AS FALLOUT from Saturday’s election continues — and with counting set to resume — the prospect the Coalition will lose its majority in the House of Representatives is growing; with an even less hospitable Senate than the one dissolved before the election, a leader whose authority has been obliterated, and considering history, the Liberal Party would be better served going into opposition than trying to survive the quagmire of minority government.
In my article yesterday — suggesting his poor election showing meant that Malcolm Turnbull was finished as Prime Minister, and all but calling for his resignation — I relayed the anecdote of a handful of private conversations with well-placed Liberal Party identities across the country last week, in which I observed that it might be better for the party (and the country) in the longer run if we lost what at the time was the imminent election; now the smoke from the figurative nuclear blast of Saturday’s vote is beginning to clear, it seems those remarks might have been even more prescient than I realised at the time.
For the second consecutive day, Australians have waited in frustration to learn the results of their handiwork at the weekend; just as this effort could still see the Coalition emerge with a majority in its own right in the lower house, it now seems clear that’s just as likely that it won’t.
In my view (and this has nothing to do with my historic support or otherwise for Tony Abbott, Malcolm Turnbull or anyone else), in some respects it doesn’t really matter if Malcolm manages to fall across the line with 76 of the 150 seats for the barest of majorities: it is clear that what little authority he had as Prime Minister — if, indeed, he ever had any at all — has been smashed to pieces in a stunning electoral rebuke that might not in the end prove sufficient to tip the Coalition from office, but which is more than adequate to show that Turnbull does not command support from the voting public in his present office.
If the government somehow manages to scrape through to a majority, the desirability of retaining Malcolm Turnbull’s services as Prime Minister is now an idiocy that will remain the delusion only of the most naive remaining members of the Liberal Party’s moderate faction, and of those on the political Left who last year drove Malcolm’s polling numbers to stellar levels of absurdity despite their utter disinclination to vote for him: a phenomenon we can now recognise as a fact in the aftermath of Saturday’s election.
But if the government falls short, as seems increasingly probable — winning perhaps 73 or 74 seats, more than the ALP, but insufficient to command outright control of the House of Representatives — the Liberal Party would be best served going into opposition instead of attempting to cobble together a minority government.
I say “the Liberal Party” as opposed to “the Coalition” because, thanks to his overthrow of Tony Abbott and the residual historic enmity felt towards him by the National Party, Turnbull’s flaccid electoral performance has probably turned the junior Coalition partner into just another unreliable variable were Turnbull to unwisely continue in his post.
Turnbull’s ranting, almost deranged post-election speech at Sydney’s Wentworth Hotel — for which he kept the country waiting until well after midnight, despite the clarity hours earlier that no definitive result would be forthcoming — has, it has become clear in the 48 hours since, done nothing to underline his credentials as a viable ongoing candidate for the Prime Ministership.
He was right to rail against the ALP over its so-called “Mediscare” campaign, but with that sole exception, the speech was a graceless exercise in lashing out against everything and anything that could be blamed for an unspinnable election debacle.
The “Mediscare” campaign was unleashed fully a fortnight prior to polling day; it is an indictment on the hand-picked stuffed suits who formed Turnbull’s election war room, and upon Turnbull himself, that none of them — with time aplenty and adequate resources — could lay a glove on it, let alone puncture it.
I believe “Mediscare” was little more than an exercise in electoral fraud, and it is fitting the Federal Police are to investigate it; I should add that if former Treasurer Wayne Swan — not content with having left the nation’s balance sheet in an unparalleled state of disrepair — thinks bringing up his offspring to believe that lying to millions of Australians is somehow clever, or something to be proud of, then he is even more deserving of the contempt non-Labor types have for years levelled at him.
“Mediscare,” it transpired this morning, was the “brainchild” of Swan’s 24-year-old daughter, Erinn, who works for Labor in Melbourne. Frankly, and irrespective of whether the AFP even formalises its investigation, the Swans have invited upon themselves only deep shame, the tawdry profit the exercise conferred upon the ALP notwithstanding.
But I digress.
The Liberal Party is at its best when it embodies what it was established to deliver: mass-based policies that reflect the best of liberal and conservative traditions that are aimed at advancing the lot of all Australians, rather than pandering to sectional interests and obsessing over minorities as the Left in this country is invariably wont to do.
