In recent weeks, Malcolm Turnbull and his Coalition Government has had its share of struggles. Numerous things have gone against the Government, from ministerial troubles to policy agenda setbacks. Not so long ago, it appeared that re-election for the Turnbull Government was a mere formality. Fresh from a successful leadership ballot which saw Malcolm Turnbull become the new leader of the Liberal Party and therefore the new Prime Minister, Turnbull initially enjoyed a great deal of popularity, particularly in contrast to Labor leader Bill Shorten, who was struggling with near-record low approval ratings. Yet this initial wave of popularity now seems a distant memory, with Newspoll recently polling the Coalition and Labor at 50/50 on a two party preferred basis.
For all the talk of a fresh, policy-based outlook toward governance, the Coalition so far been found wanting. This lack of policy leadership has been exemplified by the ongoing debate around Labor’s recently introduced policy regarding negative gearing, as well as in the broader debate of taxation and fiscal policy. In terms of taxation policy, Turnbull and the Coalition have ceded ground to Labor. Having put forth few ideas apart from recently rejecting a GST rise after a prolonged silence on the subject, Labor have taken the policy initiative on this front. Labor Treasurer Chris Bowen, by contrast, has released several significant policies, including changes to negative gearing, capital gains tax and superannuation concession tightening among other measures. Malcolm Turnbull has responded to the negative gearing measure by arguing that it would be a ‘wrecking ball’ for house prices and would hurt ‘mum and dad’ investors trying to get ahead. Yet his own Assistant Treasurer Kelly O’Dwyer, went on television arguing the opposite, before retracting her statements shortly after, a gaffe which highlights the lack of a consistent narrative from the government on this issue.
Other setbacks, such as the resignation of ministers, have also not helped the image of the Coalition. Only a few weeks ago, Stuart Robert, then the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs among other portfolios, was forced to resign after it was revealed he had attended a signing ceremony between Australian company Nimrod Resources and a Chinese firm. A conflict of interest arose after it came to light that the chairman of Nimrod Resources, Paul Marks, was a prominent donor to the Liberal Party. This resignation followed the resignation of two other frontbenchers, Jamie Briggs and Mal Brough, forcing Malcolm Turnbull into a second cabinet reshuffle only a few months into his time as Prime Minister.
In the government’s favour is the fact that there are still several months before an election has to be called. Turnbull also stills holds a significant lead over Shorten as preferred Prime Minister and the Coalition is still, albeit narrowly, the preferred party of government over Labor in most polls. For this to continue, however, Malcolm Turnbull and the Liberal Party will have to reverse this state of affairs, and quickly. A consistent and significant policy agenda will need to be developed in order to effectively counter the policy measures being put forth by Labor. The upcoming federal Budget will prove to be crucial in this regard. Turnbull will need to be bold and differentiate himself significantly from Labor as well as from the Abbott leadership which he successfully challenged. Unpopular budgetary measures were, after all, the reason Abbott was challenged and ultimately overthrown as leader. A repeat budgetary performance from Turnbull in current circumstances may well cost him the election, an almost unthinkable proposition when he took over as Prime Minister only a few months ago.