News National Better news but Malcolm Turnbull’s government still on life support
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Better news but Malcolm Turnbull’s government still on life support

Malcolm Turnbull in parliament
Forget the polls, Malcolm Turnbull's government is still on life support. Photo: AAP
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On a day that began with the news that the latest Newspoll has Labor in an election-winning lead, there was a spring in the step of government MPs.

They were relieved that they weren’t quite as dead as the previous poll had suggested.

While it is too early to completely write off the Coalition, you do have to wonder if a Prime Minister with a net approval rating of -27 points has enough credibility to lead a recovery.

Sure, Bill Shorten is more unpopular on -28 points, but that is a statistical dead heat.

Where Mr Shorten is in a better position is on a number of issues precisely targeting voter concerns. He also leads a parliamentary party that is not engaging in open warfare with itself.

A good example of this was a powerful speech the Labor leader made introducing his bill to stop the Sunday penalty rate cuts.

Bill Shorten in Parliament
Bill Shorten’s speech while introducing a bill to prevent penalty rate cuts hit the right note. Photo: AAP

“At the heart of the Liberal-Nationals economic plan is a $50 billion tax cut for multinationals making record profits. A $7.4 billion bonus for big banks and a pay cut for working families,” he said.

Nervous government backbenchers are getting a very loud message in their electorates that the big corporate tax cut is toxic. Liberals are still hoping that the latest Newspoll is the first in a new trend reversing the slide since the election.

For that to happen they will need to convincingly resolve the ideological split which sees the hard-line conservatives holding the Turnbull government to ransom.

For example, elements of the Liberal and National Party would rather bring down their one-seat majority government than to allow a free vote on marriage equality. They are resisting fiercely a new push from the moderates.

Contrary to public opinion, conservatives like Craig Kelly are still calling for a plebiscite. Others are urging a voluntary mail-out version. Anything to delay or defeat the human rights of gay Australians being recognised.

All of this just entrenches the perception of a government out of touch. Mr Turnbull, who has strongly identified with marriage equality, could and should seize the day.

If he showed leadership in this area based on his long-held convictions, it would go a long way to restore his and the government’s credibility.

The conservatives, however, see no connection between Mr Turnbull’s performance last week after he boldly embraced renewable energy by announcing a $2 billion expansion of the Snowy Hydro scheme, and the recovery in the Newspoll.

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Not all conservatives were impressed with the announced Snowy hydro upgrade.

True, there may not be one there – polling analyst Andrew Catsaras says it is hard to draw that conclusion from one poll.

On the other hand, Mr Turnbull being seen to be more the ‘Malcolm Turnbull of old’ can’t be easily dismissed either. Even though his expensive Snowy announcement smacks of a political stunt, it is in a space where Mr Turnbull needs to be.

Conservatives, like economist Judith Sloan are not impressed. They see Snowy Mark 2.0 worse than “Labor Lite”.

Writing in The Australian she said the new Snowy Hydro plan was more like “Labor Left”. It certainly replaces the holy writ of “budget repair” with “national investment”.

There is no doubt that had Labor proposed it, it would have been attacked as reckless spending, just like the NBN was. It is also no coincidence that Australians are more impressed with nation building.

They are certainly unimpressed with what has happened to the NBN.

The contradictions within the government are stark when it comes to the internal fight over free speech and Section 18c of the racial discrimination act.

Malcolm Turnbull in Parliament
The contradictions within the government are stark when it comes to Section 18c of the racial discrimination act. Photo: AAP

Mr Turnbull promised in last year’s election campaign it would not be touched in this term. The conservatives are now urging him to scrap that promise while at the same time warning he cannot break faith with the electorate by allowing a free vote on marriage equality.

Not surprisingly, Liberal MPs in highly ethnically diverse electorates are furious.

Mr Shorten shares their concerns. He asked Mr Turnbull: “What exactly does the government want people to be able to say that they’re not allowed to say now?”

He didn’t get an answer. It’s hard to see the latest Newspoll being the first in a new upward trend.

Paul Bongiorno AM is a veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery, with 40 years’ experience covering Australian politics. He tweets at @PaulBongiorno

For more columns from Paul Bongiorno, click here

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