Up until Monday’s Liberal leadership ballot, Labor had reason to be hopeful that it was beginning to make ground again with the electorate. It had been ahead of the Coalition on a two-party-preferred basis for more than a year. And since September, Newspoll has had Labor leader Bill Shorten at least four points ahead of Tony Abbott as preferred prime minister.
However, Malcolm Turnbull’s elevation to prime minister is a potentially serious blow to Labor’s hopes at the next election.
A more popular leader
Abbott was very much his own worst enemy. He was a polarising political leader.
While Abbott was the darling of the conservative class, he was unpopular among progressive voters. Nor did Abbott go much out of his way to engage his detractors in an earnest debate on ideas in order to win them over. As a result, the Coalition continued to plummet in the polls, and Abbott seemed to lack the will or instinct to bend even a little to popular sentiment.
In contrast, Turnbull is more convivial than his predecessor. He is articulate, urbane and a speedo-free zone.
Worryingly for Labor, Turnbull holds appeal among progressive voters. A recent Roy Morgan poll showed that while Labor and Green supporters could not countenance voting for Abbott, they might support Turnbull.
And while it does not follow that swathes of Labor and Green supporters will be in any hurry to abandon their parties, it does suggest that Turnbull has strong latent appeal.
A stronger cabinet
A refreshed Coalition frontbench awaits. The much-anticipated elevation of Scott Morrison to the position of treasurer is likely to help quickly consolidate the new Turnbull government.
Leaving aside any scruples one may have about the policies that Morrison presided over as immigration minister, he managed a very contentious portfolio without any significant missteps. There is every reason to believe he will equip himself just as ably if appointed treasurer.
In addition to Morrison’s promotion, there is also an expectation that a number of new faces will soon join the ministry, and the frontbench particularly.
One of areas that Abbott was vulnerable was the perception that his cabinet was unrepresentative – comprised of former Howard-era men, and far too few women. But more than this, some of the party’s most talented and dynamic members appeared to be languishing on either the backbench or in parliamentary secretary roles.
If Turnbull does what is widely anticipated – to promote (although not necessarily straight to cabinet) the likes of Kelly O’Dwyer, Christian Porter, Simon Birmingham and Michaelia Cash – then Labor shadow ministers will be pitted against a refreshed and dynamic frontbench.
Labor’s problems and lines of attack
It is not entirely clear that Shorten has what it takes to defeat Turnbull at the polls.
It will be difficult for Shorten to mount a credible case against Turnbull. The argument that the Turnbull’s challenge was symptomatic of a “chaotic, dysfunctional, divided” Liberal Party may ring hollow coming from the man who was central to the political demise of two Labor prime ministers.
But this is not to say that it will be a dream run for Turnbull, in spite of the inevitable honeymoon bounce. There are some chinks in his armour, and Labor is already building the anti-Turnbull case.
Shorten very clearly set down Labor’s lines of attack at the press conference he held on the eve of the Liberal leadership ballot, and again more recently in the new election TV ads Labor has launched for the Canning byelection.
Three important claims against Turnbull are emerging. Labor may achieve some traction on them if it plays its cards right.
The first is that Turnbull has been shaped by a professional life that has consisted of serving the rich and powerful. This has rendered him man out of touch with ordinary folk.
The second is that Turnbull is a rampant opportunist who is “ambitious for himself, not our nation”.
The third is that Turnbull is as much responsible for the so-called failings of a government he accused of not respecting the intelligence of voters.
Similarly, Turnbull may find himself under assault from the party’s conservative wing. While Abbott promised that there “will be no wrecking, no undermining and no sniping”, it doesn’t mean that all of his colleagues will be equally high minded, particularly if the ministerial reshuffle leaves some them in the cold.
The likely face of any public charge against Turnbull is South Australian senator Cory Bernardi.
Bernardi is far more dangerous than any spurned would-be or former minister because he is a conviction politician. He is challenging to contain at the best of times, and may prove even more so if the reported antipathy between himself and Turnbull is true. Already, Bernardi has made no bones about how he regards the spill as “treachery of the highest order”.
And then there is the reality of leadership. Yes, Turnbull is accomplished. Yes, Turnbull is popular. And yes, Turnbull is driven and highly intelligent. But only time will tell whether he can become the successful prime minister and saviour of the party he believes he is.