2018: Malcolm Turnbull's year of living precariously

PRECARIOUS: After a year to forget, can Turnbull, with his confected affability, persuade enough of his fellow Australians to give him another chance?
PRECARIOUS: After a year to forget, can Turnbull, with his confected affability, persuade enough of his fellow Australians to give him another chance?

Malcolm Turnbull may not have intended to make a biblical point –  one inviting divine intervention – but when he appeared at Sydney's Wayside Chapel for a Christmas lunch for the destitute he wore a striped shirt of many colours.

Genesis records that Jacob presented his favourite son, Joseph, with a “coat of many colours”, and the rest, as they say, is history. In Turnbull's case history will be weighing heavily as he contemplates a year that will likely decide whether he becomes the first prime minister since John Howard to secure a second term in elections due by 2019. None of Turnbull's immediate predecessors, Tony Abbott, Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd completed their terms. Australia's post-World War II political history – including Howard –  tells us that Australians tend to give elected prime ministers a second chance. That is, until these latest cycles when PMs were cut down in mid-term in an increasingly febrile political environment.

Will Turnbull manage to escape a miasma of disappointment that shrouds his term in office since he fronted the media on Monday, September 14, 2015 to announce he was challenging Abbott? Can Turnbull, with his confected affability, persuade enough of his fellow Australians to give him another chance? Otherwise the country will find itself in the hands of a factionally-compromised Bill Shorten. This is an outcome many – not simply those on the conservative side of politics – find difficult to contemplate.

In light of all this, it is interesting to re-read Turnbull's September 2015 statement announcing his challenge to a sitting prime minister just two-thirds of the way through his first term. Turnbull's performance that day represented, in hindsight, something of a high point. It was a forceful statement, delivered with conviction by a politician who appeared to have identified what needed to be done to stir the country out of the torpor into which it had lapsed. This lapsing dated not from the defeat of the Coalition in 2007, and all that followed, but from early 2006 when Howard elected not to hand over to his deputy, Peter Costello. Costello may not have measured up, but he should have been given the chance. The country has paid a price for this failure of succession planning, or sheer bloody-mindedness on Howard's part, depending on your point of view.

In his manifesto, Turnbull said several things he no doubt wishes he had left unsaid, leaving aside his pledge to restore economic leadership, something about which the jury is out. “The one thing that is clear about the current situation is the trajectory,” he said. “We have lost 30 Newspolls in a row. It is clear that the people have made up their mind about Mr Abbott's leadership.”

Turnbull has expressed regret over his 30 Newspolls benchmark, as well he might given he is on track to achieve that metric himself by the first quarter of this coming year. He is now at 25 losing polls. 

A disappointing Newspoll result on the eve of Christmas in line with Fairfax Ipsos polls will have brought little cheer. If there is encouragement for Turnbull in all of this it is that the economy is showing signs of resilience, the global economy is strengthening and tax receipts are up inviting the possibility of tax relief in the May budget.

However, between now and the budget, and elections that strategists are anticipating in the second half of next year much can – and will – shift the calculus back and forth. The Doomsday Clock in the form of 30 bad Newspolls is getting closer to midnight.

Tony Walker is a vice-chancellor's fellow at Latrobe University and a Fairfax columnist.