Bill Shorten has peaked - and Malcolm Turnbull has him in his sights
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Bill Shorten has peaked - and Malcolm Turnbull has him in his sights

When I wrote, towards the end of last year, that I discerned the first green shoots of nascent recovery in the political fortunes of the Turnbull government, I was ridiculed on these pages by the sanctimonious, for whom wishful thinking is preferable to critical thinking. Even louder were the voices of the purse-lipped, parasol-wielding dowagers of the far right, whom Miranda Devine has accurately, if somewhat uncharitably, classified as the Del-Cons, or Delusional Conservatives.

Until the same-sex marriage debate, I was defined as an Abbott Restorationist rather than a Del-Con. Ties of personal loyalty and a pragmatic belief that Tony Abbott was the only substantial leader capable of forging an uneasy truce between angry conservatives in the Coalition base and its moderate wing motivated me in supporting his return to the leadership.

Likewise, I believed Abbott was closer than Malcolm Turnbull to the centre of gravity when it came to Coalition sentiment on energy policy. My assessment was vindicated when the issue re-emerged late last year and proved a flashpoint for Coalition unity.

It is not necessary to like Turnbull to concede that he possesses extravagant intellectual talent, though unleavened by political acumen. But I thought his solo performance on the ABC's Q&A late last year demonstrated why he will probably defeat Bill Shorten.

Illustration: Simon Letch

Illustration: Simon Letch

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Like punch-drunk fighters reacting to an elevator bell, the usual suspects sneered their virtuous opprobrium. The latest Newspoll indicates that Turnbull has staged a comeback. Now, I am as culpable as any in predicting a potentially permanent schism in the conservative base, with steady defections to Cory Bernardi's Party of God and Pauline Hanson's One Nation, accompanied by a remorseless collapse in Turnbull's poll numbers leading inevitably to his replacement.

What is especially significant about Turnbull's recovery is that the improvement in the Coalition position is largely being driven by Conservatives returning to the fold, having flirted with fringe right-wing parties. As both the Western Australian and Queensland elections have revealed, voters opt for sanity and predictability in their governments.

The sane centre continues to hold in Australian politics, though growing disparity in income distribution and increasing pressure on family budgets could conceivably revive angry populism. But for the moment, the hectoring "Milo" kids on Sky can continue to rant at transient passengers in airport lounges.

Their bark is worse than their bite. They are solemn rather than serious men, none more so than the tedious Andrew Bolt, who has created a successful brand out of Turnbull hatred. He and his dwindling band of heroic Outsiders will no doubt continue to defy the unconscionable efforts to silence and persecute them while they stoically defend the imperilled ramparts of Western Civilisation. When the future of the West is in the hands of Daisy Cousens, Piers Akerman and Roscoe Cameron, one can sleep soundly. They will defend our island whatever the cost.

Bill Shorten and Malcolm Turnbull mark the start of the parliamentary year at the Australian War Memorial on Monday.

Bill Shorten and Malcolm Turnbull mark the start of the parliamentary year at the Australian War Memorial on Monday. Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

Turnbull significantly continues to enjoy an edge over Bill Shorten as preferred prime minister. His performance on Q&A exuded authority whereas Shorten lacks physical and rhetorical ballast. His lines are resonant and clearly derived from deep research into voter insecurities about wages growth and the unfairness of the tax system. But he lacks presence. Personally, I think he has peaked.

Very few opposition leaders have come to office at their second election. Gough Whitlam, John Howard and Abbott are notable recent exceptions. Shorten is a less compelling figure than any of these men, and is about to face a much more adverse political climate. The dual citizenship saga now holds more risks for him than for Turnbull, and strong jobs growth will reinforce the natural tendency of voters to invest more faith in Conservative governments than Labor on economic management. While I do not endorse the hysterical claims of some conservatives that Shorten is a socialist, merely a pallid version of Jeremy Corbyn, Labor does suffer a trust deficit on economic management.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull on the ABC's Q&A program in December.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull on the ABC's Q&A program in December.Credit:ABC

Shorten is pursuing mildly redistributive policies that will resonate with wage earners, especially those reliant on casual rates. But he was at his best exploiting conservative chaos last year. That chaos may not remain dormant. Perhaps the latest poll was merely an aberration, the customary festive season bounce for the incumbent. But my sense is that the deteriorating global security situation and the turbulence on the stockmarket will help Turnbull more than Shorten.

Shorten campaigned well in the 2016 double dissolution election. But I think that it was his best chance to cause an upset. Already there are rumblings among nervous Labor MPs about whether the tide is ebbing. Of course, removal of Labor leaders cannot be achieved by party room coups. Shorten is in all but an impregnable position.

This weekend, television viewers will be reminded of the Hawke years. Bob Hawke was blessed with an innate political cunning and raw charisma without peer. As a young Labor official in 1987 I was involved in a meeting with the then general secretary of the NSW branch, Stephen Loosley, and some of Hawke's key advisers. Labor had narrowly lost a state byelection in Armidale in May, necessitated by the death of Bill McCarthy, a popular Labor incumbent in a naturally conservative seat.

I had been the seconded head office official in the ALP campaign team and was summoned to Canberra to pass on some observations as to the mood in regional Australia to the Great Man and his Manchu Court. I remember Hawke lying on a sofa puffing on a cigar. He was behind in the published polls by about as much as Turnbull is now. He mused, "I reckon I can run this bloke [Howard] down over the campaign." He did.

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Turnbull is no Bob Hawke. But he must be sorely tempted to put Shorten to the sword at the first available opportunity.

Catherine McGregor is a Fairfax Media columnist.