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Biding his time hasn't hurt Malcolm Turnbull's fortunes

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John Howard predicted the times would suit him and, eventually they did. Perhaps Malcolm Bligh Turnbull will be as fortunate.

Significantly, both men knew the downside of poor timing, having come to the prime ministership after unsuccessful stints as opposition leader. And both got off to patchy starts once there.

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Howard got through his first term. Just. Turnbull will too. But a surprisingly directionless pre-budget, pre-election period, has taken its toll on the government, while letting the opposition back into the race.

If nobody is panicking just yet, it is mostly because the Coalition's fundamentals remain solidly on the positive side of the ledger, rather than through any certainty that the new leadership team is executing a brilliant plan.

Still, not trailing in the polls is a good start any election year. The last two Newspoll surveys have had the two sides level pegging at 50/50. The Fairfax-Ipsos in February was kinder, showing Labor's support building in early 2016 but at that stage, the Coalition was still comfortably ahead 48-52. Even so, that 52 per cent share was lower than Tony Abbott's 2013 election return of 53.5 per cent, startling many in the Coalition expecting a dividend from Turnbull's higher popularity.

All eyes will be on the March Fairfax-Ipsos survey to be published on Monday. Remember, thanks to electoral vagaries and recent boundary changes, Labor needs to claw back that 3.5 per cent and some, towards an overall swing – if uniform – of 4.3 per cent nationally. That remains pretty unlikely.


The Coalition also enjoys a thumping lead in Parliament, having secured 90 seats in 2013 to Labor's 55. That's a truckload of individual contests in which the sitting MP enjoys the advantages of incumbency, including those of a taxpayer-funded office and staff, generous mailing allowance, and the active imprimatur of the Prime Minister.

Even history is on the Coalition's side with no first-term federal government of either stripe, tipped out since 1931.

And now the budget, that "debt and deficit disaster" that had proved more vulnerable to global shocks than Abbott and Joe Hockey had ever cared to concede, may come to Turnbull's aid.

Hockey and Abbott famously gave Labor absolutely no quarter as the global financial crisis and its aftershocks smashed the bottom line, ripping more than $150 billion from revenue. So cocky were they in opposition, that Hockey said in 2012 and again in 2013, "we will achieve a surplus in our first year in office and we will achieve a surplus for every year of our first term".

It wasn't long into their calamitous fiscal stewardship, that any political consensus for rapid budget repair had been thoroughly bungled through broken promises and cumbersome ideological overreach. Also gone was any hope, or even reference, to a surplus goal.

But now, in a happy development for Abbott's successor, there are signs that improving commodity prices could pump some much-needed billions into the coffers. And that in turn, would give Turnbull and Morrison some options that until now, have eluded them. Options like promising a tax cut, assuming other savings also, without adding to the deficit.

Along with energy, commodities such as iron ore, copper and gold have also ticked upwards. Iron ore is the biggie. For each US dollar it improves, the bottom line is bolstered with about $250 million. Recently, it has rebounded strongly, going north of $US63 a tonne.

It has since dropped back to $US58.02 as of Thursday morning but that is way healthier than the $US48 figure listed in the last Hockey budget, and well ahead of the $US39 upon which the December budget update was predicated.

Price volatility means these prices cannot be relied upon for revenue projections, but few analysts expect the December lows to be repeated.

This is the importance of timing (or luck if you prefer) and it will be especially welcomed by a government whose marginal seat MPs are fast concluding that their best chance of re-election has already passed.

Indeed, Coalition insiders acknowledge that in the heady months immediately after Turnbull's promotion, they had allowed themselves to dream of actually gaining seats once the election was on. That optimism has given way to the acceptance that a haircut of some type is coming, with the loss of five to 10 seats more likely.

Fuelling their gloom, is the appearance of dithering over policy as well as budget and election timing which Turnbull and Morrison insist (with some justification) is actually the proper processes of deliberative, sober, governance.

The political community is now at fever pitch in expectation of an early double-dissolution election, the earliest marker of which will be a decision to move the budget forward by a week from its set date of May 10 to May 3.

It's just one aspect of a floating panoply of options in play at the moment lending the Turnbull government a fluidity which he might call agile but which critics see as indecisive.

Despite its apparent virtues, the everything-on-the-table tax discussion has so far proved as costly for the government as it has fortuitous for Labor. Opposition MPs point out with a persuasive incredulity, that the only discussion of policy substance now under way is the government's frequently embarrassing hyperbole over Labor's negative gearing plan. Peter Dutton, a senior cabinet figure who should have known better, has warned with a straight face that it would bring the economy to a "shuddering halt" and make the sharemarket "crash".

It is the government's failure to furnish its own economic policy that has led to such shrillness.

Turnbull will be hoping all that will be forgotten once his own policy announcements on tax – due in April – and perhaps some windfall revenue gains, help swing the game back his way.

Mark Kenny is Fairfax Media's chief political correspondent.