News National John Howard is Malcolm Turnbull’s silver lining

John Howard is Malcolm Turnbull’s silver lining

malcolm turnbull john howard
One of Turnbull's most senior ministers takes heart from Howard's come-from-behind wins. Photo: AAP
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Malcolm Turnbull is a goner unless he can emulate John Howard’s Houdini-like skills by a mixture of shrewd backdowns, shameless vote-buying, ruthless opportunism and luck.

Mathias Cormann, captain of the Prime Minister’s praetorian guard, is hopeful Mr Turnbull can do just that.

On Monday, as the government tried to shrug off its 30th Newspoll defeat, Senator Cormann said “our position in the polls is actually healthier than what it has been in the period of the Howard government prior to John Howard winning election after election”.

It is true that in three of his four terms, Mr Howard looked gone for all money only to hang on or even increase his majority. A year out from the 2001 election, Mr Howard’s introduction of the GST cost him dearly – particularly its impact on petrol prices.

Mr Howard recorded a net approval of -36 per cent and even lost a “safe” Liberal seat in a byelection.

The reality is all Australian elections are close, even landslides in percentage terms. A 53 to 47 per cent two-party result can see a huge majority of seats go to the government with millions of Australians still voting for the other major party.

And it can happen, as it did for Mr Howard in 1998, that a party can win a majority of seats while recording less than 50 per cent of the vote. The latest Newspoll with its 52-48 result Labor’s way certainly has the government in the race.

But a closer examination puts the odds firmly in Labor’s favour.

Part of Senator Cormann’s defence was that Mr Turnbull remained popular.

Newspoll told a different story.

Both Mr Turnbull and Labor’s Bill Shorten are desperately unpopular. Fifty-seven per cent of voters gave them both the thumbs down in the latest Newspoll. Only 32 per cent approved of their performance.

And even in the preferred PM stakes Mr Turnbull had a mere two percentage point advantage – within the margin of error of the poll.

tony abbott
Tony Abbott was accused of staging the event at Hazelwood in a push to further unravel the Turnbull government. Photo: AAP

Throughout his 11 years in office, even when the storm clouds were dark, Mr Howard’s silver lining was the fact he led a disciplined, united government. Nothing could be further from the truth for Mr Turnbull.

In a piece of brazen defiance, Tony Abbott spent ‘Newspoll Minus Thirty Day’ against the backdrop of the closed Hazelwood coal-fired power station. He was there to fire barbs at the government’s energy guarantee policy and to claim the benchmark of his failure should not apply to Mr Turnbull – sort of.

“We shouldn’t obsess over polls,” Mr Abbott said. “I never did. I don’t think others should.”

There he let it be known that the only way to win an election “is to be the best possible government” and have “policies distinct from your opponents”. Oh, and the government had to be united.

Mr Turnbull, apparently, has failed on all points; The Liberals had to be “the party of low power prices, higher wages, more affordable housing” and the party of more coal.

And just to add to the frisson. Home Affairs Minister and leading light of the right, Peter Dutton, told separate interviewers his ambition was to be prime minister one day.

The highlight of the new national day of political excitement was Mr Turnbull admitting he regretted “making the remarks about 30 Newspolls at the time”.

The Prime Minister claims he has delivered on the good economic management he also promised then.

He has a lot more convincing of voters to do.

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

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