By Joe Montero
Malcolm Turnbull has certainly got himself into a mess. Thirty times and he’s down for the count at Newspoll.
This is significant. Thirty times down is the excuse he gave for toppling Tony Abbott from the Liberal Party leadership and prime ministership of Australia. This leaves him in a considerably weakened position, and the sharks are circling.
Turnbull’s low stocks mean something much more serious than whatever personal embarrassment may be involved. At the core of the problem, is that he leads a political party and government that have a way of thinking and policies that are being rejected by society, compounded by Turnbull’s considerable inability to apply them in full. It may not be all his fault. Any leader of the same party and government would face the same difficulty. It’s just that he’s there and he is the one wearing the flack.
Sometimes it can be a bit hard to look past the personality and get to what lies behind what is going on. The reality is that the government is heading towards electoral defeat, because the whole of it is on the nose.
There is one solid reason for this. The government presides over a situation where the average person perceives that their position or is increasingly insecure is getting worse. There is little faith in the future. No matter how often politicians tells them how good it is, they the average person knows that it gets ever harder to make ends meet, and they are forced to live on debt to maintain a decent the standard they are accustomed to.
Meanwhile, they see fabulous salary hikes going to corporate chiefs, massive tax evasion being carried out by the biggest companies, outrageous charges handed down by the banks, Telcos and power companies, and all lining up for massive handouts from the government. Essential services are cut back for this.
Opportunities for finding good full time and permanent work are dwindling and wages growth is stagnant and does not keep up with rising costs.
There is a housing affordability crisis that shows no end in sight.
The government is seen to do nothing about any of these things. Matter of fact it’s even worse. They are seen to be part of the problem.
While they do deserve to be taken to account over their responsibility, the problems go back quite a way before the Turnbull government came into existence. Back in 1983, soon after the Hawke/Keating administration came into being, neoliberalism became the mantra of government in Australia.
One of its first expressions was the Prices and Incomes Accord, which contrary to the beliefs of many at the time, was about transferring a larger proportion of national income to the top end and reducing the wages share, with the addition of the mechanism to enforce it.
The first accord and those that followed it were sold as a means for everyone to share the burden of fixing the economy. It was not true.
Neoliberalism is not nearly as much an economic doctrine, as it is an ideological outlook that pins its faith on the wealthiest being the most important part of society and the drivers of progress. This is what gave birth to the idea of the “trickle down effect.”
This ideology has been embedded in all subsequent governments, each in turn, going a little further along this path. The test of experience has not only shown that it does not work, but that it makes the situation worse.
Despite the overwhelming evidence, governments have refused to ditch the neoliberal mantra. Rudd did a little, during the financial crisis of 2008, and Australia was spared some of the shock. To be fair, Labor, under it current leadership, is distancing itself from neoliberalism. The test will be on what Labor does at the end of the day.
It is the long tradition of neoliberalism that has put politicians and the political system into disrepute. Most Australians have little faith in any. And this has hit the Coalition parties most of all. They are the most welded on to the neoliberal attitude and therefore the least flexible.
Up till now they have maintained their support through use of the politics of fear. They could never have succeeded by standing on what they believe and do. It’s a strategy that cannot last for ever and will eventually erode the support base.
The contradiction between the dogma and the reality of the real world, is what has opened the cracks and factionalised the parties. Although they, especially the Liberal Party have a history of being the political representatives of privilege, have not only failed to deliver to the whole of society, they have not failed their own constituency in a most fundamental way. Instead of fixing the economy, they have played a big hand in making it worse.
And it is this failure that has divided the part into acrimonious camps. Differences exist on how to get back on course. Broadly speaking, this is about whether the shift is to a more vigorous and hard-line neoliberalism or adopt a softer form of the same, and often expressing itself as a battle between the traditional conservatives and the radicals.
Within each camp there are also circles within circles. This makes the whole situation more unstable and outcomes less predictable.
Within the contest of the differences, it remains that none has any desire to move from the neoliberal direction.
Nut now that the leader’s personal stocks have fallen so low, the sharks are smelling blood. Tony Abbott was not about to lose an opportunity, and while travelling through Victoria’s La Trobe Valley, took to the media, to ask why he was dumped two and half years ago, and Turnbull hangs on for the same thing.
Home Affairs minister peter Dutton, spruiked his support for Turnbull, but remained cagey about his own ambitions. Two other names came up as possible challengers, Josh Frydenberg and Scott Morrison, both of who are more forthcoming about putting their names in the hat, should the opportunity arise.
The more talk there is about unity, the less it comes across as believable. The contenders are circling each other. Whoever wins the battle, if it comes to pass, will not make any great difference. They will be heading the same party, with its welded on ideology and internal divisions.
The only thing Turnbull has got going for him is that his rivals are also on the nose. This is the most likely reason that the same polls that damn him, show that most Australians still prefer him to any of the others.