If anyone thought Tony Abbott’s former chief of staff Peta Credlin was exaggerating on the weekend with her diagnosis that the government was “on life support”, the first day back of Parliament put paid to the delusion.
It’s hard to know what is costing the Turnbull government more. Being on the wrong side of issues worrying most voters or the trench warfare destroying any pretence of unity or internal cohesion.
Credlin’s analysis was brutal, but it goes to Turnbull’s failure to shift the centre of gravity within his government.
As Labor’s Chris Bowen says, “he was elected because many in the sensible centre thought he would be a better prime minister than Tony Abbott. Now he has failed at that”.
Credlin puts that down to Coalition MPs and supporters not believing “Malcolm Turnbull has a conservative bone in his body”. And that no matter what he says they don’t believe him because “he lacks authenticity”.
She, like many Liberal supporters, is worried that there is no way back from the 10-point deficit in this week’s two-party preferred Newspoll result.
There certainly isn’t while Abbott, wittingly or unwittingly, encourages disaffected, conservatively-inclined Liberals to go off and vote for Pauline Hanson’s One Nation.
The former PM calls the government “Labor lite” and demands an agenda that in fact would be electoral suicide, like cutting spending, freezing immigration and abandoning renewable energy targets.
Credlin dismisses Turnbull for wanting to do no more than hang on to power; Abbott wants to “hold the Liberal party together”.
The bind the government finds itself in is precisely because of its appalling judgment and lack of skill in plying the art of politics.
There could be no more stark example than the handling of the Fair Work Commission’s cutting of penalty rates for almost a million of the country’s lowest-paid workers.
Turnbull, along with 60 other Coalition MPs and candidates at the last election, argued penalty rates needed to be trimmed. But now he and his senior ministers are refusing to back it in with any enthusiasm.
Instead they are blaming Bill Shorten for refusing to accept the “independent umpire’s decision” after he often said he would.
Never mind that they did exactly the same by legislating new rules for the FWC dealing with the Victorian country firefighters dispute and abolishing the independent trucking Road Safety Tribunal when it increased rates for truck drivers.
Shorten was shocked when the FWC cut penalty rates without compensation. He sees it as a dangerous precedent for award and enterprise agreements.
Turnbull defended the Commission in Parliament for hearing a lot of arguments from retailers and other vested interests, and accepting them with no credible research behind them.
One regional Coalition MP, who supports the Commission’s decision, shuddered when Labor MPs in Parliament were interjecting “who’s next?”
The government is trying to hide behind the “independence” of the Labor-appointed Commission. But with Labor putting legislation in the Parliament to stymie the decision and entrench the principle that any cut to penalties must be compensated by higher base rates, there is nowhere to hide.
Shorten’s question to Turnbull is sure to be repeated up to the next polling day. He asked why the Prime Minister wants to give big business tax cuts but is doing nothing to stop workers’ pay being cut.
And if you think the shocking Newspoll result is all Abbott’s fault, think again. Labor’s Anthony Albanese on Sky News spelt out what has happened since January.
Pensioners hit with changes many did not expect, Centrelink letters targeting thousands unfairly, the Omnibus Bill trying yet again to cut family payments and for a moment holding the disabled hostage. And for good measure attacking renewables.
Besides, it is now clear that while calling Shorten a “hypocrite, social climber and a parasite” thrilled the government backbench it did nothing to endear the Prime Minister to voters.
There is a penalty to pay when thrilling the backbench takes precedence over people’s livelihoods and concerns.
Paul Bongiorno AM is a veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery, with 40 years’ experience covering Australian politics. He tweets at @PaulBongiorno