Before you close this article, convinced it is simply some exhausting, conservative and populist argument about Turnbull supposedly dropping his liberal party’s principles – press on ever so slightly.
When Malcolm Turnbull quite popularly ascended to Kirribilli House, voters knew him as a principled social liberal. When he led preferred leader polls and ultimately became Liberal leader, people knew what they were in for. When he promised “thoroughly liberal government”, they had faith in his manifesto and the polls showed this charming, eloquent and metropolitan liberal had plenty of support in the wider electorate.
But, in the face of a loud right wing and populist minority, he is yet to implement the policies which Australians were so keen to see upon his confirmation as our Prime Minister. This is why the government suffers in current polls, quite simply because voters are not seeing Turnbull stand up for his principles.
At the time Tony Abbott was removed, Australian people were over the ideologically conservative, unsupported and stubborn Andrew Bolt agenda that Abbott had been pushing for a couple of years. Cuts, and threats of high level privatisation is not a form of pandering to populist voters, and this notion that a return to the right wing approaches will quell the populist surge is quite nebulous. It is clear that only so many people can get behind that uniquely IPA style, capital-C Conservative policy approach. Cory Bernardi is kidding himself if he thinks he can popularly sell fiscal conservatism in an effort to win back One Nation voters.
This is because, besides their protectionist tastes, One Nation voters aren’t necessarily craving some stubborn form of social regression. If the Queensland LNP thought forcing the withdrawal of a bill decriminalising abortion this week would relieve the bleed to the populist right, they were wrong. Your average One Nation voter is pro-choice, pro marriage equality and dissatisfied that Turnbull isn’t sticking to his guns on these issues. Obviously there were a number of other problems with the Queensland bill, it is unlikely that the state LNP were misguidedly pandering to the hard right, rather likely avoiding the passage of a bad bill for the sake of a nice headline. For anyone to suggest otherwise, to suggest the LNP simply hate abortion or are pandering to One Nation, they reveal partisan interests to the extent that they are willing to pass an awful bill for the sake of winning the next election. Perhaps anti-establishment One Nation voters just want to see a Prime Minister stand up and fight for what they believe in? It’s fair to say that Turnbull has not had much conviction in power and that’s likely a damning sight to an apathetic and marginalised voter.
The reason the government is suffering in the polls is not and cannot be to do with ‘abandoning conservative base voters’, when the government has done nothing empirically progressive. This idea that the Liberal Party’s base is an anti-establishment, bigoted group amounting to 45% of the population is quite erroneous. The base isn’t the IPA, it isn’t Bernardi, and it is certainly not Hanson. What the base actually looks like is an issue for another day, but it cannot to a significant extent feel abandoned by a centrist liberal leader, who it yet to perform any act of abandonment in a policy sense.
For the government to recover in the polls, two things need to happen.
The first is that Turnbull needs to stick to his guns, the views we heard on Q&A programs before he took office. These views need to come to policy fruition. That looks like a free vote on marriage equality, that looks like a properly liberal environmental policy such as an Emissions Trading Scheme, it could look like a strong renewables based plan in response to the South Australian blackouts. These serious issues would serve as great distractions from Fair Work’s penalty rate reduction, and would be received warmly by the mainstream media, providing much needed political capital for more pressing reforms to taxation and free trade.
The second is that the party, the broad church that it is, needs to get around a common sense, economically and socially liberal ideological application to its policies. This approach has been a success for John Key, a success for David Cameron and Theresa May, and a success in New South Wales for Mike Baird and now Gladys Berejiklian. Popular and overdue social progression and the political mileage it could give the government would be invaluable with a view to cutting back spending and selling free trade agreements.
The past four weeks in parliament has seen Turnbull stand up to the dangerous economically left wing populism of Shorten, the Greens, and to an extent, One Nation. In order to reap the fruits of this newly found mongrel, the next step is for Turnbull to stand up for his socially liberal principles, with the backing of large swathes of his party room, and show the conviction and effectiveness Australians yearned for when he took office in a spring not so long ago.