It’s why the Howard government was so effective, and so durable; living standards and national prosperity have rarely risen more sharply than they did during the Howard years.
By contrast, the slogan the Abbott government was initially elected on — hope, reward, opportunity — at least talked the talk, even if it singularly failed to deliver: largely on the basis of a hostile Senate that refused to allow it to govern.
And today, the party confronts the prospect of an even more destructive Senate — whether in majority or minority government — and the very real prospect that the upper house will prevent it from implementing its agenda at all.
The early estimates of the composition of the new Senate are for 30 Coalition seats (-3), 27 Labor (+2), 9
Communists Greens (-1), 3 Xenophon (+2), 2 Jacqui Lambie Network (+1), 3 Pauline Hanson’s One Nation (+3), plus Derryn Hinch in Victoria and one more Senator whose identity remains at the mercy of preference flows. Those numbers could move, of course, but only very slightly.
The only “class” in the new arrivals to the Senate is Hinch; Lambie’s only discernible positions are to attract as much attention for herself, whilst masquerading as the champion of groups that eschew association with her, and whilst causing as much damage to the conservatives as she can; Hanson — that great agitator who is so adept at whipping up resentment about problems she claims to act on without ever advocating rational or workable solutions — has long been known to hold grudges and has already been alienated by Turnbull, who told a national television audience that she had no place in political circles in Canberra.
Nick Xenophon is, of course, a more reasonable beast do deal with, if left-leaning; a quick back-of-envelope tally shows that even if the Coalition were to carry the Xenophon Senators and Hinch in 100% of cases, and if we assume the final Senate seat went the Coalition’s way, it would still be wanting for four additional votes to get anything through the Senate, ever: and when the only places those votes could come from are Labor, the Greens and Pauline Hanson, the scope of the problem any Coalition government will now face in the Senate becomes clear.
If we add, for the hell of it, Hanson’s votes, the bottom line is that Labor or the Greens still must vote with the Coalition at 100% of Senate votes for bills to pass. After the vicious and dishonest election campaign we have witnessed, the realistic prospects of that are remote indeed; and even if Coalition bills were to be permitted to pass, the likelihood is that the amendments needed to secure support would emasculate them so badly as to render persisting with them pointless if the objective is to deliver truly Liberal measures through Parliament.
Labor and the Greens claim that Abbott and Turnbull were terrible negotiators with the Senate; the fact is very simply that they didn’t want to be negotiated with at all. Lambie, for the little she is worth, now wants to be consulted on all legislation before it is even presented to Parliament — a position one suspects is at least partly contrived as an attempt to humiliate Turnbull (or whomever leads the Coalition) into a grovelling relationship that she alone is in control of.
So let’s be clear: the Abbott-Turnbull government faced hell in the last Parliament; this time around, it would be worse.
In the past 50 years, across federal government and the states, there has only ever been one instance of a minority government formed by the Coalition parties that was followed by an outright election win: Colin Barnett in Western Australia, elevated from opposition into minority government in August 2008 and re-elected in a landslide in early 2013.
In that time, no other minority conservative government — starting with the government of Angus Bethune in Tasmania (1969-72) through to the Napthine government in Victoria in 2014 — has ever been re-elected (and if readers know of any examples to the contrary prior to the late 1960s, feel free to note these in comments).
And the only governments to have moved from majority to minority status in that period to have been re-elected at all, albeit to an additional term in minority, are the current Labor government in South Australia and the Labor/Greens government in Tasmania of 2006-2014.
In fact, incoming Labor governments who take office for the first time in minority seem to fare much better than their conservative counterparts, with the ALP in Queensland (1998 and perhaps again now), SA (2002) and Victoria (1999) all going on to be thumpingly re-elected at the subsequent election; there is a very real risk federal Labor could follow this pattern if allowed to govern now, although based on the likely impact of its policies, I highly doubt it.
But the point is that if the Coalition goes into minority government this week, it will almost certainly achieve absolutely nothing on account of the state of the Senate; and if historical precedent is any guide, it will almost certainly face electoral annihilation at the election presently scheduled to occur some time before mid-June in 2019.
