Junk Explained: Is Malcolm Turnbull About To Lose His Job Or What?

The government has taken a big step towards knifing Malcolm Turnbull.

Monday was always going to be a difficult day for Malcolm Turnbull. It was the day he would cross the “30 lost Newspolls in a row” threshold that he set for himself, and everyone was very excited to point that out to him.

But by the usual standards of Australian politics, it was pretty quiet. The PM gave several interviews in which he assured us that the “30 Newspolls” metric didn’t really matter all that much, even though that was one of the reasons he gave when he knifed Tony Abbott. When they were asked, Turnbull’s MPs (even, to an extent, Tony Abbott), backed him to stay in the job.

We should have known it was too quiet. On Monday evening, Turnbull’s former Deputy PM, Barnaby Joyce, hauled himself out of the political grave he’s been in for the last six weeks, and took the first steps towards blowing up Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership.

“Nobody wants to go to a federal election which you know you’re going to lose. It’s like playing in the losing grand final,” Joyce told Sky News.

“If you truly believe this is exactly the sentiment of the people, then you also have an obligation not to drive your party, or the government, off a cliff,” said Joyce. “You have an obligation to all around you that if you honestly believe that is the case, then you must do something about it and do the honourable thing and start grooming an alternative.”

Joyce then laid down a new marker: If the PM is still behind in the polls at Christmas, he should resign.

What’s Barnaby Actually Doing Here?

Let’s be clear: Barnaby Joyce has absolutely no say in who leads the Liberal party. He was the leader of the Nationals Party, which is like the little step-brother of the Liberal Party, until he had to resign over that whole affair-with-a-staffer thing.

You may remember that when Barnaby’s lovechild scandal was really kicking off, he and Turnbull had a spectacular falling out after the PM questioned Joyce’s judgement and basically called on him to resign. From that point on, Joyce’s leadership was terminal and he resigned shortly after.

It’s a fair guess that Joyce hasn’t really forgiven Turnbull, and yesterday he got some revenge.

(It’s also worth pointing that at the time of the Joyce scandal, he attacked Turnbull for interfering in National Party matters. Apparently that rule isn’t as important when the tables are turned.)

But anyway, on the same day the PM barely scraped across his self-imposed deadline, Joyce set him a new one.

Joyce knows that unless Turnbull’s performance improves, every bad poll will just be another step towards the artificial Christmas deadline he has set. As we get closer, more and more media attention will be focussed on Turnbull’s leadership.

Given Turnbull has lost 30 Newspolls in a row, a sudden turnaround seems unlikely. The deadline is more of a time bomb.

We’ve Been Here Before

Anyone who remembers the Rudd/Gillard/Rudd (or even the Abbott/Turnbull years) can see what’s happening here. Once leadership speculation begins, it’s hard to stop it. Every poor decision or piece of bad luck is seen through the prism of leadership, and it becomes a snowball.

In the Rudd years, the speculation was fuelled by constant leaks to the press and new “deadlines” being set by anonymous plotters every other week. At least Joyce said it on camera and put his name to it.

The key difference this time is that there’s no serious challenger. Tony Abbott and his band of sad mates (Kevin Andrews, Eric Abetz) don’t have the numbers to knock Turnbull off, so they’ll continue to sit on the sidelines and snipe.

The next most popular MP is Julie Bishop, but she’s unlikely to get enough support from across the party. And the right-wing standard bearer, Peter Dutton, appears willing to wait his turn — although that might change soon.

Interestingly, in the last few days Dutton, Treasurer Scott Morrison and Environment Minister Josh Frydenberg have all admitted that sure, they’d like to be Prime Minister one day.

It’s not unusual for politicians to be ambitious, but it is unusual for them to talk about their aspirations so openly. Peter Dutton even gave an interview to The Guardian last week, shortly after saying the publication was “dead to” him.

It doesn’t appear that these guys are actively jockeying for the job just now, but they are letting their fellow MPs know they’re available should Malcolm Turnbull get hit by the proverbial bus. Which may come in the form of…

What’s Next?

The last possible date that an election of both houses of Parliament can be held is May 18, 2019.

Malcolm Turnbull will obviously try to hold on and hope that he’s in a better electoral position by then. Meanwhile people like Barnaby Joyce and Tony Abbott will keep on sniping and playing out their revenge fantasies, which will only hurt Turnbull and the government.

Much like what happened to Julia Gillard, it’ll become a bit of a chicken and egg thing. Is Malcolm Turnbull unpopular because his own MPs are undermining him, or do they undermine him because he’s so unpopular he needs to be removed from office?

Either way, it’s unlikely we’ve heard the last of this, and Bill Shorten is just sitting back, watching it all unfold and waiting for the next election.