Grattan on Friday: Turnbull’s new Liberal world is still a largely unknown country

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop confer during Question Time. Sam Mooy/AAP

Now the Liberals have done what they condemned Labor for doing, they are holding their breaths in the hope new Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull will live up to his promise.

The political execution of Tony Abbott has left some in the party and among its supporters deeply bitter. Coups always involve nastiness but the disaffected are not trying to hide their feelings.

There’s been sniping about Liberal deputy Julie Bishop, and a full-on assault against Scott Morrison, the man who, apart from Turnbull himself, will gain the most out of the change.

Bishop, who joined the Turnbull camp, went to Abbott on Monday to tell him he had lost his party’s support. For her, there was no promotion and a lot of unpleasantness associated with what she did this week. The only direct gain is a stronger prospect of a Coalition second term, in which she continues as foreign minister.

Morrison has been flailed by some of his best friends outside parliament, especially shockjock Ray Hadley, and in News Corp papers. The right-wing commentariat had been spear carriers for Tony Abbott, albeit periodically disappointed and critical ones. After he was cut down they have turned on those they feel betrayed him with a passion stronger than that of many participants.

Morrison will be treasurer when Turnbull announces his reshuffle on Sunday. But he wanted to have as little blood on his hands as possible.

So Morrison told Abbott he would vote for him and did, showing his ballot – shades of the ALP – to a colleague to prove it. But he didn’t lean on the several MPs he influences to persuade them to back Abbott. The Abbott forces regard this as treachery, given that a change of a few votes could have been crucial. Nor did he take up Abbott’s offer to run as his candidate for deputy leader which, if he won, would have given him to the right to be treasurer.

Did Morrison behave badly? Hardly. He was under no obligation to urge others to support Abbott. As for the deputyship: he would have lost to Bishop. And he knew treasury would be his in the likely event of a Turnbull win. Anyway, it did not reflect well on Abbott that, having stuck to Joe Hockey through thick and thin, he was willing to sacrifice him at the last moment, via Morrison.

The fury (which saw Thursday’s leaking of a cabinet document to embarrass Turnbull for appointing few women to boards) can settle relatively quickly after such an upheaval, even when the pain lingers. The troops can say, as Eric Abetz did through gritted teeth on Wednesday, “the king is dead, long live the king”. Then again, the sores can fester, breaking out if the new king starts to slip.

The weekend reshuffle will be Turnbull’s first big stamp on government, although it will bring losers with their misery.

Turnbull is under conflicting pressures: to balance conservatives and moderates and provide some stability, as well as to inject new blood, project a fresh look and generate what Paul Keating called “a touch of excitement”.

He needs to make major changes, when his authority is high. Abbott failed to sufficiently refashion his frontbench on arriving in government. But if Turnbull is seen as over-rewarding backers, or indulging in bad choices, he will get off to a poor start.

If Abetz is one of the reshuffle victims, that would trigger a shake up in the upper house leadership adding another dimension to the changes.

The early polls will be pored over. A Seven ReachTEL poll taken Tuesday had the two-party vote 50-50% and Turnbull well ahead of Bill Shorten as better prime minister. Initial polls are important for first impressions and momentum, but it is how Turnbull is travelling by Christmas that will count more.

On Saturday in Canning there is a real poll, but it has nothing like the significance for the government it seemed to hold a week ago.

Some in the Abbott camp believe one factor in the timing of the coup – apart from Turnbull knowing he had the numbers – was that Liberal polling was suggesting a respectable Canning result. That would have made it harder to topple Abbott.

Post-coup, if the Canning swing in limited, Turnbull can seize some credit; if it is substantial, the week’s turmoil can be blamed and it will be overtaken by the reshuffle. Shorten now has more at stake in the result.

In these first days as prime minister Turnbull is projecting optimism about the country (“there has never been a more exciting time to be alive today and to be in Australia”), and a less divisive style. In parliament there was a note of condescension towards his opponents, who had trouble framing their questions.

We’ve seen Turnbull’s pragmatism this week, in keeping the existing stands on same-sex marriage and climate policy and making concessions in a new agreement with the Nationals.

The big policy calls are ahead. Can he, will he, take an extensive tax package to the election, including changes to the GST? What about industrial relations? Is he going to pursue reform of the federation, on which there is a white paper coming up? Will he persist with the higher education changes? What about the legislation to curb legal action against development projects?

Most notably, what will happen to business confidence and the economy over the next few months?

Turnbull is a more attractive and persuasive leader than Abbott, and he is up against an opposition that has been on easy street.

But with a cynical and sullen electorate, the new prime minister will have to convince people he is trustworthy (when they think politicians are not) and has policies that are good for the country and not too painful for individuals.

The Turnbull coup brings trouble for Labor, though it has weakened one line of attack against Shorten – that he is a backstabber. It’s a contest between two backstabbers.

In the arms race that is politics, the arrival of a more potent prime minister has inevitably triggered chatter about whether Labor requires its own coup to combat him.

Thanks to Kevin Rudd’s rules, it would be very hard to move Shorten, assuming no unexpected scandal. He should take advantage of this safety to improve his team.

If Shorten were smart he would use the cover provided by Turnbull’s reshuffle to have one of his own. Labor increasingly will have to sell itself, as well as criticising a government that has shored up its defences. That means it needs stronger voices in key areas.

The most notable are education and health. Deputy leader Tanya Plibersek, who can always get media coverage, should be leading the charge in one of these areas, rather than being shadow foreign minister. Former ACT chief minister Katy Gallagher, now a senator and about to be elevated to the frontbench, ought to be in the frontline – she is experienced from her previous political life and good talent. Jason Clare is wasted in communications.

A reshuffle would cause Shorten some grief. But without taking risks he is unlikely to be in with much of a chance at the election – and he probably wouldn’t get a second go. So he would have little to lose in showing a dash of daring.

Listen to the latest Politics with Michelle Grattan podcast with guest, Arthur Sinodinos.

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