Malcolm Turnbull was elected leader by the Liberal party in the belief that he could win the 2016 election. He has now failed a crucial political test and his future is in serious doubt, writes Dr Nick Economou.
Melbourne, July 4: The Liberal-National coalition may have lost government in the 2016 election. While the count of close seats continues and uncertainty pervades the result, it is clear that the large lower house majority won in Tony Abbott’s landslide victory in 2013 has been lost almost completely.
Malcolm Turnbull, who was elected leader by the Liberal party in the belief that he could win the 2016 election, has failed a crucial political test. His future is in serious doubt.
Of no less significance is the state of the Australian parliament as a consequence of the election. At the time of writing it is unclear as to whether or not either the Coalition or the Labor party can form a majority government.
The fate of executive power may well rest in the hands of a small collection of minor party and independent cross-bench MPs in ways not dissimilar to the way it did after the 2010 election that resulted in Julia Gillard’s minority government.
One important difference, however, is in the composition of the Senate. After the 2010 election, Labor and the Greens held a majority of seats in the upper house and Labor could get its legislation through the parliament once it cleared the lower house. In this case, however, the double dissolution election for the Senate has resulted in an expanded cross-bench comprising very socially conservative and economically protectionist senators.
Getting legislation through the Senate will be an extremely difficult exercise, regardless of who becomes prime minister.
The result appears to have taken the community by surprise, but it should be pointed out that the opinion polls had been predicting this outcome. The nearly 50-50 national two party vote – a swing of 3.7 percent to Labor on the last election – had been forecast by the opinion polls and indicated that a re-balancing of the electorate was inevitable given the extent of the Liberal victory in 2013.
Still, there were features to this swing that indicated where the Turnbull strategy as well as the prime minister’s approach to the debate generally had been problematic.
Labor’s gains appear to have been made in the outer suburbs of Sydney and in regional areas where voters clearly do not share the same optimism about the economic future as that espoused by Turnbull on the campaign trail. Labor’s own market research would have picked up voter disquiet about the Coalition’s approach to health and education.
Fortuitously for opposition leader Bill Shorten, this dovetailed neatly with Labor’s traditional strengths and thus the Labor campaign had some power to it. It has been interesting watching the Liberal party whinge about Labor’s advertising about Medicare, for this provides confirmation how important this issue was to the election.
If nothing else, the 2016 election reminds yet again about the great political risk a party takes when it changes its parliamentary leader in between elections – especially if the former leader had been successful at the previous election. Here the similarities with 2010 are uncanny. In trying to preside over a qualitatively different leadership from that practiced by Abbott, Turnbull appeared reluctant to revisit issues synonymous with the former leader including border security and seeking to frighten voters about internal security and multiculturalism.
Turnbull clearly sought to project a positive message during his time as prime minister, but this appeared to blunt the government’s attempt to attack the opposition.
During his time as prime minister, however, Turnbull did a number of things that may well have alienated swinging voters. This included appearing to toy with the idea of raising the GST whilst giving the business community tax relief, failing to intervene in the steel manufacturing crisis that engulfed manufacturing (especially in South Australia), and being constantly drawn in to debates about same sex marriage (a low priority matter for voters more concerned about bread and butter issues such as whether or not they will have a job). In the meantime the government declared changes to superannuation policy that were bound to alienate its core constituency.
None of this was particularly strategic or clever.
The swings against the government have gone primarily to Labor in the lower house. In the Senate, however, there appears to have been another right-ward shift as a new group of populists, protectionists and social conservatives appear to have been returned.
Given that the whole point of the double dissolution election was to prematurely terminate the tenure of Ricky Muir and others, this aspect of Turnbull’s strategy has failed most spectacularly. It appears that the total number of right wing cross benchers has increased, and that the general tenor of the senate will be affected by the election of Pauline Hanson.
The 2016 election has been a disaster for the Liberal-National coalition and Malcolm Turnbull is culpable. He has revealed yet again how poor he is at electoral politics. His inability to reconcile liberals and conservatives in his party has now led to a rise in the number of ultra conservative minor parties in the Senate.
Malcolm Turnbull is doubtless a fighter and won’t like to go down easily, but it is difficult to see how he can survive in the medium term. Of course it may be that he won’t even be prime minister by dent of the result of the election. Even if he does survive the poll, however, he is unlikely to survive the wrath of the Liberal party and its core supporters.
(Dr Nick Economou teaches Politics at Monash University’s Clayton campus and is a regular commentator on Australian Radio and Television)