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Grattan on Friday: Liberals headhunt for a miracle worker

It is the dream apparatchik job, but you would need to be brave to want it just now. The Liberal Party is looking for a new federal director, after the resignation of stalwart Tony Nutt.

Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

It is the dream apparatchik job, but you would need to be brave to want it just now. The Liberal Party is looking for a new federal director, after the resignation of stalwart Tony Nutt. The Conversation

Optimists might see the opportunity to “reboot” an organisation in need of revitalising. Realists might weigh the risk of being on a bridge of a ship taking water.

The new director will have to get on with Malcolm Turnbull, which can be a challenge in itself. More significant, he (or, less likely, she) will be going into an election – at most two years away and possibly significantly closer – that the Coalition on present polling has a high prospect of losing.

The federal director is the campaign manager. If the election is won, they will take a bow, albeit in the shadows, well behind the leader. If it’s lost, tenure might be short; anyway, rebuilding in opposition is a tough gig.

Friday’s Liberal federal executive meeting has before it the 2016 election post-mortem done by a committee under former minister Andrew Robb. It finds the campaign was under-resourced. There was a lack of spending on research over the Coalition’s term.

And – to state the obvious – there was a failure to respond adequately to Labor’s Mediscare.

It’s no secret the party’s organisation is in poor shape, to say nothing of its finances. Turnbull personally donated A$1.75 million for the election. Earlier this year he told Laurie Oakes that when Nutt became director at the end of 2015, “the party had so little money he had to work for several months without any pay”. The old guard dispute this penury – Tony Abbott said the party was always able to meet its costs when he was leader.

The party is not just searching for a director but a federal president too, with Richard Alston ending up soon.

Alston, a former Howard minister, was Abbott’s pick – the then prime minister aggressively elbowed out prominent Western Australian Liberal Danielle Blain, who was at the time a senior figure in the party organisation and had been a strong fundraiser. Blain was backed by Liberal deputy Julie Bishop. It’s not yet known whether Blain would be interested this time around.

Another logical name would be former minister Nick Minchin, whose posting as consul-general in New York ends soon. But there might be relationship issues: Minchin was a central player in the coup against Turnbull in 2009.

Former foreign minister Alexander Downer, who was due home in May, would be in the mix if he wasn’t being kept at his UK high commissioner post for the time being.

While having to pull together a creaky organisation, the new Liberal director – and at this point there seems no-one in mind for the job – will be confronted with a Labor machine that runs an extremely formidable on-the-ground campaign.

It is efficient, backed by the extensive resources of the union movement, and often helped by GetUp’s coincidence of interest. For example, in 2016 GetUp targeted Immigration Minister Peter Dutton in his Queensland seat of Dickson, cutting back his margin significantly; GetUp will presumably again be the bear in his backyard.

Bill Shorten himself is campaigning assiduously at grassroots level. The “Bill bus” from the 2016 campaign has been on the road in Queensland this week, and will be in New South Wales next week. He has done more than 40 town-hall-style meetings since he started the forums in 2015, including nine since the election.

In these days of the “permanent campaign” Turnbull is also constantly on the move around the electorate, but does not have the same drill-down level of community interaction, which is easier for an opposition leader than a prime minister.

Given voters’ cynicism, it is hard for leaders to break through, but going local is a good approach – and the forums do seem to work for Shorten.

One strategic issue for the Liberals when framing the next campaign will be how negatively to run against Shorten. Internal party critics attacked the 2016 campaign for not targeting Shorten harder. The decision was based on research and Turnbull’s own preference for a positive campaign.

Although it’s too early to know the circumstances, one would expect a party with its back against the wall will next time be anxious to play the man – as Turnbull and his ministerial colleagues have been doing this year.

But it is possible the Liberals have missed their best opportunity for this to be effective. Although Shorten is not popular, the attacks on his union past may have lost the potency they could have had closer to the trade union royal commission.

Meanwhile Turnbull in the next few months faces an increasing danger of being judged by the “Newspoll” standard which he set for the judgement on Abbott.

Shockjock Ray Hadley gave a taste of this in his regular chat with Dutton on Thursday. Observing that Turnbull was up to ten bad Newspolls – Abbott had 30 – Hadley asked at what stage Turnbull said “I’d better just pass the baton to someone else”. Because, Hadley said, “he raised the spectre … of Newspoll being a measure of the fact that he was challenging for the prime ministership”.

Dutton tumbled into the trap. “Well Ray, that’s a fair point and Malcolm Turnbull wouldn’t step back from that point. What we need to do is to turn the polls around, if that’s the measure.”

Talked of as a possible future leader, Dutton is also seen as one of Turnbull’s conservative protectors. But his response highlights Turnbull’s vulnerability. What happens if those negative Newspolls (and all the others) continue? And what will turn them around?

Those questions just put more weight on the May budget – with its much-anticipated housing affordability package, which can only deliver so much. That and other aspects of the budget will set the debate as the government goes into the winter.

Even if it is well received – a big if – the budget won’t necessarily provide any quick polling relief. Polling analyst John Stirton notes: “It’s very rare for budgets to have any immediate positive impact on polling – if they do have an impact, it’s down the track and then it’s hard to separate it from everything else that’s been going on.”

But defusing the ticking time bomb of Newspoll is becoming more urgent as every fortnight passes.

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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