by Nicholas Economou
As Australia Day and its attendant controversies become a fading memory, the national political debate resumes after the Christmas – New Year holiday period. For those who have forgotten, here is a re-cap of where the debate is at. As a result of a host of dreadful by-election results for the government, prime minister Scott Morrison and his Liberal colleagues now rely on the casting vote of the Speaker to get things through the House of Representatives.
Meanwhile, everyone in Australian politics is convinced that the government will be defeated by Bill Shorten and Labor at the next federal election. So widely held is this view that a number of Liberal parliamentarians have foreshadowed their intention to retire ahead of the next election. Meanwhile, in a number of historically safe Liberal seats, all manner of people have indicated their intention to contest as independents.
For his part, prime minister Scott Morrison has sought to launch scare campaigns in those policy areas the polls suggest Labor is weak on. This includes the economy (where Morrison warns of an inevitable recession were Labor to get in), superannuation and retirement (a scare campaign on franking credits and negative gearing) and border security.
It’s a predictable approach but, it must also be said, its an approach that has had some success in the past. Labor is very weak on economic matters and it has very little sympathy for self-funded retirees and those who earn their income from shares and investment rather than wages and salary. Given that the Australian population is ageing, Labor actually need to exercise some political caution in its enthusiasm to deny tax concessions to what Labor activists think are wealthy Australians. Caution is something federal Labor tends not to do very well.
All of this might have some traction were it not for the state of the Liberal and National parties themselves. Morrison is prime minister, of course, because the previous holder of the position was hounded out of office by his Liberal colleagues. The current National leader holds his position because of the way the private affairs of the previous leader contributed to his perceived need to resign. The future of the current incumbent has since been made a bit uncomfortable by yet more salacious scandals involving a sitting member and a dating website. And to think that people used to think the National party was a dull rural conservative organisation.
The fact of the matter is that economic debates are not likely to influence the forthcoming election given the way the Liberal and National parties have behaved whilst being in office. The coalition parties have been badly affected by hubris – in the case of the Liberal party, this has manifested itself through leadership challenges and indulgent debates about what it is the party stands for, and, in the case of the Nationals, through some really poor behavioural choices by some of its prominent members.
Over the years Australian voters have demonstrated a tendency to punish governments that have been affected by such hubris that renders them as dysfunctional as a result. Indeed, the coalition won government in 2013 precisely because of voter rejection of Labor. Whilst it was true the Labor government managed to get itself in to a tangle over a number of policies, it was the leadership infighting and the almost farcical way in which both Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard had ascended to the prime ministership that led to voters embracing the Liberal-National alternative led, at that time, by Tony Abbott.
It was former Labor leader Bob Hawke who once incisively opined that a party that could not govern itself was not fit to govern the country. This dictum accounted for the defeat of Labor in 2013 and will surely be the rationale for the defeat of the Liberal-National government in 2019. Indeed, it will be interesting to see just how the two governing parties approach the campaign. Both parties burdened themselves with damaging leadership challenges in which the vanquished leader (Abbott in the case of the Liberal party and Barnaby Joyce in the case of the Nationals) have continued to try to inflict damage on their successors. Morrison and National party leader Michael McCormack would dearly love to spend their time attacking Bill Shorten. It may well be, however, that they will have to exert much energy defending themselves from the consequences of the actions of people like Joyce, Peter Dutton, Mathias Corman and others.
As if this won’t be difficult enough, the two coalition parties are also under siege from a phalanx of aspiring parliamentarians seeking to win Liberal seats as independents. Numbered amongst these opportunists will be people such as the former Liberal member for Chisholm, Julie Banks, whose other contribution to the Liberal party was to accuse some of its members of being sexist bullies.
All of this suggests that it is unlikely that the coalition will win the next election. The next thing to ponder then will be what is going to happen to Australia’s mainstream right-of-centre parties both of which could be in very bad shape post election.
The immediate period of opposition could be very bleak indeed. Both parties will probably be reduced to a rump of ultra-safe seats. In the diminished numbers that would make up the party room it is difficult to identify anyone who looks like being a future leader capable of bringing the coalition back in to government. Disputes about ideology, about climate change, about female representation and all the other things that have blighted the coalition over the last six years seem unlikely to be resolved. Somewhat depressingly for coalition supporters, the situation could get even worse once the election is over and the task of re-building right-of-centre politics begins.
Dr Nicholas Economou teaches politics at Monash University’s Clayton campus in Melbourne, Australia.