced the shift to Turnbull meant an improvement in the Government’s policies – that perhaps he really was only Abbott in a nicer suit, as Labor was suggesting.

Today’s Ipsos results suggest those doubts may be lessening, with a two-party preferred result of 53:47 per cent in the Government’s favour – a 7 per cent swing to the Coalition since just before Turnbull became leader. The latest Ipsos poll gives the Prime Minister a 68 per cent personal approval and a 67:21 per cent lead over Bill Shorten as preferred PM.

Perhaps most significant, Ipsos suggests 7 per cent of primary votes shifted from Labor and perhaps even the Greens to the Government since Turnbull was made leader.

It would appear some progressive voters are beginning to like what they see in the new PM.

This is potentially devastating for Labor if, as the Australian’s Paul Kelly wrote on the weekend, Turnbull can “neutralise Labor’s social appeal and then destroy it on economic management and trade union fidelity”.

Turnbull will, however, need to remain conscious of the social conservatives in the community as he does so. So far, Turnbull has done a reasonable job balancing the community’s demand for a strong position on terrorism with the pressing need for a less aggressive approach in order to protect social cohesion.

The PM’s deliberately more inclusive language on tackling Muslim extremism – embracing the Muslim community and reframing terrorists, not Muslims, as the threat to our national security – has been a welcome relief to many progressives.

However, it will take more than a change of language for the PM to shift the majority view of Australians about asylum seekers or, for that matter, address the concerns of progressive Australians over the mandatory detention system.

Just as the ascension of Turnbull has provided an opportunity to change both the tenor and substance of the national conversation on terrorism, progressives hoped the new PM’s arrival would bring a more humane approach to the treatment of those euphemistically referred to by the Government as irregular maritime arrivals.

These hopes have perhaps been enhanced by the Australian community’s positive response to the decision to accept 12,000 Syrian refugees following the publication of the heart-rending images of drowned Syrian toddler Aylan Kurdi.

While an opinion poll at the time of the child’s death found 57 per cent of voters said Australia should increase its refugee intake to accept the Syrians, 54 per cent said they also supported Operation Sovereign Borders, including boat turn-backs and offshore detention. And 45 per cent of respondents said this policy made them more likely to vote Liberal.

Against this backdrop, refugee advocates have redoubled their efforts to make a connection between detained asylum seekers and Australian voters. Even though they have published photos, letters and drawings from the detainees, refugee advocates still haven’t been able to achieve the same tragic resonance as the chord struck by the pictures of the drowned child.

This may change with the story of the Somali asylum seeker, known by the pseudonym Abyan, who reportedly asked for an abortion after allegedly being raped on Nauru. More than 60,000 people signed a petition established on Abyan’s behalf, seeking her transfer to Australia to undergo the procedure.

Not long after PM Turnbull and Border Protection Minister Peter Dutton indicated in response to the growing public interest that Abyan’s case was being attended to, medical staff at the Melbourne’s Royal Children’s Hospital called on the Government to end mandatory detention of children.

Government backbencher Russell Broadbent backed the RCH staff, saying it was unacceptable to have “women and children in detention, behind razor wire in this country or locked away on an island”, and that the protest was not that of lefty activists but a sign that the views of the broader Australian population had shifted on the issue.

If that is the case, and Australian voters are indeed softening their stance on the detention of women and children, it will be interesting to see how the PM chooses to show leadership on the issue.

Fairfax’s Peter Hartcher writes today that the Ipsos poll result gives Turnbull “the blessing of enormous public goodwill – and the curse of impossible expectations”.

This is especially the case on the question of asylum seekers, where Turnbull is faced with two mutually exclusive and conflicting expectations. In satisfying one Turnbull can only disappoint the other.

Turnbull gave no ground on the issue last week when answering a question from the Greens’ Adam Bandt in Parliament. Even though he spoke in a regretful tone, the PM claimed Australia’s necessarily tough regime prevented people from dying at sea, as they had done under previous policies including those in which the Greens were complicit.

As for the pseudonymous Abyan, she was summarily returned to Nauru on Friday – without the termination – after reportedly missing a doctor’s appointment.

According to her lawyer, the distraught woman wanted access to a counsellor to discuss her options and also needed to recover her health before undergoing the procedure. In contrast, the Government claimed Abyan had changed her mind or implied she was stalling to give her lawyer time to secure a court injunction to keep her in Australia.

Progressives around Australia will be following Abyan’s case closely over the coming days and weeks to gauge the credentials of our shiny new PM. No doubt they will also be making their views known in the next round of opinion polls.

Simply denying factionalism exists won’t help Turnbull

Simply denying factionalism exists won’t help Turnbull

When Malcolm Turnbull became opposition leader in 2008, Paul Keating reportedly gave then PM Kevin Rudd a free character assessment of his new opponent. Describing the former Rhodes scholar as brilliant and utterly fearless, Keating is said to have comforted Rudd with the additional observation that Turnbull had no judgement.

