Turnbull government in deep crisis

November 18, 2017

The Coalition government of Malcolm Turnbull is in deep, possibly terminal, crisis.

The combination of the dual citizenship fiasco, the widespread resistance to the government's attempts to push its neoliberal agenda through a maverick Senate and the constant undermining of Turnbull by the right wing of the Liberal Party under the leadership of former Prime Minister Tony Abbott has sapped any public confidence the government was given when Turnbull replaced Abbott only two years ago.

The most recent Newspoll showed the government trailing Labor 45% to 55%. Such a lead, if realised at the next federal election, would mean a landslide win to Labor and a catastrophic defeat for the government.

Most alarming for the Prime Minister is that his previous substantial lead in the preferred prime minister stakes over Labor leader Bill Shorten has shrunk to two points — 34% to 32%.

Moreover, this is the 23rd poll in a row that Labor has led the Coalition. Turnbull himself cited 30 negative polls in a row as the tipping point for the removal of Abbott in 2015.

Turnbull, who previously styled himself as the small-l liberal leader of the "socially progressive" wing of the Liberals, made a pact with the devil in the form of the hard-right conservative faction of the party in order to oust Abbott. This has effectively kept him hostage to the ultra-reactionaries ever since.

Of course, the ideological differences between the "right" and the "left" of the Liberals are very limited. Together they represent the ruling class's first preference as a governing party.

The Liberal Party, in coalition with the rural reactionaries of the Nationals, stand fundamentally for an extreme anti-working class, anti-union, pro-big business agenda. Turnbull represents a continuation of the hard-right, neoliberal policies pursued, largely unsuccessfully, by his predecessor.

These include:

  • vicious anti-union laws, including the reintroduction of the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) and the Registered Organisations Commission (ROC), and now further anti-union legislation aimed at attacking union rights, currently before the parliament;
  • proposed tax cuts to big business combined with tax rises for working people;
  • drastic cuts to the public sector and social welfare services of many kinds;
  • student fee increases and reductions in university budgets;
  • accelerated attacks on Aboriginal rights and services;
  • the increased persecution of refugees; and
  • opposition to real action to combat climate change.

In practice, Turnbull can claim with some justification to have implemented some of the Coalition's neoliberal policies more successfully than Abbott, by being prepared to make minor concessions to an unruly Senate crossbench in order to manoeuvre some controversial measures through the parliament.

But his overall failure to push through a number of the Coalition's most unpopular proposals, to a major extent because of widespread community opposition, has undermined his credibility and public support for the government over time.

The dual citizenship fiasco has only served to further undermine Turnbull and the Coalition parties' credibility with the public. With the temporary loss of National Party leader Barnaby Joyce while he stands in the byelection for his Tamworth seat, the government now relies on backing from independents to survive any vote of no confidence.

The removal of member for Bennelong John Alexander now puts the future of the government truly in doubt. Labor has endorsed high-profile former NSW Premier Kristina Kenneally in a high-stakes bid to steal the seat of Bennelong from the Liberals.

While Kenneally does bring some political baggage from her time as premier in the dying years of the ill-fated ALP regime in NSW, especially her alleged former links to Eddie Obeid and his corrupt gang, the battle for Bennelong is really turning into a referendum on the record of the Turnbull government as a whole. If Bennelong falls to Labor, it could spell the end of the government.

Meanwhile, the numbers are so tight in the House of Representatives that Labor may decide to move to set up a royal commission into the big banks, or another key piece of legislation which will effectively be a vote of no confidence in the government. In that case, some independents may defect to the Labor side and bring the Turnbull government's survival into doubt.

The final piece of the puzzle is the fall-out from the major victory for the Yes campaign in the marriage equality survey. Turnbull will attempt to paint the result as a win for his leadership and a confidence booster for the Coalition government.

But it is already clear that the die-hard Liberal right wing will fight to seize victory from the jaws of defeat by passing extreme amendments to the final marriage equality legislation to entrench homophobic discrimination.

There may be an early election sometime in the New Year, if the disintegration of the government's parliamentary numbers and public support continues at the current rate. The Turnbull government must go, and the sooner the better for the majority of working people.

The challenge for the labour movement now is to put pressure on Labor to stand up for the unions, Aboriginal people, refugees, social welfare, public education, health and transport and the environment.

With the government in a weakened state, the confidence borne from a big win for the marriage equality campaign and the new rise of social and environmental protest movements, it is time for a national revival of progressive forces.

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