Bernardi's defection does Turnbull a favour

Defections are never much fun, but Cory Bernardi's betrayal of the Liberal Party may just be the break Prime Minister Turnbull needs. Far from governing for what he calls the 'Sensible Centre', Turnbull has been looking over his shoulder at the religious right of the Liberal and National parties, hoping to appease them for the sake of unity, but at enormous cost to his electoral standing. His only chance of survival is a return to the popularity that made him Prime Minister in the first place. Salvation won't be achieved by embracing the unpopular policies of the religious right.

First, a word on Bernardi. He was elected at the top of the Liberal Party's Senate ticket last July. He was chosen by the Liberal Party for the cushy, three-month job of representing Australia at the United Nations, which he wants to dismantle. And, presumably, he expects to remain a Senator representing a different party for the next five years instead of facing the people as leader of his new party in two years' time. This is Bernardi's notion of gratitude.

Responding to pressure from the eternally disgruntled religious right, Turnbull has adopted a policy program that is anathema to his personal beliefs. He refuses to budge on giving his Liberal colleagues what they boast as an inalienable right – a free vote on same-sex marriage. He has abandoned his long-held support for an emissions-trading scheme to reduce carbon emissions and has turned to coal, which his predecessor, Tony Abbott, declared would be 'king' for the next half century. The only way Turnbull can achieve his new plan for a coal-fired power station at Townsville would be for the federal government to guarantee its profitability using taxpayers' funds. Such an approach would directly contradict Turnbull's belief in private enterprise.

Turnbull has supported a Senate inquiry into Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, as demanded by the religious right. And he is at war with the trade union movement, legislatively attacking the governance of the industry superannuation funds that have a nasty habit of outperforming their private-sector competitors.

Senator Cory Bernardi's betrayal of the Liberal Party may just be the break Prime Minister Turnbull needs. Andrew Meares

While expending so much energy on these diversions, Turnbull has little left for the sensible-centre issues of fair budget repair and offering a future to communities that are under threat from the closure of the Australian auto industry and the looming crisis in natural gas supplies.

Yet there are some positive signs. Turnbull pressed ahead with superannuation reforms, opposed by the religious right, that pared back unconscionably generous tax breaks for the wealthy. He also tightened the Hawke Government's assets test on pensions, doing so against the bewildering opposition of Labor and the trade union movement.

Education Minister, Simon Birmingham, has signalled his belief that elite private schools are being overfunded. Only a Liberal government can pull that back. If Turnbull agrees to do so and to use the savings to increase funding for schools in disadvantaged communities, he will have done a great service to our country. But the religious right will, again, be his main opposition. As Christians, they have not yet signed up to the Beatitudes: "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."

Turnbull would appeal to young voters if he acted on housing affordability by changing the taxation treatment of investment properties. A government that spoke, early last year, of the 'excesses' of negative gearing should do something about them instead of blaming the states for locking first-home buyers out of the market.

An emissions-intensity scheme for the electricity generation sector – supported by the chief scientist, Alan Finkel – is opposed by the religious right but is capable of gaining bipartisan support. But the religious right has blind faith that there is no such thing as human-induced climate change. Turnbull should ignore them.

Adding to his reform agenda, an investment allowance would give an early fillip to jobs and growth, just as it did during the global financial crisis. A national productivity-raising infrastructure plan would do the same.

These are the mainstream policy issues on which the Turnbull government should focus in the new parliamentary year. Develop good policies for the nation and the politics will follow. Turnbull isn't particularly good at politics, but is a good policy thinker. He should play to his strengths rather than to his weaknesses. Instead of trying to appease the disgruntled, who will always be so unless their whacky policies are adopted, Turnbull should garner the support of the gruntled by directing his energies towards advancing the national interest.