THE LONGEST campaign in Australian history has spawned an inconclusive result that will take days to sort out; Labor has made steep gains and the Coalition steep losses but at close of counting there is no outcome, which will be a hung Parliament or a narrow Liberal win. Either way, Malcolm Turnbull is finished: those committed to sound conservative governance who have been sidelined and/or silenced must now have the courage to act.
After an interminably long election campaign has come an interminably long night: in front of the TV, on the phone and on various communication channels on my computer. I am still heavily affected by the respiratory infection my son generously brought home a week ago, which means I shunned making an appearance at the local Liberal celebrations in my electorate of Goldstein. But really, aside from a few quiet chats on the sidelines, it’s hard to say I missed very much.
What passes — for now — as the result of the 2016 election is a disgrace, and amounts to a complete indictment on the Liberal Party: on the cabal of ancient and time-serving henchmen who run it, on its ill-suited leader, on a large proportion of the pool of advisors who presumably helped shepherd the government into such a debacle, and on those who preceded them and proved unable to run an effective administration under the leadership of Tony Abbott.
But it is also an indictment on the ALP (and we will discuss this theme many times in coming months, I’m sure), for a precedent now exists for an opposition party to not merely run scare campaigns based on discussion papers or leaked memos and the like, but to spend election periods fomenting mass panic and fear of its opponents on the basis of absolute and total fabrications.
The so-called “Mediscare” reached its ugly zenith (or more correctly, nadir) yesterday, as thousands of voters awoke to find SMS text messages from “Medicare” claiming it was about to be privatised by Malcolm Turnbull, and that time was running out to save it. It is appropriate, as Turnbull flagged in his keeping-the-seat-warm speech just after midnight, that the AFP will investigate this disgusting tactic, which is tantamount to a fraud, and quite possibly a misuse of telecommunications systems under the Crimes Act as well.
But the fact “Mediscare” was able to take root at all, let alone run for almost a fortnight virtually unimpeded, rather neatly sums up everything that is wrong with the Liberal Party and its dubious campaign capacities; it had forewarning of the kind of tactics Labor would use (think emergency services workers accosting and assaulting voters at polling booths at state elections in Victoria and Queensland) and, with many days in hand before polling day — an eternity in campaign time — it failed utterly to puncture an obscenely duplicitous and arrant lie in the battle for the minds of voters, let alone manage to lay so much as a glove on it at all.
At the close of counting last night, the ABC’s Antony Green — aided by the predictive algorithmic software that partly offsets the incomplete vote count — found the Coalition on 72 seats (down 17 on notional figures after last year’s partial redistribution), Labor on 66 (up 9), the Greens unchanged with one, “Others” unchanged overall with four, and seven undecideds.
There is a case being bandied about by senior figures that owing to its superior postal vote and pre-poll campaigns, most of those undecided seats would fall to the Liberal Party and with them, a clear majority, but I think the inherent smugness behind this is fanciful.
In most of those undecided seats, Labor already leads by up to a couple of percentage points; in the seats the Liberals are ahead, the margins are so narrow (often 50.0% when rounded to the nearest hundredth of a point) that it is a heroic assumption to believe they are in the bag.
But even if the Coalition wins just four of those seats to form the barest of majorities in the 150-member House of Representatives, the fast-clarifying and likely composition of the Senate will make the obstruction faced by Abbott look like a dream scenario by comparison, and in any case, the Great Messiah — recruited to the Prime Ministership for the millions of extra votes he would bring, and for the dozens of backbench Coalition MPs whose arses he would keep in Parliament — has instead proven, as suspected, to be a multi-million dollar dud.
This column has exercised enormous restraint since September last year in not simply criticising Turnbull for the sake of criticising him; whilst I have never been a supporter of his in a leadership context — a view that is validated by the apparent election result — I took the view, as readers know, that he had to be given an opportunity to prove his bona fides (or not, as time has proven).
Going into an election more than 30 seats to the good of a discredited opposition and coming out, at best, with a one or two seat win is not a victory on any reasonable criteria.
The attempt by Turnbull in his midnight speech to liken this election to the 1998 result, and to harness the respect (and respectability) of the Howard government in so doing, is fatally flawed in one irrefutable sense: Howard’s near-death experience in 1998 came after he risked (and spent) almost all of his political and electoral capital on a series of reforms that have underpinned the solid performance of the Australian economy for most of the years since then.
