Has Malcolm Turnbull shot himself in the foot? It’s certainly beginning to look that way.
The revelations this week of a leak from Turnbull’s office about the Shadow Treasurer’s opposition to Brendan Nelson’s 5 cent cut in petrol excise has been big news. The conservative newspapers and their columnists have covered it avidly, and Labor has reveled in the opportunity to paint the Opposition as a disunified rabble.
The email was purportedly from Turnbull to Nelson’s chief-of-staff, Peter Hendy (remember him? Hendy used to be the spokesman for top business lobby, the ACCI), calling Nelson’s proposal to cut Commonwealth petrol taxes by 5 cents per litre "bad policy". As it was, given the greenhouse gas implications, the fact that it would blow a hole in Federal revenues, and the likely ineffectiveness of such a measure in the face of rising world oil prices. Alexander Downer was not exactly forthcoming in his praise of the excise cut when speaking on ABC TV’s Lateline on Monday night.
Less widely reported was Turnbull’s counter-proposal of cutting the excise by 10 cents. I’m not sure why cutting the excise by 5 cents was bad, but cutting it by 10 cents was good. It’s the sort of twisted logic that makes you wonder how Turnbull amassed his giant fortune in the first place. In any case, once the email was leaked to Glenn Milne, who promptly sprayed it all over the Sunday papers, the damage was done.
This week has therefore been all about damage control for the Opposition, at precisely the time when it desperately needed some clean air in which to attack Wayne Swan’s budget. Instead, the media was blanketed with coverage of Liberal disunity and leadership challenges, not to mention Kevin Rudd’s stratospheric approval ratings in the AC Nielsen poll.
On Tuesday it was Senator Nick Minchin making waves, this time by suggesting that Alexander Downer was about to retire from Parliament, which would force a by-election his long-held seat of Mayo in the Adelaide Hills. Minchin, who really should have known better, was immediately contradicted by Downer himself, and quickly had to about-face.
To cap it all off, Turnbull had a previously scheduled appointment for a speech at the National Press Club yesterday, which naturally guaranteed the issue would run at least another day – if only because the leak would be the only thing the Canberra press gallery would be interested in asking him about. Quotes from Turnbull like "If that is our policy, then I will argue for it as eloquently or not as I can," are bound to generate headlines like "Turnbull won’t commit to taking fuel policy to election".
As I observed last week, the Coalition’s economic policy is in disarray. It hasn’t been able to get a coherent message out on inflation, and seems to be backsliding towards climate change skepticism to boot.
Turnbull’s speech yesterday again played the easy politics of cheap petrol, this time foreshadowing that the Liberals would try and remove petrol from any emissions trading scheme. This is the kind of populism which may well – as the commentators like to say – "cut through", but it’s both economically and environmentally irresponsible, as anyone who has been reading the submissions to Ross Garnaut’s climate change review will know.
Environmentally, the problems with such a policy are obvious: cutting petrol taxes simply puts more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, at a time when we need to be doing the reverse. Economically, it is also shortsighted: it both damages the Federal fiscal position, and does nothing to prepare Australia for a future world of sky-high fuel and carbon prices. (Not that Wayne Swan’s budget adequately addressed these issues either, as Peter Boyar observed in an incisive article in The Hobart Mercury.)
Where does this imbroglio leave the Liberals? Ironically, Brendan Nelson’s position has been strengthened by the affair. Malcolm Turnbull, whose performance at the National Press Club was unimpressive, is looking less and less electable as an alternative Prime Minster. The leak over the fuel excise cut may not have been his fault directly, but it does show his ongoing ill-discipline when it comes to communication – the core skill of a politician. Turnbull has form with leaking on collective decisions he is unhappy with. Remember his "I wanted to sign Kyoto" leak?
Also in question is Turnbull’s tactical and strategic judgment. If the Shadow Treasurer wants to be Liberal leader one day, surely the best long-term strategy should be to keep his head down and actually score some points against his direct opponent, Wayne Swan. Instead, he has made little impact in Parliament and there is little doubt he is undermining his leader.
Hence, the budget reply speech and fuel excise leak begins to look like the beginning of the demise of Malcolm Turnbull, rather than what it should have been: the beginning of the end of Nelson. The winner from this affair (apart from Kevin Rudd, of course) has got to be any third-party aspirant for the Liberal leadership: Julie Bishop, Joe Hockey … anyone, really.
The great irony is that, in terms of the electoral calculus, the Liberals are still well within reach of winning the next Federal election. Anyone who doubts this need only cast their mind back to 1998, when Kim Beazley and Labor actually beat John Howard’s first-term government in the popular vote. Of course, on current polling, the Coalition is going to have to make huge gains in electoral support merely to avoid total annihilation.
It hasn’t been a good week for the Liberals.
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