When Malcolm Turnbull challenged Tony Abbott by invoking his 30th bad Newspoll, the primary vote for both Labor and the Liberals was 39 per cent. Abbott had crashed the Coalition’s primary vote to that level from 45.6 per cent on polling day in 2013.
And then a fortnight ago, the 29th losing Newspoll for Malcolm Turnbull recorded the Coalition’s primary vote even lower at 37 per cent, down from the 42 per cent achieved by the PM on polling day in 2016. Labor’s vote had improved from 34.7 per cent to 39 per cent over the same period.
Supporters of Tony Abbott aim to make the most of this synchronicity when Mr Turnbull’s 30th losing Newspoll appears on Monday. They kicked things off this week by confecting a test of Mr Turnbull’s leadership on energy policy aimed at chipping away the PM’s soft supporters to create momentum for a leadership challenge in May.
That’s what’s behind the Monash Forum, announced this week on Peta Credlin’s TV show, only days after Ms Credlin spent time in Canberra while Parliament was in session.
Members of the forum are seemingly lost in a time-loop that resists any contemporary information. They are convinced electricity generated by the most modern coal-fired power stations is cheaper than that generated by wind farms and big solar facilities (it’s not) and that hundreds of such coal power stations are being built around the world (the number is around 150).
Using these and other false facts, the Monash Forum argues the PM must pick a fight with Labor on energy to have a better chance at the upcoming election. They’ve also demanded that the PM use taxpayers funds to build a coal-fired power station in Victoria’s Latrobe Valley to ‘bring down’ the price of electricity.
Forum members fail to realise the Latrobe Valley is one of the worst places in Australia to build a modern power station because its brown coal is essentially wet dirt that must be dried before being burnt to drive the turbines. This drying process adds to the cost of the power station and therefore to the cost of the electricity it generates.
Also sadly for the Monash Forum, most journalists saw straight through its leadership ploy.
So the Forum’s apparent spokesperson, the Credlin glove puppet also known as Craig Kelly, changed tack, demanding instead that the parameters of Malcolm Turnbull’s National Energy Guarantee be set to favour coal.
This was no less a wrecking strategy than the ambit claim for a magical brown-coal fired power station with low emissions. Any decision to favour coal in the NEG would likely cause some of the state and territory governments to refuse to sign up to the scheme. And if that happened, it would be depicted by the Monash Forum/Abbott camp as a failed test of Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership.
Meanwhile, the PM is rushing down his own illogical path, trying to score a quick win by shaming energy company AGL into extending the life of its decrepit coal-fired power station at Liddell, or selling the facility to a competitor. Neither the PM nor his energy minister Josh Frydenberg seem to care that AGL has plans to use the Liddell site for its continued expansion into renewable energy.
By trying to shift the public debate from the demands of the Monash Forum to his own demands of AGL, the PM has simply jumped from the frying pan into the fire. Australian-based companies run by sharp American operators tend not to blink when out-of-depth politicians make demands that don’t fit with the interests of that company’s shareholders (just ask Joe Hockey).
However, it’s not yet time to break out the #Libspill hashtag. Whatever the 30th Newspoll reveals on Monday, there’s little prospect that a Liberal leadership challenge will happen until the fourth week of May, given it’s unlikely a spill would be called for the second week of May due to the federal budget being delivered that week.
A leadership vote can only take place during a party room meeting, which generally only occur when all MPs are in Canberra for Parliament. MPs could be called to Canberra for an out-of-session party room meeting, but the additional travel costs would be hard to justify on public interest grounds.
But that’s not to say that leadership discussions aren’t taking place. Some moderates are reportedly starting to peel away from the PM and align with the Foreign Minister Julie Bishop. However the next generation of conservatives seem content to stick with Mr Turnbull for now. And then there is the Abbott rump.
Unless two of those three groups unite to defeat the other under the banner of a leader who can boost the Coalition’s primary vote – as Mr Turnbull did in 2016 – the current PM will lead the Coalition to the next election. And it will be the Government’s election to lose.
Who survives to pick up the pieces afterwards is another proposition altogether.
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