The National Party — known to have been ready to break the federal Coalition, largely as a result of disillusionment and latent anger stemming from Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership of the Liberal Party, by the time Tony Abbott became Liberal leader in late 2009 — has already achieved a numeric strengthening of its position on the non-Labor side of politics as a result of the 2016 election; Turnbull has shown a tin ear where the concerns of the Nationals’ constituencies are concerned to date, and it takes little imagination to foresee circumstances in which Coalition relations might become problematic against a backdrop of tight numbers and under the same autocratic figurehead from the inner-Sydney latte establishment Turnbull’s pitch is primarily fashioned for.
And this brings me squarely back to Turnbull.
Does anyone seriously believe this entitled, patrician symbol of upper-class fancies has the temperament or the inclination to knuckle under to the dour grind that minority government would impose upon him? Even with the whacking 30-seat majority he inherited from Abbott, it is well known that the absence of a Senate majority was a great frustration to Turnbull; for a man used to making decisions in business and simply making things happen, such a methodology was impossible in the last Parliament. In the coming one, it will be even more so.
I don’t think there is any public mood for the retention of Malcolm Turnbull as Prime Minister — in majority or otherwise — and if there was, the Coalition would have secured more than 50% of the two-party vote. As things stand, the likely eventual result will be that it didn’t. Yet even if it does, Turnbull’s personal satisfaction ratings across reputable polling were averaging in the high 30s before Saturday’s election, and if it is good enough to claim Abbott had no legitimacy on that basis (as many, including those around Turnbull, did three years ago) then it is good enough to apply the same criteria to Turnbull now.
If the Coalition somehow ends up with a majority, then a new leader might help restore its standing, for Turnbull still has some way further to fall in public estimation to fully descend to the depths of opinion he was held in by the time he lost his leadership the first time: and as sure as night follows day, with his authority destroyed by the election result and his government on its knees, he will almost certainly continue that fall.
But if the choice is between forming a minority government — under Turnbull or anyone else — or opposition, then the better choice would be to gamble against Labor being re-elected in 2019, and to go into opposition now, for the one certainty I am prepared to predict is that if the Coalition tries to govern in minority, it will be decimated next time it goes to the polls.
Three years in opposition would allow it to anoint a young-ish leader for three years, and let him or her grow into the post — my choice would be Victorian MP Josh Frydenberg — whilst Labor under Shorten finds that its promises add up to nothing but contradictions, and that implementing them is a recipe for guaranteed electoral doom.
The Liberals could use their time in opposition to finally clean out their support structures, replacing nepotistic and entitled staffers with people who, on merit, would bolster the party’s prospects rather than fatally compromising them; in turn, the time could also be used to develop not just a comprehensive slate of credible reform policies, but also the tactical and strategic mechanisms with which to sell them.
It was put to me in one of those insiderish telephone conversations last night that allowing Shorten to become Prime Minister — and allowing Labor to legislate a program that would be disastrous for Australia — would be irresponsible, and that the Liberal Party had a duty to prevent it occurring at all costs.
However, if the only way to do so is to take up the cudgels of minority government for three years, the Liberal Party will be blown away at the end of it anyway: and Labor will, later rather than sooner in that instance, go ahead and legislate whatever it likes; probably over multiple terms in office, rather than the single term a minority Shorten government might plausibly be restricted to now.
And were the Liberals to go into opposition now, they would face the opportunity of an election in 2019 not merely poised to regain government, if the time in the wilderness is used to best effect, but to do so at an election that will include a half-Senate election, with the attendant prospect of whittling away some of the most undesirable crossbench Senators by way of the doubled re-election quotas they would face.
We will know in the next few days where the ongoing count of votes is headed, and at that time it will be appropriate to speculate further about the likely course of events.
But if it’s a choice between governing in minority and the opposition benches, the opposition benches are probably the best choice right now: for the long-term future of the Liberal Party, for its ability to deliver sound and prudent governance for all Australians when it returns to power, and — ultimately, and not least — for Australia itself.
I encourage all readers, but especially those with links to the Liberal and National Parties, to canvass these scenarios with those in a position to make final decisions on such matters should it become necessary to do so within the coming days or weeks.