Appeasing the right is pointless

Over the holiday period, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull will be reflecting upon how to revive his standing with the Australian people and, with it, the electoral fortunes of his government. He will have no shortage of advice urging him to shift further to the right to appease his internal detractors and conservative media critics. The hard right is demanding he use the remnants of his popularity to implement their unpopular policies.

Appeasing the hard right to steady the ship of state as it sails headlong into rocks is a poor survival plan. Yet that is the course Turnbull charted in the latter half of 2016. By the resumption of parliament in February, the prime minister will need to have set a new course for his government – right up the guts of the sensible centre. Ideally, he should use an Australia Day speech to announce this new direction.

Having identified a long succession of negative opinion polls as the pretext for challenging Tony Abbott for the prime ministership, Turnbull has racked up an ever-lengthening sequence of his own. If this were a consequence of implementing necessary but unpopular reforms, it would be worthwhile. Instead, it is the price Turnbull is paying for abandoning a set of beliefs that made him an attractive alternative to Abbott in the first place.

Long a passionate advocate of market-based carbon pricing as the most efficient and effective means of reducing emissions, Turnbull has ruled out all such options in a forthcoming review. He now favours the Coalition's centrally planned Direct Action scheme, which the chief scientist has advised is incapable of achieving the emission-reduction targets to which Abbott committed Australia at the 2015 Paris climate-change conference.

Once a champion of renewable energy, Turnbull blamed South Australia's blackouts during wild storms that brought down major transmission lines on the state's heavy reliance on renewable energy. He has promised to campaign at the next election against Labor (but not Liberal) states with ambitious renewable energy targets.

A strong supporter of same-sex marriage, Turnbull refuses to give his parliamentary colleagues a free vote, binding them to oppose any enabling legislation.

Turnbull is still sulking about Labor's "Mediscare" campaign during the 2016 election campaign. Having identified the "excesses" of negative gearing tax concessions on residential investment properties and criticising Abbott's use of three-word slogans as a substitute for sound policy, Turnbull campaigned against "Labor's housing tax". He sought to scare homeowners into believing that Labor's negative gearing restrictions would send house prices plummeting. Then, after the election, the Turnbull government had the audacity to blame the states for locking first-home buyers out of the market. Turnbull's real complaint is that Labor's scare campaign worked but his didn't.

In 2017, the insatiable hard right will demand that Turnbull repeal sections of the Racial Discrimination Act, slap indiscriminate bans on migrants from Muslim countries, introduce a new wave of anti-union legislation, attack the poor as "no hopers" and label recipients of the Disability Support Pension "drug addicts" and "bludgers". Unless Turnbull does so, the hard right will never accept him as leader. Yet if he accedes to their demands, his popularity will plumb new depths and they will dump him anyway.

Turnbull should reach out to civil society groups, the trade union movement and business organisations to seek common ground on a set of national reform policies. He held two meetings of the parties at the 2015 National Reform Summit within months of being elevated to the prime ministership but has shown no interest since.

Turnbull needs to bring Australians together in the Bob Hawke consensus style, not promote deeper divisions within the community. New, practical reform proposals for the current parliament potentially capable of attracting bipartisan support include sensible budget repair, wise investment in productivity-raising infrastructure, an investment allowance to kick-start flagging private investment, education reform, mending holes in the social safety net, agreeable industrial relations reform and effective climate change policies. Of course, the parties would be free to disagree on other aspects of policy.

Perhaps the hard right sees the consensus model as a sign of weakness. But as Hawke demonstrated, it is a sign of strength. And it works. Give it a try, prime minister.