By Varun Bajekal
Varun is a fourth year, studying Business Information Systems/International Relations.
Thirty. The magic number Malcolm Turnbull cited when he ousted Tony Abbott as the leader of the Liberal Party and Prime Minister of Australia. “The one thing that is clear about our current situation is the trajectory. We have lost thirty Newspolls in a row. It is clear that the people have made up their mind about Mr Abbott’s leadership,” Turnbull said at his press conference the day before he won the leadership spill in September 2015. Now, Turnbull is approaching that dreaded figure. He has lost twenty-nine Newspolls in a row and is on track to hit the benchmark thirty that he set on that fateful day, unless a miracle occurs within the next week. Should he be held to the same standard, or should he be given a chance to prove himself and guide the Liberals to the next election?
While it may sound hypocritical to let Turnbull keep his job even if he loses thirty Newspolls, given that this number was used to replace Abbott as Prime Minister, there are many differences between the two situations that need to be taken into account. While Abbott achieved substantial outcomes as Prime Minister, and delivered many of his promises, it seemed like the looming election was unwinnable. As he had promised to do, he stopped the boats and scrapped the carbon and mining taxes, two issues that were important to the voters at the 2013 election. He also negotiated three free trade agreements, including one with China, Australia’s largest trading partner. However, despite succeeding in these areas, there were certain failures of the Abbott government which the public could not ignore. It began when the government lost immense political capital after the 2014 budget was released. Included were several cuts and broken promises, and ultimately the government failed to sell the budget to the people. Fiscally, the 2014 budget measures would have been instrumental in overturning the budget deficit the government had inherited from the previous Labor government. However, then Treasurer Joe Hockey and Abbott failed to explain the budget to the people. The constant gaffes and poor captain’s picks, such as knighting Prince Philip, did not help Abbott either. He seemed out of touch in the eyes of the Australian public.
The media also did not help Abbott’s case; constantly lurking in the grass, waiting for him to make a mistake and pouncing at every opportunity. Unlike some of his predecessors, there was a media bias against him on many occasions. From day one, Abbott was under scrutiny and was held to a different standard, particularly because his conservative views differed from that of the largely leftist mainstream media.
However, despite his successes outlined above, Abbott’s economic management was not exemplary. After he took over as leader, unemployment rose, the economic growth rate slowed, and the Australian Dollar weakened. This was one of Turnbull’s other reasons for ousting Abbott: He believed he could provide better economic administration. Fortunately for Turnbull, he has succeeded on this front. Most economic indicators have shown improvement under his leadership, and job growth is at a record high. In the past year, one of the key economic achievements of the Turnbull government was the approximately 403,000 new jobs that have been created. This is over 1,000 jobs created per day.
Turnbull has also been able to deliver on his other promises, even though some of them faced major obstacles. After Labor and the Greens blocked the same sex marriage plebiscite in the Senate, he still found a way to give the Australian people a say: Through a postal vote. The turnout of approximately 80% gave it legitimacy as well as giving the people a democratic vote. The Turnbull government is also very close to getting its proposed company tax cuts (from 30% to 25%) through a hostile Senate, and his record in getting legislation through has been positive. Going by the forward estimates, the budget is forecast to hit a surplus in the 2020-21 financial year. Turnbull’s vision for the country and economy needs to be lauded as well. His government has heavily invested in innovation, science and technology, and he is leading the country into the modern age with a futuristic mindset.
Yet, it is obvious that the Coalition is losing some of its voter base to fringe minor parties. Considerable work must be done to win them back if Turnbull is to win the next election. It is a worrying sign that an established and sensible party is losing votes to radical parties like One Nation, led by a zealot who is uncharismatic, inane and offers nothing positive to Parliament or the country. Turnbull has his work cut out for him to win back those protest voters who decided to demonstrate their dissatisfaction with the government by voting for Pauline Hanson. But it can be done. In the recent Queensland election, votes for One Nation actually assisted Labor in winning the election, as Turnbull pointed out. Hopefully for Turnbull, those voters have learned their lesson.
The final major difference between Turnbull and Abbott is that Turnbull is still leading the polls over Bill Shorten as preferred Prime Minister. While this victory may not be substantial given the Coalition is still trailing Labor 47-53 in the two-party preferred vote, it represents a glimmer of hope for Turnbull. Shorten is unpopular with the Australian public, and has recently solidified the notion that he will do or say anything to become Prime Minister. Shorten assured coal miners in Queensland that he supported the Adani mine while simultaneously telling inner-city Melbourne voters that he was against it in the lead up to the Batman by-election.
Turnbull is delivering but needs to make some changes if he is to retain power. The next election is not unwinnable for the Coalition, but a lot of hard work needs to be put in to achieve a positive result.