Indeed, that near-loss experience directly followed a campaign to legitimise the overhaul of Australia’s ramshackle indirect taxation regime, delivering a GST, welfare increases and significant personal income tax cuts. It was a root-and-branch overhaul of the tax system that perhaps didn’t go as far as it should have, having regard to the political realities of the day, but it equalled in scope and importance the Howard government’s own waterfront reforms, or the floating of the Australian dollar undertaken by the Hawke government, for its long-term significance.
By contrast, the notion that a modest corporate tax cut bundled up with a regressive taxation slug on high-income, self-funded superannuants amounted to a “clear economic plan for jobs and growth” is, and was, preposterous.
That “plan” came after almost six months of fucking around with weightier, more significant reform options — labour market reform, further structural tax reforms involving GST changes, and the half-baked, hare-brained scheme to give the states income taxing powers — which were all rapidly discarded after being allowed to float for just long enough to capture public attention and convey the impression of a lot of activity but not a lot being achieved.
The classic “look busy, do nothing” posture adopted by lazy employees in all walks of life that we have all had the misfortune to run across at some time or other.
And the double dissolution itself, allegedly secured on the need to “restore the rule of law in the construction sector” as Turnbull reiterated in the small hours this morning, was fought on anything but, with the government’s proposals to restore the Australian Building and Construction Commission and ancillary measures being relegated to the occasional output of a junior minister that failed to attract adequate press scrutiny, let alone amount to selling the initiatives at all.
Turnbull himself has given every indication of campaigning like a patrician gentleman whose entitlement to the office was assured; most days during the campaign, I am told, he had sit-down luncheon engagements with old friends and cronies from his business contact book when he should have been pressing the flesh with ordinary punters in places like Southland, Westfield Parramatta, and the Queen Street Mall.
He looked uneasy meeting people and distinctly uncomfortable on the stump; the times he did speak at any length, of course, he waffled and blathered and missed the mark.
And when the time came to land the killer blows on his opponents, Turnbull was nowhere to be seen; reasonable proxy hits were effected by the likes of Finance minister Mathias Cormann, but Turnbull himself simply seemed to hesitant to strike. It is not a criticism Howard or Abbott would ever attract.
But the foundations for what happened yesterday were laid late last year, by Turnbull’s own hand; two ministerial reshuffles led directly to a string of foreseeable and avoidable scandals that blunted the fresh momentum with which the leadership change had, admittedly, imbued the government; yet even before that momentum had been stymied — and before the downhill run that continued almost all the way to polling day had commenced — Turnbull had the opportunity to go to a pre-Christmas double dissolution election, his personal ratings and the Coalition’s stocks at stellar levels, that he declined to take.
It was, as I foreshadowed at the time, a potentially fatal political miscalculation: and so it appears likely to prove.
The poor result in Turnbull’s own home state of New South Wales is at least partly attributable to members of his own moderate faction within the Liberal Party — emboldened by the change of leadership, and determined to press their new-found advantage home — embarking on a spree of attempted assassinations at preselection tables for Liberal-held seats across the state, and whilst almost all of these lunatic acts of political seppuku were thwarted, the damage was done.
Queenslanders never warmed to Turnbull the first time he was Liberal leader, and it seems they haven’t warmed to him now; it is no surprise that after NSW, Queensland is the state offering the best prospects for Labor to win seats: a point underlined by the fact all of the seats at risk to Labor are either outer-suburban Brisbane electorates, or located up the coast in regional Queensland. The government may, indeed, hold some of those that last night seemed gone. But it will lose several, and once again, the damage was done.
But the obscure admission from Liberal panellists on both the ABC and Sky News last night that nobody in the party had foreseen the vicious anti-Liberal swing in Tasmania puts the arguments about campaign professionalism and leadership beyond any doubt; in a statewide swing of almost 10% to Labor, the Liberals lost all three of the five seats it had held on the Apple Isle. One — Andrew Nikolic in Bass — was reportedly popular throughout the state, and had been earmarked as a potential future minister. Instead, he lost Bass to some no-name ALP candidate on a swing of 10%.
The example is a telling one.
I’m not going to spend any time talking about Bill Shorten this morning — there will be ample time for that later, if not as soon as later today — for that is a separate set of arguments altogether, and for now it is sufficient to observe that Australia will not be burdened by that particular shitbag as its Prime Minister: at least, not before another election, if he survives as opposition “leader” once the electoral dust has settled.
