Turnbull must whip his self-indulgent MPs into line

Malcolm Turnbull needs to use this Christmas break to quash the conservative revolt in his ranks and quarantine himself from the Ashbygate saga. Failure to do so would give Labor a big leg up.

It’s a political truism that electoral honeymoons don’t last, but it would be fair to say Malcolm Turnbull’s reign wasn’t expected to lose its rose-coloured hue quite as early as it did.

Admittedly, Turnbull’s not insignificant problems presently remain the preoccupation of those who pay close attention to politics; the PM’s travails haven’t yet pierced the consciousness of the broader voting population, or had a consequential impact on opinion polls.

As the Insiders’ Barrie Cassidy noted on the weekend, this leaves us with a Government leading strongly in the opinion polls but bedeviled with internal problems, while the Opposition is comparatively calm and disciplined despite its leader being preferred by only 15 per cent of voters.

It’s tempting to see this disparity as proof that Labor has finally learned from – and cast off – the disunity of the Rudd-Gillard years.

This may be true in part, but it’s more likely Labor’s current lack of leadership jostling is due to no other Opposition MP wanting to be the one to lead the party to anticipated defeat at the next federal election.

In effect, Shorten has become Labor’s sacrificial lamb, the colleague that putative Labor leaders such as Tanya Plibersek, Anthony Albanese and Chris Bowen are willing to sacrifice at the ballot box so that they don’t have to remove him themselves in a leadership coup.

This approach leaves the MPs with the clean hands needed to compete for the party leadership after the election, just as Shorten and Albanese did after Rudd lost to Abbott in 2013.

Shorten would be lauded as the man who brought down a Tory PM, but it would be left to a more skilled and nuanced Labor politician to take on the Liberal PM who can dangerously woo progressive voters.

The calmness and discipline observed by Cassidy is therefore more likely to be Labor’s grim resignation that it must accept another defeat before being able to rebuild its credibility with Australian voters.

While Labor plans for the future, Coalition MPs seem incapable of seeing as far as election day. Apparently booking the Government’s current opinion poll lead as a guaranteed election win, Liberal and National MPs appear more interested in unedifying squabbles over the spoils of government than presenting an administration that voters might actually want to re-elect.

Guardian Australia’s Katharine Murphy described this late last week as political entitlement culture, writ large. As Murphy noted:

Australian politics has indulged a five-year temper tantrum at the voters’ expense. Many of our elected representatives now seem to feel total impunity in airing their petty grievances, conducting public pity parties and taking steps to avenge their honour.

Even though she does not restrict her withering assessment to Coalition MPs, we need look no further than the Turnbull Government to see three contemporary examples of the politically short-sighted self-indulgence that Murphy describes.

Tony Abbott’s ongoing petulance at being replaced, Mal Brough’s inept declarations of innocence in the Slipper affair, and Ian Macfarlane’s extraordinary dummy-spit defection to the Nationals, all represent the base political characteristics that voters most despise – disloyalty, deviousness, self-indulgence, and an inflated sense of entitlement that apparently knows no bounds.

Taken together, they also point to the most poisonous political characteristic of all – disunity – which was a key reason why voters ditched the Gillard-Rudd government (and elected Abbott) in 2013.

Conveniently for Turnbull, the end of this parliamentary year has come not a moment too soon. The voters who haven’t yet switched off for the summer break will have noted the ripples being caused by Abbott, Brough and Macfarlane. Inconveniently for Shorten, however, there is little opportunity outside the Parliament for Labor to convincingly build a case that the shiny new Turnbull Government is being wracked with disunity.

The next opportunity to do so will not present until February 2016, when the Parliament resumes and the nation heads into an election year.

The Prime Minister therefore has about two months to remind his Coalition colleagues about their public duty and the limits placed on its delivery if they are consigned yet again to the opposition benches.

It will be no easy task, but in doing so Turnbull must quash the conservative revolt (which is at the very least inspired, if not instigated, by Abbott), and quarantine himself from whatever else may emerge in the Ashbygate saga.

Neither act is simple nor straightforward – particularly if the protagonists have convinced themselves they can do pretty much anything without materially changing the Coalition’s re-election chances.

If Turnbull is unsuccessful, and Government disunity leads to a drop in the opinion polls, the Opposition could again have a real chance of winning.

This could lead to an accompanying reawakening of leadership tensions within Labor, and a resulting resurgence of “pox on both your houses” votes for the minor/micro parties and independent MPs.

Such a turn of events would be déjà vu for voters – and poetic justice for self-indulgent Coalition MPs.