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Grattan on Friday: Turnbull’s challenge is to avoid the Gillard trap

Malcolm Turnbull during a tour of the University of Tasmania. Scott Gelston/AAP

Is Malcolm Turnbull at risk of finding himself in a similar situation to Julia Gillard, with a disillusioned public settling into a negative view that transcends achievements of the moment?

It came as a surprise that Turnbull, after a fortnight generally considered good for him, first in parliament and then abroad, was confronted with Tuesday’s dreadful Newspoll. The Coalition fell from a 50-50 two-party vote to 48-52% and his net satisfaction rating deteriorated to minus 23, which was four points worse than a fortnight before.

In this poll-driven age, when the public turn away from a leader the polls validate the view and then can reinforce it. Getting out of that sort of trough presents special difficulties. Gillard couldn’t do it; neither could Tony Abbott when prime minister. Whether Turnbull can will become clearer over the next year.

It’s the phenomenon of dogs and bad names. It is possible for leaders to change perceptions, but it can take some doing.

Bill Shorten’s strategy of relentless attack and the permanent campaign is exploiting people’s loss of faith in Turnbull.

Then there is the ubiquitous third man. Abbott may not have Kevin Rudd’s chance of a resurrection, but his stalking presence has shades of Ruddism. When Turnbull was preparing for last week’s high level conferences on refugees in New York, Abbott turned up in Prague a couple of days ahead opining on the subject.

Never mind that the former prime minister proclaims his ambitions “dead, buried and cremated”. The fact Abbott is quizzed regularly about his future, most recently on Melbourne radio this week, draws attention to the dissatisfaction with Turnbull.

Gillard had a hung parliament; Turnbull faces one that’s all but hung. She juggled the crossbenchers in the House of Representatives; he is confronted with a determined and forceful backbench, as well as a challenging Senate crossbench. She faced entrenched attacks from sections of the media. Conservative commentators were feral about her. Some of these commentators are feral about Turnbull.

Gillard got quite a lot through parliament, but couldn’t turn that into public plaudits. Turnbull is hoping to win back support by putting policy runs on the board – and to get credit. We’ll see.

He is also trying to cast the necessity of pragmatism in dealing with this parliament as a virtue.

Compromise is sensible, but there are inevitable downsides, even beyond the “backflip” headlines. For example, removing the backpacker tax barnacle this week came with an increase in the departure tax to help offset the revenue loss. The tourist industry was instantly outraged.

The backpacker tax issue highlighted that much of the compromising is with the government’s own troops, even before any deals with opposition or crossbenchers.

The finely balanced parliament combined with the stark ideological split within the government and, in the 24-hour news cycle, the easy access of dissidents to media exposure, has empowered rebels in Turnbull’s ranks. Backbenchers such as the Nationals’ George Christensen and Liberal Cory Bernardi, not to mention former minister Eric Abetz, have muscled up in the post-election environment, when Turnbull is vulnerable.

Usually one never hears from backbenchers who get the three-month junket to the United Nations. But Bernardi this week was chiming into the domestic debate from New York, advocating that the Liberals should be singing some similar tunes to One Nation, including on migration and culture, “with a bit more nuance”, and using less of “the more flamboyant rhetoric like ‘innovation’”.

Christensen and Bernardi are now pressing to exempt cake-makers, photographers and the like from having to provide services for the weddings in the event of same-sex marriage.

As a weakened and fractured Turnbull government faces the imperatives of dealing with budget repair, future school and university funding, and welfare reform, it will confront resistance when it comes to hard decisions. Monday’s suggestion from Education Minister Simon Birmingham that some schools could be worse off under new arrangements had critics quickly mobilised and signs of backbench stirring.

This week Shorten reaped some tangible success from his relentless campaign against the same-sex marriage plebiscite, as Newspoll showed support for a parliamentary vote on same sex marriage higher than for a plebiscite (48-39%) despite earlier solid backing for a popular vote.

In a political judgement, Shorten has decided to string out Labor’s formal rejection of the plebiscite legislation. It’s brought him some criticism but that’s the way of it – Abbott’s negative tactics came with costs but yielded net benefits for him.

On same-sex marriage, Turnbull is now cornered between the election promise for a plebiscite, which is backed for expediency’s sake by Coalition conservatives, and what the poll suggests is changing public opinion on the desirable path to follow.

From Turnbull’s point of view the sooner the parliament votes on – and presumably votes down – the plebiscite legislation the better. But the question then becomes, can Shorten keep the issue on the agenda to maintain pressure on Turnbull? Or will it recede?

In the months ahead, Turnbull will have to decide where he tries to draw the line on the demands that will come from the hardliners on his backbench.

Give in too much to the squeaky wheels and these backbenchers will simply increase their ask. They will become ever more outspoken, balkanise the government, and lose it the centre ground in the electorate.

On the other hand, seek to call their bluff and Turnbull enters a high risk game, in which he could face rebuffs, problems with the Nationals and other unpleasant consequences. It’s true the rightwingers have nowhere to go but they do have the power to beat up on Turnbull.

There is no fail-safe strategy for Turnbull, given his diminished authority in his party and the electorate.

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