Malcolm Turnbull must resist a tilt to the right

Okay, who was the Labor joker who left the internal destabilisation manual in the bottom drawer of Tony Abbott’s desk? Abbott is well past the early chapter titled ‘Pledge loyalty to the leader’ and has just finished ‘Release alternative manifesto while pollsters are in the field’. Get ready for the next chapter: ‘Campaign for a supporter in a marginal seat’ with sub-heading: ‘Alert all five television stations’. The Coalition seems so intrigued by Labor’s turmoil when last in government that it is determined to emulate it. The nation is the loser.

Stated reasons for political destabilisation never include personal ambition. No, like hamlets during the Vietnam War that had to be destroyed in order to save them, destabilisers always invoke the best interests of the party as their motivation. Right now the threat of One Nation is the pretext for the Coalition destroying itself. Yet less than a year and a half ago the Coalition opted for a prime minister who offered to take the government not to the right but to the ‘sensible centre’.

Conventional wisdom holds that the electorate has suddenly lurched hard right. Dissidents of the hard right within the Coalition – who coincidentally happen to have unfulfilled ambitions – are demanding that the Turnbull government mimic One Nation policies. True to its name, the Coalition fondled a lump of coal in the parliament, pledging to commit taxpayer funds to subsidise coal-fired power stations. Yet published opinion polls indicate that less than 20 per cent of voters have bought the government’s story that recent blackouts have been caused by over-reliance on renewable energy.

If the electorate had truly shifted to the right, why has Labor established such a commanding lead in the polls? It’s not as if Labor has shifted to the right in pursuit of One Nation voters, what with its policies on renewable energy, same-sex marriage, Palestine, penalty rates and putting One Nation last on all how-to-vote cards. As hard-right colleagues and commentators drag Prime Minister Turnbull to the right he is conceding the ‘sensible centre’ to Labor.

A more plausible explanation for One Nation’s resurgence is that it is the party of choice for the ‘up-yours’ vote. One Nation is the anti-establishment party, just as Donald Trump was the anti-establishment candidate in the US Presidential election. These disenchanted voters believe the system is rigged, that it doesn’t work for them.

A recent poll in George Christensen’s marginal Coalition seat of Dawson suggests that it is not only angry, white middle-aged men who are turning to One Nation but, even more so, young people. They witness the childish antics going on in Canberra and the taxpayer-funded helicopter flights and trips to the Gold Coast and conclude that politicians are only in it for themselves. High-profile cases of government abuse of entitlements have ensured the Coalition bears most of the electoral pain.

Turnbull’s only chance of survival and revival is to adopt centre-ground policy positions on health and education, job creation, climate change, same-sex marriage and non-discrimination. Instead, to appease his detractors, he is likely to continue advocating taxpayer subsidies for new coal-fired power stations, oppose any changes to the Marriage Act, allow house prices to soar unchecked and vote, with One Nation, against an opposition bill to annul the Fair Work Commission’s recent decision to reduce the wages of up to 700,000 low-paid workers.

Labor consolidated its electoral advantage over the Coalition with its advocacy of a crackdown on negative gearing concessions for housing. It was a gamble, eliciting from the government a predictable three-word slogan and scare campaign against ‘Labor’s housing tax’. But Labor’s gamble worked; Labor was rewarded not just for opposing the excesses of the disastrous 2014 federal budget but also for proposing alternative policies.

In a little-reported speech last week on the day the penalty rates decision was announced, Bill Shorten confirmed that a Labor government would implement an emissions-intensity scheme for the electricity sector, as favoured by most economists and the Prime Minister’s own chief scientist. If Labor, with its superior reputation in health and education, can develop a credible policy for budget repair and job creation by encouraging new investment, it will have covered the major issues of concern to the ‘sensible centre’.

Meanwhile, the Coalition looks like slugging it out with One Nation while exchanging preferences with its nemesis. Remember, the penultimate chapter in the destabilisation manual is a vow that ‘I will never be leader again’, followed by the grand finale: ‘A challenge to the leader in the best interests of the party.’