None out of three
The next election will be called at some point within the coming year. It's becoming clear that the three issues for that election will be climate change, the economy and refugees. The Liberal Party is floundering on all three. On none of the key issues of the day can the major opposition party convince anyone but its rusted-on supporters that it has a better policy than that of the government. It has no basis to win the next election.
On climate change, Labor's policies (if you can call them that) on carbon trading and the Murray River is inferior to that shepherded by Environment Minister Turnbull to the last election. Turnbull can't normally be accused of lacking confidence in himself, but he should be more assertive on those positions. Even though they were rejected by the voters, those positions represent the kind of political groundedness (I can't think of a better word either) that a five-year blow-in just doesn't have: that kind of groundedness would be an antidote to the perceptions arising from Grech. The fact that those policies came through under Howard would have been enough to fend off disquiet from within the Liberal Party, and could yet be. Oh well.
On the economy, debt is a slow-burning issue as we saw in the 1990s. It wasn't enough to turf Labor in 1990, and it wasn't enough to prevent Labor getting back in '93, but by 1996 it was a dead weight that Labor was unable to shake. The same might happen this time: by the middle of the decade government debt might be a huge issue, but it was never enough to send Labor spiralling out of contention for the coming poll. Not yet, not enough - Whitlam had to work on his economic death-wish, as long as Rudd and Swan are perceived to be doing their best then they'll be right. Even a big infrastructure spend won't cruel Labor's poll standing if it sounds reasonably responsible.
Why has Turnbull sat on all those tax reform proposals that he sprayed Costello with in 2005? Why is he allowing Ken Henry to outflank him on tax reform - and worse, sending only dickheads like Abetz and Ronaldson to question Henry?
On refugees, anyone can "call for an inquiry" - it's the mark of a political amateur, if not a pissant, to call for an inquiry without knowing where it might lead or what it might recommend. Every other official inquiry into Australia's refugee intake, including those commissioned by the Howard government, has concluded that mandatory detention is (I paraphrase) stupid, counterproductive, barbaric and absurdly costly. It is doubtful that a Turnbull-commissioned inquiry would conclude much differently, more doubtful that they'd deserve the benefit of the doubt.
Turnbull can't convincingly turn back the clock to hardline Howard-era policies. Nor can he come out and say that refugees have the very sort of tenacity, initiative and guts that we want in this country, and that the boat/plane dichotomy is nebulous. The latter has the potential to snooker Rudd; he looked shaky on this question but the Liberals are in the business of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory at the moment.
The Liberals can't create a clear difference from Labor on any of the big issues, and it's hard to see where any distinction might come from on the smaller issues - the Liberals have no Kate Lundy or Lindsay Tanner daring to grapple with big issues poorly understood. You might expect Greg Hunt to chart a different course, but he seems to be following the Peter Garrett route into docile oblivion.
Malcolm Turnbull has misled Liberal supporters with his claim that he could put them into, or within striking distance of, government at the first election after the 2007 loss. A barely competent government can only get less so in its second term, especially if rewarded with the big majority that appears likely: an incompetent opposition could stumble around indefinitely.
Even on telecommunications, a second-order issue handled supposedly by the Liberals' best policy-political brain - the party's position is a mess. A ragged defence of an indefensible status quo, championing the environment that was used as a picnic for American carpet-baggers and saying nothing about what telecommunications could be for this country - this is the worst strategic ineptitude since the rise of SA's Olsen Government. Minchin hasn't laid a glove on a vulnerable minister, and don't get me started on Abbott.
Liberals should not have accepted being put in a position where they could not put forward coherent and credible positions on the major issues of the day. They have not done the hard work in articulating what such positions might be, and how best to outwit a government that can be rattled if only it had an opposition worth the name. The quietism that led to victory remains in defeat. Because they haven't done this work, and because they've accepted less than the best (i.e. they've been conditioned by Howard to cop whatever they're bloody well given, and smile for the cameras), Liberals have nobody to blame but themselves.