It took only a year for that assessment to be vindicated. First Turnbull failed to exercise reasonable due diligence with the information provided by Godwin Grech. Then he miscalculated the pushback from the Liberal’s hard right against his insistence the party support Rudd’s emissions trading scheme.

Now, barely a month into the Turnbull era, there are troubling indications the new Prime Minister still has a problem with poor political judgement.

Despite promising a return to a cabinet style of government, in which all major decisions are shared, Turnbull hastily struck a new coalition agreement with the Nationals soon after becoming Liberal leader. The agreement reportedly locks the Turnbull Government into opposing any return to carbon pricing, keeping the plebiscite on gay marriage, and transferring responsibility for water policy to the Nationals.

Turnbull clearly saw a need to mollify the Nationals’ conservatives and agrarian socialists who were horrified at his return and threatening to dissolve the coalition, but given the Liberals’ junior partners were unlikely to walk away from their cushy ministerial suites and salaries, it is arguable whether he needed to give away so much so soon.

This ready willingness to recognise the views of the traditionalists in the National Party also makes Turnbull’s weekend comments about the lack of factions in the Liberal Party particularly reckless, if not plain foolish.

Of course there are cohorts and collectives within the Liberal Party; these are usually based on political philosophies but are sometimes also built around personalities. The factionalised nature of the party is patently obvious given it traditionally accommodates a broad spectrum of people with right of centre views including those of conservative, progressive and libertarian persuasions.

It’s fair enough for the Liberals to prefer not to use Labor terminology to describe elements of their own party; for example, Labor has a caucus whereas the Liberals have a party room. The Libs similarly reject the word factions, because it smacks of Labor tribalism.

But whether he uses the specific word or not, it is simply silly for Turnbull to argue that the Liberal Party does not experience factionalism.

A casual perusal of the history of any federal, state or territory division of the Liberal Party will reveal a litany of factional manoeuvrings including ruthless coups and backroom deals at council and conference meetings, accusations of branch-stacking, and questionable pre-selection outcomes.

The battles between the NSW Liberal moderates and conservatives are as legendary as they are brutal, with the moderates now said to have the upper hand in the state division. Factional tussles in the Victorian Division have been more personality based, such as that between the Costello and Kroger camps.

It could also be argued the South Australian Liberals remain in opposition at the state level because of factional infighting, although it was the hard right Liberal Senator from this state, Nick Minchin, who rallied conservative MPs at the federal level to install Tony Abbott as the leader who returned the party to national government. In keeping with the shift back to Turnbull, the moderates are now said to be dominant in the SA Libs.

Even on this particular occasion, Turnbull was confronted by considerable evidence to the contrary.

The PM shared the podium at the NSW Liberal State Council with new state president Trent Zimmerman, described by the media as an “influential member of the dominant moderate faction”. By virtue of that position, in addition to whatever merit he might possess, Zimmerman is expected to be pre-selected by the party to replace former Treasurer Joe Hockey when he retires from the Parliament.

Even if Turnbull had overlooked this detail, he should have been particularly conscious of a factional backroom deal that had earlier been struck at the meeting, which watered down a proposal developed by former PM John Howard to give grassroots party members a say in pre-selecting candidates for all state and federal seats.

Significantly, this reform was proposed by the president of the Warringah federal electorate conference, which essentially is the local branch of the Liberal Party responsible for running the election campaign for its candidate – one Tony Abbott.

So it was hardly surprising that Turnbull was met with jeers and snorts of derision when he claimed the Liberal Party was not run by factions or backroom deals; his own faction, the moderate faction, had just rolled an Abbott-aligned initiative by means of a back-room deal.

In short, the PM’s comment reflected a lack of judgement that was only overshadowed by his lack of self-awareness. He was either being deliberately disingenuous or simply talking through his hat – and neither interpretation is particularly reassuring.

Self-evidently, it is early days yet, and these poor decisions could be attributed to inevitable teething problems as the Prime Minister fine-tunes the way he communicates with Liberal Party members and MPs as well as the broader community.

But to overcome the misjudgement, Turnbull has to stop denying his party has factional challenges or that deals will be done to accommodate the differing demands. As he learned over the weekend, saying otherwise will simply aggravate those who know it patently isn’t true.

Labor is by no means perfect on this front, but at least it acknowledges the value of having differing political philosophies within its party and provides forums for debates to occur (even if much of that discussion still takes place behind closed doors).

Instead of trying to wish the Liberal Party’s factions away, Turnbull should acknowledge the broad church of political values that reside within the party, as John Howard did before him, and establish the necessary expectation that trade-offs and concessions will be required by all.

This is what he is already doing in practice – evidenced by the dodgy deal with the Nationals, who are in many ways just an extension of the Liberal right. To avoid further unnecessary scoffs and scorn, Turnbull needs to tailor his language to match his acceptance of the Liberals’ factional reality.