One of the most perilous things a politician can do is disappoint their supporters, which is something Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull managed to do in double doses this week.
Shattered voter expectations can do more damage to a politician’s electoral prospects than lies or other forms of bad behaviour, which voters tend to think are just par for the course when it comes to the not-particularly-honest world that is politics.
But voters do expect their politicians to be authentic, reliable, and true to whatever principles they claim to be guided by.
Unmet voter expectations contributed to the downfalls of former prime ministers Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard; in Mr Rudd’s case when he squibbed on the greatest moral challenge of our time, and for Ms Gillard when she failed to live up to the considerable potential she appeared to have before being dragooned into toppling Mr Rudd.
Voters can react very badly to discovering their new leader is not the shiny and perfect model expected, but riddled with faults and flaws that renders them only a pale imitation of the political hero that was advertised on the outside of the box.
Which, of course, brings us to Malcolm Turnbull, and the week in which the shards of smashed voter expectations started to rain down upon the prime minister.
Turnbull stumbles in retreat from major tax reform
The man who based his pitch for the top job on the need for better economic leadership stumbled badly on his self-imposed key performance indicator this week.
Having already gone to water on a major overhaul of the taxation system that would have increased or broadened the GST, the PM made a complete mess of the Government’s pitch for one of the few revenue-raising measures still left to it – negative gearing.
First, Mr Turnbull launched a full-frontal attack on Labor’s negative gearing policy, foreshadowing gloom, doom and the end of the housing market as we know it.
This unexpected approach was a marked departure from the urbane leader who’d promised voters an adult conversation instead of slogans and scare campaigns. And it exposed the PM to unflattering Labor taunts that he’d unleashed his “inner Abbott”.
Then, with the Treasurer seemingly sidelined after his poorly received performance at the National Press Club the week before, Mr Turnbull and the Assistant Treasurer Kelly O’Dwyer managed to wheel out conflicting scare campaigns on Labor’s negative gearing cuts while doing a pretty unconvincing job of defending their own.
For the average disengaged voter, one party’s policy to cut negative gearing is much the same as another’s.
So it is already politically risky for the Government to try to sell their tax concession cut as more superior than the Opposition’s.
But when they also fumble that sales job, as Turnbull did in spectacular style this week, voters tend to focus on the debacle rather than the substance of the debate.
Is Malcolm Turnbull just Tony Abbott in a nicer suit?
The takeaway from this week’s negative gearing campaign?
Voters will like conclude both parties are trying to strip some cash away from property owners, and Malcolm Turnbull might just be Tony Abbott in a nicer suit. Younger voters may conclude Labor’s policy is okay if it forces “selfish Boomers” to lower their rents.
Other than that, voters may be wondering whether the newly ranty and increasingly waffly Malcolm Turnbull is all he was cracked up to be.
That perception is firming particularly in the minds of progressive voters who are becoming alarmed at the growing number of concessions that Mr Turnbull has made to the arch-conservatives in the Coalition parties.
Following his early commitments to the right to keep the gay marriage plebiscite instead of a parliamentary vote, and not to propose an emissions trading scheme, Mr Turnbull has shown a considerable reluctance to rein in the increasingly strident public interventions of the hardliners in his party, including former prime minister Tony Abbott.
Turnbull’s magnanimity turn to acquiescence
However, that seeming magnanimity turned to apparent acquiescence this week when the PM allowed himself to bullied during a Coalition party room meeting into calling for a review of the Safe Schools program, which perhaps ironically was established to help counter the bullying of LGBTI students by their peers.
Seemingly not satisfied at having cast doubt over the future of the program, which is aims to create greater understanding and therefore empathy for LGBTI people, arch-conservatives then pushed the envelope even further, seemingly to test the outer limits of the PM’s patience (or cowardice, depending on one’s perspective).
At the time of writing, neither Cory Bernardi nor George Christensen had been called to account by their leader for comments that would be labelled as unhelpful only by those with a mastery of understatement.
The best the PM could do was to encourage people to use “measured language” when discussing such issues, and to “consider, very carefully, the impact of the words they use on young people and on their families.”
Granted, Labor leader Bill Shorten has been somewhat quiet about similarly “unhelpful” comments by antediluvian Labor Senator Joe Bullock.
Voters find Turnbull wanting on progressive values
Mercifully for Mr Shorten, voters expect him to go soft when it comes to disciplining a fellow former unionist.
In contrast, voters expect Mr Turnbull to stand up for the progressive values that he claims to uphold.
To date the PM has been found wanting in this respect, and after this week voters will be doubly concerned given his seeming additional inability to show economic leadership.
No wonder the opinion polls continue to show a tightening between the major parties and a lessening in the PM’s approval rating.
And the not entirely unexpected announcement of Mal Brough’s departure from the Parliament will likely add to the perception of chaos that seems to be taking hold of the Government.
The apparently increasing electoral competitiveness of Labor helped to intensify talk of an early election this week, as did the introduction of legislation that would make it harder for candidates and parties to game the Senate voting system.
If there were to be an “early” election, it would likely be a double dissolution election called at the latest on May 11 for July 2.
Otherwise, a “normal” election would be held in August, September or October.
Perhaps they should have thought of that before deciding to boycott government legislation, hold the government to ransom over certain budget measures, or establish vanity Senate inquiries to help their party leader run vendettas against his political enemies.
Staging a walkout from dinner with the PM at the Lodge speaks volumes about the political maturity of the deservedly endangered Senators. Ex-PUP comrades Jacqui Lambie and Glenn Lazarus were both so unhappy with the meal, they left. Senator Lazarus said he picked up a Big Mac on the way home.
* Paula Matthewson was media adviser to John Howard in the early 1990s and then worked for almost 25 years in communication, political and industry advocacy roles. She is now a freelance writer and communication strategist. Paula has been tweeting and blogging about politics, the media and social media since 2009 under the pen name @Drag0nista.
You can read more of her columns here