Both Labor frontbencher Anthony Albanese and Liberal backbencher Cory Bernardi were in the business of stirring expectations in interviews on Sunday. And if those expectations take hold, that’s particularly bad for Malcolm Turnbull.
Albanese predicted the parliament wouldn’t run a full three years, saying “it could run for a year. It depends on their internals.”
If Turnbull thought he was going to be defeated in his partyroom, he would think about going to an election “rather than having what occurred to Tony Abbott happen to him”, Albanese told Sky.
Bernardi, also speaking on Sky, held out the prospect that the government next year would probably say that it was a good idea to address Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act.
Albanese is trying to fan feelings of instability and uncertainty; Bernardi is seeking to raise anticipation that on a key policy issue Turnbull will have to come round to the way of thinking of the Liberal “base”.
Despite his wafer-thin majority and the shambolic events of last Thursday, and putting aside the possibility of death or defection, objectively there should be no reason why the Turnbull government could not run its term, just as the Gillard minority government did.
But if the perception takes hold that the government is in chaos, and the leader’s hold on his position is uncertain, that becomes highly destructive internally, just as happened in the Gillard years. It affects backbench morale, feeds into the polls, makes governing difficult, works against taking hard decisions.
In the longer run in such situations, questions about leadership do arise – not that there is any alternative to Turnbull on the horizon.
When a government is seen to be on the ropes, that is the frame through which everything is viewed.
The opposition, instead of being the side that mainly has to react, is able at least in part to set the agenda, as for example Bill Shorten is doing in prosecuting his case for a royal commission into the banks.
And when everyone is talking about the incompetence of the government, the opposition can get away with less scrutiny.
Bernardi’s confidence that Turnbull will ultimately accept the need to change 18C reinforces the perception Turnbull is not in control of his followers – which at the moment is also the reality.
That Bernardi was able to collect signatures from all but one of the Coalition’s Senate backbench for his private member’s bill to amend 18C was remarkable, given Turnbull’s stated position against change. Rarely do we see such an extensive and formalised revolt in a party on a policy issue.
The more momentum Bernardi can generate, such as by foreshadowing an eventual win, the greater the chance of attracting support for his cause.
Yet if Turnbull were forced to give way, he would not only be in a heap of trouble with ethnic communities, but he’d be seen to have capitulated on another of his personal positions.
Two other examples show the internal trouble besetting Turnbull.
One was Saturday’s story about Tony Abbott’s attack on the government’s superannuation reforms, made at a meeting attended by Treasurer Scott Morrison, Revenue Minister Kelly O'Dwyer and Coalition MPs last week.
The leak to the Weekend Australian, reporting that Abbott argued the government was wrong to offer superannuation concessions to low-income earners, and quoting one MP suggesting he’d got out of bed on the wrong side and another saying he’d arrived cranky, was more damaging than helpful to the former prime minister.
But it highlighted that Abbott remains an active irritant for Turnbull, because he is pursuing stands on a range of issues both internally and in public.
Indeed, Abbott’s recent speech line that the government has been “in office, not in power” is one of the most cuttingly accurate observations that has been made. He was talking about budget repair, but the analysis applies more widely. Albanese’s comment on Sunday that “it’s a matter of whether they can actually govern” was a sort of reprise.
A particularly egregious party slap for Turnbull came after Friday’s Liberal federal executive meeting where Turnbull had questioned why dumped minister Jamie Briggs, who lost his seat of Mayo, had not been disendorsed.
According to the Sunday Telegraph, which claimed “multiple sources” for its account, Turnbull told those at the gathering their challenge was to ensure his remarks did not make it into a newspaper.
That party heavies had little inclination to meet that challenge says a lot about the Liberals' “internals” at the moment. The leader has a respect deficit.
Authors: Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra