Nick Economou

Return of the Turnbull government with a greatly reduced lower house majority is a reasonable expectation ; BUT the person who looks very likely to be a critical player in to the next parliament is not Labor’s Bill Shorten, or even the Greens’ Richard Di Natale, writes Dr Nick Economou.


The populist from South Australia, Nick Xenophon may well be pivotal to the future direction of Australian politics.

Melbourne, June 3: With the second half of one of the longest election campaigns in Australian history under way, the opinion polls are showing that Labor and Bill Shorten are doing better than Malcolm Turnbull and the Liberal-National coalition.

The bad news for Mr Shorten, however, is that the swing (anywhere between 2 to 3 percent of the two party vote) will not be enough for Labor to win the seats it needs to have a majority in the House of Representatives.

Given this, a return of the Turnbull government with a greatly reduced lower house majority is a reasonable expectation.

In many ways, this election is looking very much like the 1998 election, where Labor received a big swing, won a large number of seats and even achieved a majority of the national two-party vote yet remained in opposition. In a similar vein, Labor under the leadership of Bill Hayden in 1980 achieved big swings and won seats – but not enough to form government.

The common denominator in these two elections was that, in the preceding contest, Labor had been on the receiving end of a thrashing. The defeat of Labor under Gough Whitlam’s leadership in 1977 was one of Labor’s worst ever results. Indeed, the extent of the defeat was only surpassed in the modern era by Paul Keating in 1996. Running a close third in the pantheon of worst ever results for the ALP was the 2013 election at which Kevin Rudd was leader, although, in reality, this disaster was Julia Gillard’s responsibility.

In each instance the defeat was so great that a solid recovery of both support and seats was not enough to carry the next Labor leader in to the prime ministership.

Part of the frustration for both Bill Hayden and Kim Beasley (and presumably this is what confronts Bill Shorten) was that the big swings to Labor in these elections occurred in very safe Labor seats and in very safe Coalition seats. In the marginal seats, however, the anti-government swings were quite small.

In short, elections that come after land-slide defeats will inevitably involve some re-balancing of voter behaviour and this might lead to a transfer of seats. To win government, however, the major parties need to win the marginal, swinging seats.

The opinion polls thus far are indicating a re-balancing of the electorate after the 2013 landslide victory won by Tony Abbott. They don’t indicate a government-changing swing – at least, not yet.

This means Malcolm Turnbull looks like just falling over the line, although there are some other dangers lurking in the contest many of which have little to do with Bill Shorten and Labor.

The Liberals rejoice in Labor’s fight with the Greens in a couple of seats in inner Melbourne, but the more significant non-major party contests actually involves Coalition constituencies.

It looks like rural independents Bob Katter and Cathy McGowan will be re-elected, and National party leader Barnaby Joyce is facing a tough fight against Tony Windsor in New England.

The election of Windsor along with an additional Green would enlarge the cross-bench to six.

On top of that, there is a very interesting contest occurring in South Australia where the redoubtable Nick Xenophon has created a political party whose support levels as measured by opinion polls suggest that not only will he win at least three Senate spots, his party could even win lower shouse seats.

Xenophon’s party is taking votes off both major parties, but it is the Liberal-held lower house seats in South Australia that are the most vulnerable.

Here, then, lies the nightmare scenario for Mr Turnbull where neither major party secures an absolute majority in the lower house and the fate of executive government lies in the hands of regional and rural independents and however many Xenophon candidates get elected.

Apart from the instability this would promise in relation to the operation of the House of Representatives, such an outcome would deal a mortal blow to Turnbull’s authority as Liberal leader. Turnbull was elevated to the leadership with a simple brief of ensuring the re-election of the government. The Liberal party room would probably tolerate a narrow victory provided the government had an overall majority in the Representatives. To lose that majority to the cross-bench would be intolerable, however, and Turnbull would be culpable.

This extraordinary period in Australian politics where major party leaders struggle to retain their authority and seem unable to see out full terms, and where the parliament is being made up of potentially volatile non-major party representatives whose election reflects voter dissatisfaction with the major parties, looks like it could continue beyond July 2.

And the person who looks very likely to be a critical player in to the next parliament is not Labor’s Bill Shorten, or even the Greens’ Richard Di Natale.

The person who looks like he may well be pivotal to the future direction of Australian politics is the populist from South Australia, Nick Xenophon who may have strategic control of both the Senate and the House of Representatives.

If this outcome should transpire, Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership would be untenable. Remarkably for a state with so few lower house seats, the contest in South Australia may hold the key to how the political future unfolds after July 2.

(Dr Nick Economou teaches Politics at Monash University’s Clayton campus and is a regular commentator on Australian Radio and Television)

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