And we will, of course, track the ongoing election count, and discuss and analyse the ramifications of further results as they are finalised.
But the uncomfortable truth for the Liberal Party, even as the prospect of a (very slender) majority remains a live one, is that if the party doesn’t fix itself — and quickly — then within a few short years, a long and bitter winter will have set in.
Early next year, a state election in WA is likely to see the Liberal government there — elected with a thumping majority in 2013 — booted out of office; in eight weeks’ time, the CLP (Coalition) administration in the Northern Territory is similarly likely to be booted out of office.
In the aftermath of the federal election, the state election I suspected Annastacia Palaszczuk might have pulled on in May to complicate Turnbull’s election planning will almost certainly be called in an attempt to capitalise on the slight lift in ALP fortunes federal voters have delivered; the LNP’s new leader, Tim Nicholls, is excellent, and this column campaigned robustly for his elevation as a candidate who could retake government in the Sunshine State and arguably run a more durable administration than Campbell Newman did.
But the timing of this state election, at least, is in the hands of the Premier, before terms become fixed for a set date in October every four years, and should Palaszczuk pull the trigger at the right time and against the backdrop of a suitable alignment of the political planets, there is a real risk Nicholls could become the collateral damage of the process.
And with state elections due in March 2018 in SA and Tasmania, nobody is betting on the Liberals winning the former; in the case of the latter, and notwithstanding the thumping endorsement it received in 2014, the Hodgman government would have to look at yesterday’s Tasmanian result and be unnerved by what it sees.
That leaves the Baird government in NSW — which also contributed to the bad result for the Coalition yesterday, with its poorly timed slate of council amalgamations — and Graham Quirk’s recently re-elected civic administration in Brisbane, as the only continuing Liberal presences in office anywhere of note around the country.
In the lean, miserable decade the Coalition endured in the 1980s and early 1990s, it had been Joh Bjelke-Petersen in Queensland and Nick Greiner in NSW at various stages as the sole bulwarks against a sea of state and federal Labor outfits.
The problem with the government that emerges from yesterday’s debacle is that it will have little authority under a tarnished and diminished leader — whom some also describe as politically illegitimate — and no control over the Senate, meaning nothing of consequence (and certainly not the “clear program” Turnbull talks about) is likely to be accomplished.
And that, with an eye to electoral behaviour and the probable reaction of the Australian public to a second-term government that it perceives doesn’t do anything, is likely to invite an belting when next the federal Coalition submits itself to public verdict.
In other words, the gloom of the lean, leaden 1980s is once again threatening to swamp the Coalition.
Much of the blame must be shouldered by Turnbull and, if he refuses to accept it, be sheeted home to him: whilst the cabal of hand-picked servants Turnbull installed around him when he became Prime Minister share the responsibility, the unvarnished truth is that over the past ten months this has indelibly been Turnbull’s government, run Turnbull’s way, and he has led it to the brink of extinction.
It may very well be the case that there has never been a more exciting time to be an Australian, but as Turnbull will quickly learn, one entity to which this vapid slogan does not apply is the government he currently leads, which will endure an even rockier passage through the coming term of Parliament than the Abbott government did in the last.
I’m not going to speculate today about replacements, timetables, or specific courses of action, but in recording such an abysmal election result — with nothing of substance to even justify the carnage, which Howard had well and truly in hand in 1998 — the Prime Minister is finished politically.
Those capable and connected Liberals — sidelined and/or silenced, as they have been forced over a decade to watch in horror as their party has become little more than a pale imitation of the Labor machine it rightly pillories — must act, and organise for the proper reform of the Liberal Party and a cleanout of the key people who keep making the disastrous decisions that have wrung the electoral lifeblood from it, if there is to be any chance of it again becoming the vehicle for genuine, mainstream liberal and conservative governance that was so effectively deployed under Howard.
As I suggested to a couple of senior Liberal associates last week, it might be better if Turnbull lost this election, and so it has proven: its authority destroyed, its majority eliminated and its program virtually non-existent, the Coalition must now forge ahead for three years under a leader who has been executed by voters and in the face of a recalcitrant Senate just salivating at the prospect of an easy kill.
There’s never been a better time to drastically reform the Liberal Party: and just as a fish rots from the head down, it’s best to start from the top.