An alternative title could have been ‘What is the Coalition up to?’ but it seems as if opposing the Government’s economic stimulus package is Turnbull’s initiative, possibly urged on by the young turks in the party room who want to take the fight up to Kevin Rudd. This is understandable as it has looked as if the Coalition has too often rolled over in front of the Rudd steamroller. But why pick the economic stimulus package against which to flex his muscles? A coincidence or a carefully crafted action? He is said to have had two-thirds of the party room behind him, but that means one third were not, amongst them, as we understand it, Nick Minchin and Fran Bailey in the most marginal seat in Australia. With that level of non-support, Turnbull would need everything to go according to plan.
He acknowledged from the outset that he would take a ‘hit in the polls’; he knew his move would likely be unpopular with the electorate. His insistence that he did it ‘because it was right’ strains credulity. If it is right it would be so on ideological or economic grounds, that stimulatory handouts are not effective or not as effective as other measures, such as tax cuts. The convoluted arguments used to make this case look unconvincing, and would be ignored by most of the electorate. As there is little prior experience, data is sparse. What little evidence exists comes from the December stimulus package, which according to some measures has been successful. Surveys suggest that a significant part of the December package was spent, and the boost in retail sales is evidence of this. Arguments that revolve around whether it is spent or saved are of doubtful validity, because money saved now to pay off debt will likely loosen up money that can be spent later.
The argument that the package is too expensive and would plunge the country into long-lasting debt lost much of its potency when it was pointed out, and not contested by Turnbull on Channel 10’s Meet the Press on Sunday, that his package would cost $180 billion over the coming years, as against Rudd’s $200 billion, not a massive difference in Federal budgetary terms.
So was the reason for Turnbull's strategy other than ideological? Was his leadership wobbly in view of continuing poor polls? Was the end-of-year schemozzle seen as a sign of flawed leadership and lack of party discipline? Is Peter Costello’s rousing from sleep a sign of resurgent leadership ambitions, or a response to Rudd’s demonization of neo-liberalism and a consequent desire to preserve the Howard/Costello economic legacy? Are the young turks getting restless, tiring of the irrelevance of opposition? Certainly Turnbull himself hates irrelevance.
Turnbull was wise to predict a ‘hit in the polls’, because that has been the outcome. Maybe he hoped it would not be as bad as he publically predicted and he could then claim public support for his position. More significant than the widening of the 2PP gap from 8 to 16 in the most recent Newspoll, is the narrowing of Turnbull’s satisfaction/dissatisfaction gap from 14 to 6, largely due to almost a quarter of the previously ‘uncommitted’ now recording ‘dissatisfied’. Essential Research figures are worse still. They shows the gap changing from a positive 9 to a negative 11, a turnaround of 20 (41/30 to 32/43). There is also a widening of the preferred PM gap from 38 to 42 points (60/22 to 62/20) in Newspoll. Essential Research gives a similar result (60/20). So this ‘hit’ is more of a hit on Turnbull than on his party, although that has suffered too. How long will this hit need to persist to bring on murmurings about his suitability as leader? He is not in a much better position poll-wise than Brendan Nelson when he was ditched. The fact that suitable alternative leaders are not in abundance may save him temporarily. But, as Possum points out on Pollytics, once a leader ‘tanks’ personally in the polls, it’s hard to recover no matter what the 2PP figure is.
Since taking his stand, insisting that the Coalition would vote against the package in the House and the Senate, thereby having effectively dealt the Coalition out of the action, the Government has been productively negotiating with the Greens and Independents, and laying the blame for the non-passage of the package with all its goodies at the feet of the Coalition. Turnbull’s aversion to irrelevance had him lamenting that the Government was negotiating with the cross benches but not the Coalition, and calling on Rudd to negotiate with him. What did he expect after dealing the Coalition out?
Yesterday in Crikey Bernard Keane reported that Turnbull had told the Coalition joint party room that while he was happy to take a short-term political hit, he was willing to negotiate with the Government to pass the package. If that’s the case, it will look like a major back flip after so publically refusing to pass the package, and likely to further diminish him in the eyes of the electorate and his party room. It is unlikely that Rudd would be interested in allowing Turnbull a slice of the action if he can get the package through, with agreeable amendments, with the support of the Greens and Independents. Rudd would know that to let Turnbull have a say, would have him taking credit for having ‘rescued’ or improved the package. Despite Turnbull’s stated willingness to negotiate, by yesterday evening the minority position of the Coalition in the Senate was to oppose all elements of the package. The rationale underpinning the strategy Turnbull and the Coalition are employing remains a mystery.
So let’s see what happens over the rest of the week. It might give us some idea what Turnbull’s really up to, provided there is a clever master plan at all.