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Turnbull claws back ground on bad year

Psychology in politics is a funny thing.

Like watching the fortunes of a football match switch mid-game, the performance of MPs and parties can shift ephemerally, as all manner of externalities influence the argy-bargy of the day’s political fight.

Although pressure has been on the coalition for months, there has been a perceptible shift in the political winds during the last parliamentary week of the year. Attention is now on Labor — arguably for the first time in months.

Amid expectations of a horror week for the Government — including leadership chatter, threats of defection and a conservative partyroom revolt (for a change) — Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull began the week with several important psychological wins.

The New England by-election, which delivered Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce a stonking victory was hardly surprising, but the scale of the swing gave the coalition that sweet taste of victory that has been so lacking of late.

The result had nothing to do with the coalition, and everything to do with Joyce, but still, it was an unequivocal win and Turnbull relished telling Parliament that Labor’s primary vote was only just ahead of the informal.

The second important gift to Turnbull came in the form of Monday’s Newspoll that showed the Government had recovered some ground since the last survey. The result was now back in the zone of bad-but-normal rather than life-threateningly awful.

MPs had expected worse given the past few weeks which included a stunning backflip on a banking royal commission, a threatened revolt over same-sex marriage and the continuing citizenship fiasco that had sparked another by-election in a coalition-held seat.

The 53 to 47 per cent lead that Labor still commands could have been a lot worse given the tumult of recent times, and the result has quelled some of the unrest that has been simmering about the Government’s direction, at least in the short term.

Turnbull clawed back some ground as preferred prime minister over Bill Shorten and boosted the number of people who had been satisfied with his performance. At the same time, separate polls showed Turnbull remained preferred leader among coalition voters, and that an overwhelming number of people don’t want to see another spill against a sitting prime minister.

The stay of execution was also helped by revelations that Labor senator Sam Dastyari had tipped off a Chinese donor that their conversation may be overheard by national security agencies.

Suddenly, all eyes are on Bill Shorten.

Shorten, who was forced to demote Dastyari for the second time over his Chinese links, has said the powerful NSW senator is now on his last warning.

The issue has also stoked factional tensions within the Labor Party, with many on the Left furious at the antics of the ambitious and cavalier senator. The Right, also, know the powerful party man is in strife.

The affair made Shorten look shifty on national security, and the Opposition Leader is weakened every time he defends Dastyari’s slippery behaviour, which fails the pub test and worse, has genuinely undermined Australia’s national interests.

Shorten has also looked dodgy this week having to oversee the referral of two of his MPs to the High Court after months claiming the moral high ground on the citizenship debacle.

“If I’d known back then everything that I know as of today, sure I would have used different words and I’m not too proud to admit that,” Shorten said.

This week in Parliament, the Government looked emboldened, knowing Shorten was on the ropes on the issue of Dastyari and citizenship.

Shorten by contrast had lost his bite, and the Opposition struggled to find a clear tactical path in Question Time, jumping from issue to issue without landing a blow.

Coalition MPs who for months have been feeling despondent, defeated and frustrated, enjoyed watching Shorten sweat for a change.

Much of the past year, the Government has spent focused on itself.

It truly has been an annus horribilis for Turnbull.

Government MPs have been bogged down in philosophical arguments about the direction of the Liberal Party, and the internal hand-wringing over same-sex marriage and constant argument over Turnbull’s leadership has done untold damage to the coalition’s brand.

And while the Government has been talking among itself, no one has been looking at Shorten or Labor’s policies. He has had a dream run.

Often in politics, success begets success, and failure can become self-fulfilling.

Shorten has been ascendant all year, but has had a horrendous week. For most of the year he has been on the attack, ably assisted by Government antics.

Turnbull is a confidence player and when he feels successful, he performs better.

In form, he is articulate and politically dangerous.

With a clean slate, the coalition has the opportunity to reset the agenda in the new year and focus on the concerns of voters, while presenting a contrast with Labor.

The next major parliamentary and psychological hurdle for the Government is next week’s by-election in Bennelong.

A loss would be a devastating blow to Turnbull, sapping the fledgling confidence that is beginning to return to the Treasury benches.

A win would allow Turnbull to chalk up another victory, and if he can end the year with a successful reshuffle, the Prime Minister will have every reason to have a happy Christmas.

And if the citizenship ruling goes against Labor, Shorten will begin the new year under pressure and facing by-elections of his own.

The year has been a long and hard one for the Government, but this week has proved the adage that a week is a long time in politics.

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